Genetically Modified Foods and Organisms

Genetically Modified Organisms Bring in the Cash

by Dr. Hsien-Hsien Lei
Posted January 13, 2009 in Genetically Modified Foods and Organisms

I’ve got a new post up at What’s new in life science research over at Scienceblogs:

It’s All About Money [GMO and Profits]

money food

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Books About DNA: Tomorrow’s Table

by Dr. Hsien-Hsien Lei
Posted May 2, 2008 in Books About DNA, DNA Quotes and Excerpts, Genetically Modified Foods and Organisms

tomorrows tableTomorrow’s Table: Organic Farming, Genetics, and the Future of Food by Pamela C. Ronald and R. W. Adamchak

From Dr. Ronald’s blog:

One of the major themes of our book “Tomorrow’s Table: Organic Farming, Genetics and the Future of Food” is that the judicious incorporation of two important strands of agriculture—genetic engineering and organic farming—is key to helping feed the growing population in an ecologically balanced manner. We are not suggesting that organic farming and GE alone will provide all the changes needed in agriculture. Other farming systems and technological changes, as well as modified government policies, undoubtedly are also needed. Yet it is hard to avoid the sense that organic farming and genetic engineering each will play an increasingly important role, and that they somehow have been pitted unnecessarily against each other. Our ambition in this book, therefore, is not to be comprehensive, but to identify roles for both GE and organic farming in the future of food production.

Another theme of the book is that the broader goals of ecologically responsible farming, and the adherence to those ideals, are more important than the methods used to develop new plant varieties. To this end, we have generated a list of key criteria
to help guide policy decisions about the use of GE in food and farming.



Eye on DNA Headlines for 24 January 2008

by Dr. Hsien-Hsien Lei
Posted January 24, 2008 in DNA and Disease, Eye on DNA Headlines, Genetically Modified Foods and Organisms, Personalities with DNA

  • Gene Genie Issue #24 is up at Biomarker-Driven Mental Health 2.0.
  • Sue Trinidad at Women’s Bioethics Blog wants to know how far genetic researchers can take your DNA beyond your initial informed consent.
  • sam karlinSam Karlin of Stanford University who created BLAST with Stephen Altshul died in December of a massive heart attack.

    “Because of the common descent of all living things, it is often possible to learn a lot about a new DNA sequence by finding out what is known about other sequences that are similar,” (Russ) Altman said. BLAST compares the new sequence to an enormous database of sequences. “It estimates the significance of the match between the input sequence and the ‘hits’ that are pulled out. This is where Sam’s contribution was—he worked out the statistical theory for how to judge which matches really meant something. So BLAST is basically the Google of biological research.”

  • The newest (42nd) member of The DNA Network is Genetic Future by Australian researcher Daniel MacArthur. His latest post looks at the ethical challenges of whole-genome sequencing. Welcome, Daniel! We’re glad to have you.
  • Four reasons why genetically modified food is inevitable. (HT: Mark Evans)
  • Hypertensive patients with a copy or more of the T2238C variant of the atrial natruiretic precursor A (NPPA) gene may have a decreased risk of coronary heart disease (CHD), stroke, all-cause death, combined CHD, and combined CVD if treated with the diuretic chlorthalidone (also known as Clorpres, Tenoretic, and Thalitone). Those with the most common TT genotype appear to do better when treated with a calcium channel blocker (amlodipine aka Norvasc). (Medical News Today)

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DNA Quote: Stewart Brand on Genetically Modified Food

by Dr. Hsien-Hsien Lei
Posted January 4, 2008 in DNA Quotes and Excerpts, Genetically Modified Foods and Organisms

stewart brand

Good old stuff sucks. Sticking with the fine old whatevers is like wearing 100% cotton in the mountains; it’s just stupid.

Give me 100% not-cotton clothing, genetically modified food (from a farmers’ market, preferably), this-year’s laptop, cutting-edge dentistry and drugs.

~Stewart Brand in response to the Edge 2008 Question – What have you changed your mind about?

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Techno Tuesday Cartoon on Genetically Modified Food

by Dr. Hsien-Hsien Lei
Posted December 11, 2007 in DNA Fun, Genetically Modified Foods and Organisms

Techno Tuesday cartoons are published every Tuesday! Here’s an oldie but a goodie from August.


How bright and cheerful this boy seems. GM food can’t be all bad, can it? ;)

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Dow and Monsanto to Create SmartStax Genetically Modified Corn

by Dr. Hsien-Hsien Lei
Posted September 17, 2007 in DNA Podcasts and Videos, Genetically Modified Foods and Organisms

corn whirlyCorn is among the top three genetically modified (GM) crops planted in the United States each year. According to, 73% of all corn planted in 2007 was genetically modified equalling over 65 million acres of GM corn. Of course, corn is for more than just human consumption. It is used as animal feed, corn sweeteners, paper, textiles, adhesives, and fuel alcohol. Much of the increase in demand for corn is driven by the demand for grain-based ethanol.

