Saturday, January 24, 2015

Review of "Gamma-Glutamyl Transferase Activity in Kids Born from Goats Fed Genetically Modified Soybean"

My article debunking Collective-Evolution's viral article about "10 studies proving that GMOs can be harmful to human health" has been cross-posted to other sites. This week, the article led to this exchange:
I was curious to see if there were any papers that outlined a genuine health risk, so I followed up with @GMOTruths and was pointed to an open-access paper entitled "Gamma-Glutamyl Transferase Activity in Kids Born from Goats Fed Genetically Modified Soybean".

So, I'm going to review this 2013 paper here.

First, let's examine the quality of the journal that it was published in: Food and Nutrition Sciences. The journal is not indexed by the NIH's database of scientific publications, which immediately raises a red flag because it indicates that the journal does not meet the NIH's criteria for a quality publication. Next, I searched for the journal in Beall's list of predatory publications: sure enough, the publisher "Scientific Research Publishing" is listed. Predatory journals will publish nearly anything, as long as you pay their hefty publication fee. There have been several exposes on these journals (see here and here) and the crazy papers that they've accepted for publication (my favorite one: the journal accepted a paper entitled "Get Me Off Your F*ing Mailing list". I particularly enjoyed the diagrams from the paper).

So right off the bat, there's something fishy going on. Otherwise, the authors would have published their paper in a better journal.

Let's get to the paper itself.

The authors start by outlining and defining RoundUp Ready Soy (please see this post about the gene and trait in this crop). They state that "the majority of animal feeding trials using GM feeds indicated no clinical effects", but that there is data indicating liver and kidney problems. Their reference for this last statement is the infamous Seralini paper, which was retracted and later republished. They also point to a few other papers as the basis for their study:
  • a paper which "hypothesized that cell metabolism of several enzymes was altered in rabbits fed GM soybean"
  • a paper (from the same authors as above) that found pieces of DNA from the transgene in "goat milk but also the kids organs when mothers are fed GM soybean". The paper also found higher levels of an enzyme in these animals which serves as an indicator of injury and disease (LDH).
So, the aim of the paper is to find out if there are a) DNA fragments from the GM soybean and b) changes in the activity of an enzyme named gamma-glutamyltransferase (GGT) which can serve as an indicator of liver disease, in the kid goats whose mothers were fed RoundUp Ready soybean.

OK, here's my first comment: without even reading the paper, I can tell you that they're going to find DNA fragments from the soybean. As I've outlined in several other articles, DNA from all our food (be it organic, conventional, meat, veggies, etc) gets chopped up in our digestive system and then we find bit and pieces of it in our organs and blood. There are MANY papers that have discussed this so why is this paper going to sacrifice animals to investigate a matter that is already well established?

Regardless, let's continue.

Materials and methods. The authors state that they performed the experiment on 20 male kids born from goats fed a soybean extract from conventional or RoundUp Ready soy. After this point, nothing else really matters because the authors didn't do an analysis of the feed.

If you are going to do an experiment to determine if a single variable impacts a system (in this case, that the presence of the protein that confers RoundUp Ready resistance causes harm in goats), then you have to be pretty dang sure that nothing else is different. Previously, I've described several studies that outline that the location where the crop is grown and the environment create greater variability in a crop than whether or not the crop is transgenic. For example, if I take an ear of corn from Northern Ontario and compare it to an ear of corn from Southern Ontario (of the same variety), they will be more different in terms of nutrients/amino-acids/minerals than taking an ear of corn from Southern Ontario that's a GMO and comparing it to a non-GMO ear of corn of the same variety grown in Southern Ontario.

The paper that I'm reviewing here didn't do an analysis on the composition of the soybeans used in the study. It has no information on the variety of soybean used, the location where they were grown, or even if they were from the same season, etc. In general, feeding studies that I've examined do an analysis of the composition of the feed that is given and then make the feed equivalent by adding supplements, so that the ONLY different component in the feed is the presence/absence of the transgenic protein (and the gene that encodes for it).

