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The new weapons of genetic engineering

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Written by and posted at GRAIN.

Over the last few years biotech laboratories and industry have developed two new techniques – artificial minichromosomes and transformed organelles – which, the industry claims, will allow it to overcome the problems it has faced until now with GMOs, especially their low efficiency and genetic contamination. But basic biology and maths indicate that, contrary to what the industry claims, the new technology will not prevent genetic contamination in plants. In fact, as the two technologies converge, the frightening possibility arises that contamination will reach a new level of toxicity, and occur not only within organisms of the same species but also between species as different from each other as plants and bacteria, or plants and fungi.

Editor’s Note:  Also see Fighting GMO contamination around the world, as well as a close look at one of the farm bills currently in Congress: A solemn walk through HR 875. 

From its very beginning, genetic engineering has faced two tremendous barriers. First, there is the undeniable fact that the theory that each gene is responsible for a single characteristic (one gene–one trait), if it is true at all, holds true for only some genes. The more that is learnt about the functioning of cells and organisms, the more flexible and multiple the links between gene and function are found to be. [1] Second, there is the complex and powerful self-regulating capacity of chromosomes and genomes, which leads them to expel, delete or "silence" genetic material which is not part of their normal make-up. Mutations occur very often in nature, and most of the time the genetic material itself triggers mechanisms that "correct" or delete these mutations. The result is an amazing and stubborn stability of form and function. [2]

Three major practical effects derive from this: multiple and unexpected side-effects from genetic engineering; a very low rate of successful, stable expression of the engineered traits; and an overwhelming difficulty in genetically engineering traits that involve several genes. The biotech industry has addressed the first problem by not releasing engineered organisms with obviously harmful side-effects and by denying side-effects when they have occurred in the field or lab, or in animals and human beings. Industry has also been very careful to avoid acknowledging that fewer than one per cent of their attempts at genetic engineering are successful in any way. They are also reluctant to admit that none of the attractive initial promises of biotechnology – that it would make all plants capable of fixing nitrogen and acquiring phosphorus, that it would produce plants tolerant of drought, salt and heavy metals, and that it would manufacture new vaccines – has been delivered. A key factor in explaining this is that all these characteristics or products involve gene complexes; by contrast, almost all current biotech products are based upon single genes (plants that are tolerant of herbicide and plants that contain Bt toxin are two good examples).



As well as harming their public image, these failures have serious practical consequences for the companies, as they reduce their efficiency and limit their potential profits. Not surprisingly, the industry has long sought new approaches to overcome these limitations. Biotechnologists and the biotech industry are now saying that a major breakthrough has taken place: they are now able to build small artificial chromosomes that carry multiple genes and become fully functional once inserted into a cell. Due to their small size, these artificial chromosomes are called "minichromosomes." It is claimed that they will make the engineering of complex traits possible and that they will dramatically reduce side-effects, as they will not disrupt the native genetic material of the engineered organisms. [3]

A second important development has also taken place, with much less media coverage: the genetic engineering of cell organelles, such as chloroplasts and mitochondria. Because there may be multiple organelles (up to hundreds) per cell, this technique would allow a much stronger expression of the engineered traits. As GE organelles are not transferred through pollen, the industry also claims that genetic contamination of plants would be prevented.

There is still much that is unknown. New research is uncovering a remarkable level of complexity in the web of interactions between genetic material, whole organisms and the environment, which raises questions about how efficient the new technologies will be. Looked at from a commercial point of view, however, it is certainly true that, even if it works only partially, the technology will open up for the industry a whole new world of biotech products and patents. This is because it extends the range of patentable "inventions" beyond genes and traits to chromosomes and complete physiological processes. [4]

What are artificial minichromosomes?