Last week, Dow Chemical Co. and Monsanto Co. announced the combination of their efforts to create the SmartStax GM corn which will have eight genetic modifications to address three areas of concern:

  1. Above-ground insect control with protection against insects such as corn earworm, fall army warm, and cutworms.
  2. Below-ground insect control with protection against corn rootworm.
  3. Weed control with herbicide tolerance

When drought resistance and nitrogen absorption traits can be genetically engineered in SmartStax GM corn, they will be incorporated as well. The seeds are expected to be available by the end of the decade and will become Monsanto’s primary insect-resistant corn within the next 10 years.

Dow and Monsanto will also be asking the United States Environmental Protection Agency to remove regulations requiring that farmers plant at least 20% of their corn fields with non-genetically modified corn to minimize the potential of pests developing resistance to pesticides. But a 2003 PLoS Biology feature on genetically modified corn and accompanying environmental benefits and risks states that many farmers violate EPA standards. In the same article, another risk is mentioned as well:

After seven years of GM crop production and no apparent health effects, potential environmental risks—particularly gene flow into other species—have eclipsed food safety as a primary concern. As pollen and seeds move in the environment, they can transmit genetic traits to nearby crops or wild relatives. Many self-pollinating crops, such as wheat, barley, and potatoes, have a low frequency of gene flow, but the more promiscuous, such as sugar beets and corn, merit greater concern.

drought corn

But it is just as clear that genetically modified corn has many advantages, including a reduction in the need for agrochemicals, hardier crops that can survive difficult growing seasons, less soil erosion, and lower levels of cancer-causing fungal mycotoxins in GM corn because there are fewer insects to bore holes that allow the fungus in.

Jonathan Rauch also points out in The Atlantic in Will Frankenfood Save the Planet?:

Recall that world food output will need to at least double and possibly triple over the next several decades. Even if production could be increased that much using conventional technology, which is doubtful, the required amounts of pesticide and fertilizer and other polluting chemicals would be immense. If properly developed, disseminated, and used, genetically modified crops might well be the best hope the planet has got.

As with most decisions we have to make, the pros and cons of genetically modified food makes the debate difficult to sort out. I leave you with some videos below the fold on GM food. The first is a video straight from Monsanto and the latter three from DW-TV called The Genetic Conspiracy: Following the Trail that aired earlier this year. None of the videos are balanced. The Monsanto video evokes peace and happy feelings while DW-TV is scaremongering. Hard to decide what to think with all this propaganda flying around.

Continue reading…



(Genetically Modified) Food for Health

by Dr. Hsien-Hsien Lei
Posted July 18, 2007 in Genetically Modified Foods and Organisms

Favorite foods are featured at this week’s medical blog carnival Grand Rounds, Volume 3, Number 43 hosted by vitum medicinus. (My favorite food, in case you’re interested, is hamburger.)

Speaking of food, AgBioWorld experts have assumed the helm of GMO Food for Thought. Lead blogger and AgBioWorld founder, Dr. CS Prakash, is a figure of controversy for his strong support of genetically modified organisms and agricultural biotechnology. GM Watch claims that Dr. Prakash has spread misinformation and hidden affiliations; one of the strangest incidents:

AgBioWorld’s press releases have often aroused controversy. In one instance, a press release issued by Prakash and Conko appeared to imply anti-GM activists had killed 10,000 people in the Indian state of Orissa through their opposition to GM contamination of food aid, when, in fact, those who died were victims of a cyclone. Although the Indian trade and policy analyst Devinder Sharma publicly remonstrated with Prakash over ‘the obviously fabricated and mischievous’ implications of his press release, no attempt was made to correct the impression it created. (GM food and Orissa – the real story)

I don’t know what’s real and what’s not here but I must profess to being biased towards GM foods rather than against.

In March of this year, the Department of Agriculture approved the planting of GM rice in Kansas by Ventria Bioscience. The rice would be genetically engineered to produce lactoferrin and lysozyme that are used in the treatment of diarrhea, dehydration, and other related illnesses, which disproportionately affect children.

rice fieldRegardless of the contributions GM rice could make to improving public health, there are still concerns. Objections were raised regarding crossbreeding between natural strains of rice and GM rice although there are currently no commercial rice crops in Kansas. However, within the rice genus Oryza, there are two cultivated and 22 wild species of wild rice. Is it possible for GM rice to crossbreed with a different species? And what would happen if they did?