Here's a hypothetical example: the scientists conducting a study buy regular soybeans and transgenic soy beans and do a nutritional analysis. They find that the regular soybeans have 12% less calcium and that the transgenic soybeans have 8% less of the amino acid lysine. Maybe it rained a bit more in the farm where the regular soybeans were grown, causing this difference. Maybe they added more fertilizer to the soil where the transgenic soybeans were grown, leading to these differences. Anyway, the researchers will add calcium to the feed that consists of regular soy and add lysine to the feed that consists of transgenic soy. Otherwise, they won't be able to conclude if any differences observed are due to the calcium, the lysine, or the transgenic protein.

So, that's where the paper falls apart.

As expected, the authors detected the presence of DNA from the transgene in organs and blood. Does it matter? Not really: if I took two people and fed one strawberries and the other blueberries, I'd detect small pieces of DNA from the cells of the strawberry in the blood of one person and small pieces of DNA from the cells of the blueberry in the blood of the other person. Does it mean that the individual will turn blue or red? No. So why would DNA from a transgenic crop be any different?

To conclude, the authors detected increased levels of GGT in several tissues, but without the compositional analysis, you can't draw any conclusions.

Final comment: I'm not a very strong animal advocate. I believe that they should be treated with care, but I'm not a vegetarian, let alone a vegan. I'm not a member of PETA. But I believe that scientists have a responsibility to perform animal studies judiciously. If it's not necessary, if there's another way to reach the same conclusion, then give it a shot before you resort to animals. I used animals in my PhD and I hated it. The mice I used were so cute and cuddly, that I'd have nightmares when I had to sacrifice them. I'm so glad I don't have to use model organisms anymore. Unfortunately, this experiment was not an example of the judicious use of animals.

@GMOtruths, I think your concern about this particular paper may be unfounded. What do you think?

UPDATE (Jan 16, 2016): the paper was retracted due to plagiarism. To read more about this, see:

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

80% Want Food with DNA Labeled - GMOs, Education, and Policy

A recent survey found that 82% of Americans want their food labeled if it contains GMOs. The same survey found that 80% of Americans want their food labeled if it contains DNA.

I've been thinking about this a lot. After the initial face-palm, my feelings of intellectual superiority gradually ebbed when I realized that the spouse would be in the 80% of the population that doesn't know that all food, unless it's highly processed, contains DNA. Spouse, I hope it's OK if I share this, but it's important for this piece: the spouse has a degree in International Relations and Peace Studies. He is a consultant with high-tech companies where he coaches them in a style of project management popular among software teams. He's amazing at his job and can charge a premium for his consulting fees. He has the luxury of being able to work only 2 days a week so that he can fulfill his lifelong dream of taking care of Mr Chubby-Cheeks the remaining 5 days in the week. He can pick and choose consulting roles that fit his schedule. It's safe to say that he is well educated and knows what he's doing. However, his last biology class was 17 years ago. He's reviewed every article I've written, and nearly every time it's been followed by questions on matters that I'd consider to be basic science. Sometimes, I'm a bit bewildered that he doesn't know that DNA is in the nucleus of every cell, but I always plop down next to him with a pen in hand and eagerly explain it to him. He can describe to you what my thesis in human epigenetics was about, what a sequencer does, and what the I'd-tell-you-but-I'd-have-to-kill-you project I'm currently working on will do. But if I hadn't taken the time to explain it to him, he'd be in that 80%.

A recent article questioned whether 80% was a believable number: the order of the questions in the survey may have biased results. Sure, 80% might be inflated and the wording of the survey may have introduced bias. But think of all the viral articles on scientific subjects that you've seen in Twitter and in your Facebook page that are false or unfounded. Read the comment section in any popular article about GMOs. Whether it's 80% or 50%, there's a significant portion of the population that can't determine the accuracy of popular "scientific" literature. Whether it's 80% or 10%,  there's a portion of the population that doesn't know that DNA is in food, be it organic or conventional.

To me, this whole topic raises the question of whether scientific matters should be decided upon by a public who may not be educated in the technical aspects, as well as nuances of an issue. My question is: should scientific matters be decided upon democratically?

Here are some examples: the Shasta County Board recently decided to look into chemtrails; Portland, Oregon rejects adding fluoride to the city's water; Humbolt county votes to ban GMO production, etc, etc.