Artificial minichromosomes are small chromosomes built by incorporating genes into a DNA molecule that initially contains only the units that regulate the replication of chromosomes (called telomeres); those that initiate the replication, and those that ensure the right distribution of chromosomes in new cells (called crentromeres). [5]

Multiple genes can be added to these two basic units and, to render them functional, there is no need to include the regulating DNA that makes up more than 90 per cent of most natural chromosomes. The biggest artificial minichromosomes built so far carry between a dozen and 20 genes but, in theory, there is no limit to the number of genes that can be included in one single artificial chromosome. Artificial minichromosomes can be built and inserted into all kind of species, from yeast and bacteria, to higher plants, insects, mammals and humans. In fact, in the early years bigger advances were made in developing artificial chromosome technology for animals and humans than for other species, but more recently the technology for plants, yeasts and bacteria has been catching up. [6]

There are natural minichromosomes too, and they are encountered widely among different species and kingdoms. They may be present in the nucleus, as well as in the cell "organelles" that are responsible for photosynthesis, energy processing and other fundamental processes of life. They characteristically lack regulating DNA and may exist in highly variable numbers of copies in the same cell. The role and functioning of natural minichromosomes is little understood, but they may be important in the process of adjusting to very different or changing habitats and conditions.

One characteristic of natural and artificial minichromosomes that has attracted the attention of biotechnologists is that they seem to be more "independent" from the rest of the genetic material than larger nucleus chromosomes. That is, their expression seems not to be determined by – and seems to have little influence on – the behaviour of other chromosomes. When foreign genes are inserted, the genetic material of the artificial minichromosomes is not "silenced" or "deleted", as often happens with genes inserted into existing chromosomes. Once inserted into the cell, artificial minichromosomes also remain physically independent from other chromosomes and genetic material; they are not incorporated into the native DNA and therefore do not cause mutations in the native DNA. Industry and labs developing and using the technology thus claim that minichromosomes will avoid the side-effects of genetic engineering because there will be no disruption of genetic material. [7]

What are transformed organelles?

Organelles – also called plastids – are tiny structures that exist within animal and plant cells. They are the sites where fundamental processes take place, such as photosynthesis and cell respiration. They include chloroplasts, ribosomes and mitochondria. There are multiple copies per cell, each with their own DNA. If a foreign gene or an artificial chromosome is inserted into an organelle, the cell will multiply it, producing new cells with multiple copies of the inserted gene. Under certain conditions that can be induced, plant cells also increase the number of copies of their organelles. This way GE organelles have the potential to secure multiple copies of the inserted DNA and hence a very high level of expression of the engineered genes, in theory much higher than the improved level that can be reached through minichromosomes. [8]

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In 2004, Rady Ananda joined the growing community of citizen journalists. Initially focused on elections, she investigated the 2004 Ohio election, organizing, training and leading several forays into counties to photograph the 2004 ballots. She officially served at three recounts, including the 2004 recount. She also organized and led the team that audited Franklin County Ohio's 2006 election, proving the number of voter signatures did not match official results. Her work appears in three books.

Her blogs also address religious, gender, sexual and racial equality, as well as environmental issues; and are sprinkled with book and film reviews on various topics. She spent most of her working life as a researcher or investigator for private lawyers, and five years as an editor.

She graduated from The Ohio State University's School of Agriculture in December 2003 with a B.S. in Natural Resources.

All material offered here is the property of Rady Ananda, copyright 2006, 2007, 2008, 2009. Permission is granted to repost, with proper attribution including the original link.

"In a time of universal deceit, telling the truth is a revolutionary act." Tell the truth anyway.

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Thank you so much for doing the research and putti... by Barbara Peterson on Sunday, Mar 15, 2009 at 12:00:24 PM
The increasing level of discussion and information... by cpaddock 1252335501 on Sunday, Mar 15, 2009 at 12:51:11 PM
This piece above, and its companion piece, Fi... by Rady Ananda on Sunday, Mar 15, 2009 at 2:02:48 PM
Genetic Engineering is truly playing with the basi... by Rolland Miller on Sunday, Mar 15, 2009 at 2:11:55 PM
      GMO "food... by mary sunshine on Monday, Mar 16, 2009 at 4:20:05 AM
of a highly technical subject! This is valuable i... by Oh on Monday, Mar 16, 2009 at 6:48:51 AM
I'm trying to find non GMO seeds; any leads you ca... by Rady Ananda on Monday, Mar 16, 2009 at 9:52:13 AM

 

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