Maybe nothing. Maybe something. No one knows. FYI, there are an estimated 1.6 to 2.4 million deaths from diarrhea each year. GM rice may be used to save some of these people now but the rice may end up harming their descendents’ future. It’s an ethics call I’m glad I don’t have to make.

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Could Altering DNA In Bacteria Pose A Terrorist Threat?

by Dr. Hsien-Hsien Lei
Posted June 2, 2007 in DNA and Disease, Genetically Modified Foods and Organisms

listeriaBioterrorism is not just the stuff of science fiction. Scientists have altered the DNA of the bacterium Listeria monocytogenes that causes listeriosis, a form of food poisoning. The bioengineered form of the bacteria can now infect mice, which is normally immune to listeriosis. The change in bacterial DNA results in a different surface protein which enables it to “dock” with a receptor in the mouse gut and sicken the mice. These findings were published in the journal Cell much to some scientists’ dismay. They say that the ability to change the host range of an infectious organism could be used for terrorism.

Bioterrorism Agents or Diseases are divided into three categories by the CDC:

  • Category A – high priority

    Easy to disseminate or transmit, result in high mortality, cause public panic and social disruption. Includes anthrax, botulism, plague, and smallpox.

  • Category B – second highest priority

    Moderately easy to disseminate, result in moderate morbidity and low mortality. Includes brucellosis and food safety threats, e.g. salmonella, E. Coli O157:H7.

  • Category C – third highest priority include emerging pathogens that could be engineered for mass dissemination in the future. Includes emerging infectious diseases such as hantavirus.

If the study had involved a mouse pathogen re-engineered to infect humans, then it might have qualified for category C. As it is, there’s not much to be worried about…yet.

For more information, visit MedlinePlus Biodefense and Bioterrorism.

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DNA In Your Food

by Dr. Hsien-Hsien Lei
Posted May 31, 2007 in DNA Testing, DNA in General, Genetically Modified Foods and Organisms

Is DNA safe to eat? You may not have thought about it before, but you actually eat plant and animal DNA every day (assuming you’re not vegetarian, of course). In fact, there’s a whole industry set-up around testing the DNA of our food source.

Earlier this month, Therion International helped identify fake red snapper being served at sushi restaurants in Chicago. DNA tests showed they were actually selling tilapia and red sea bream instead. Another such company, IdentiGEN, has developed DNA TraceBack – a technique which checks on the path a piece of meat has taken from the ranch to your mouth. IdentiGEN calls DNA “nature’s bar code.” DNA tests are also performed on food to make sure that it is not genetically modified.

Other foods that have been verified using DNA tests:

  • basmati riceRice – basmati or other
  • Vareties of potato
  • Durum wheat for pasta
  • Composition of fruit pastes and pulps
  • Purity of olive oil
  • Varieties of tea and coffee

And here’s a myth about genes and food addressed by Biotechnology Australia:

Myth: GM food means that we’d be eating genes and it’s not natural to eat another organism’s genes.


It’s impossible to eat without eating genes.

Every organism contains genes. When we eat an apple, we eat the genes in the DNA contained within its cells. These genes in the apple are ‘foreign’ genes, but they don’t have any effect on us because they are digested. The same goes for eating meat.

For more on the DNA testing of food, see this Food Manufacture article: The gene is out of the bottle.

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Genetically Modified Crops with Mini-Chromosomes

by Dr. Hsien-Hsien Lei
Posted May 24, 2007 in Genetically Modified Foods and Organisms

If anything mini is cute, do mini-chromosomes qualify? Monsanto, the (infamous?) agricultural company that has developed a number of genetically modified (GM) seeds including Roundup Ready soybean, has teamed up with Chromatin, a start-up that has bioengineered mini-chromosomes containing genes for multiple traits. The mini-chromosomes are modeled on the target crop’s existing chromosomes with the key component being centromeres which “provide stability and ensure inheritance of the mini-chromosome and the added traits that confer the desired product benefits.” Chromatin’s proprietary gene-stacking technology can be used to produce genetically modified corn, cotton, soybeans, and canola.

soybean crops

Gene-stacking technology is especially important considering all the various modifications that are made in the name of improving crops. Drugs, biomaterials, textiles, and “nutritionally improved foods” can all be produced more quickly and at less cost using crops that are modified a batch of genes at a time. Also, crops like Roundup Ready are often engineered to tolerate herbicides as well as resist pests and diseases. And, given our expectations for having a selection of fresh fruits and vegetables year-round regardless of nature’s growing season, mini-chromosomes can also be used to manipulate a plant’s life cycle.

Pretty powerful abilities for such cute-sounding chromosomes.

Chicago Tribune, May 23, 2007

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