If we, the people, get to decide on such important scientific matters democratically, then why do we spend billions of dollars, on institutions such as the National Institutes of Health, the National Academy of Sciences, the USDA/FDA, etc? Do we just fund them so that they can come up with recommendations and guidelines which we can then ignore depending on whether we find it convenient or if our favorite celebrity endorses it? I can use the term "we" here because I pay what feels like a kajillion dollars in US taxes, even though I'm not a citizen.

Each of the examples provided above have been studied and statements/guidelines have been offered. The EPA, NASA, and the FAA joined forces to write a document about Chemtrails (believe it or not); the EPA and the Department of Health and Human services have done scientific assessments on the fluoridation of water; the FDA evaluates the safety of all GMOs and regulates them (if you're of the opinion that the FDA is "bought off", then here's a report on GMOs from the National Academy of Sciences); etc, etc. Our tax dollars funded every one of these efforts, yet we're still taking these issues to the ballot box.

And no: I'm not sitting on some high horse where I think that I know better than everyone else and can dictate my suggestions to the populace. There are MANY matters where I know very little and feel comfortable deferring to experts: what material should be used when highways are built, what water purification system my county should use, etc. My taxes paid for all these projects and they impact me directly. I spend 2 hours a day in my car. If those highways are not built properly, if the on/off ramps are not adequate, if the Bay Area bridges are not properly maintained, I will suffer and may possibly die. I fail to see why we defer to subject matter experts on these topics, but not on others. I don't see any direct ballot measures to decide on the amount of concrete used when paving a road. Yet somehow, we feel that it's appropriate to tell farmers in Hawaii what they can and cannot plant. Somehow, we the people, think that we know something that a professional in his/her field doesn't.

I informally polled a few of my colleagues today, asking them whether they thought that scientific matters should be decided upon by the public and it led to a few great discussions. Most people's first reaction was "yes, it should be left to the public". But upon further thought, there's was always an "oh, but then there's...": an example or an issue which would make them change their mind. For one colleague it was "oh, but then there's all those ridiculous viral articles on Facebook... No, it shouldn't be democratic." For another colleague it was "oh, but then there's all those vaccine conspiracy people... No, it shouldn't be democratic." In the end, the consensus amongst my colleagues and myself seems to be that we the people should defer to the experts in their field, who should transparently and openly present their suggestions and plans, which we enact.

The ideal solution here is education: the spouse should have had to take science classes all the way through college. All college degrees should have courses that teach students how to read a basic scientific paper and to evaluate it critically. That is the true solution to this argument. But we're not there and it will take a while to get there.

In the meantime, I'll be doing 3 things. 1) I'll encourage Mr Chubby-Cheeks to take science classes, even if he decides to pursue a career in the humanities, 2) I'll continue encouraging my fellow scientists to engage with the public, even if they're in the private sector like me, and finally 3) I'll keep writing this blog for the spouse and for y'all and will happily explain any issue I'm able to.

Thursday, January 8, 2015

Which one of these things should we label?

If you've followed this blog since it's inception, you'll know that my stance about labeling GMOs has changed and evolved with time. At first, I was indifferent towards labeling: if people want GMOs labeled, just label it and get it over with. What's the big deal? Then I read several papers that looked into customer risk perceptions regarding labels and learned why food producers probably wouldn't want to label their products. I read articles written by farmers, highlighting the high cost that they'd have to bear in terms of equipment to sort GMO from non-GMO products (here's a great example of one such article). I realized that a label that simply says "May Contain GMOs" is not informative enough (see last section in my article here). But what has really convinced me that labeling GMOs would be a messy legislative exercise is my perception that I probably wouldn't be able to find two people to give me the same answer on what should be labeled.

For example, should milk from a cow fed GMO grain be labeled? What if the cow received a vaccine produced through genetic engineering? What about yogurt made with a bacteria that's been engineered? Should a transgenic ear of corn be labeled? What about a cisgenic ear of corn (i.e has a gene from a related species that it could be bred with)? What about high fructose corn syrup from GMO corn?

To highlight what this last point is all about, I have to point you to my previous article where I outline that a transgenic organism is a species that has had a gene(s) introduced from another species with which it could not breed. That gene produces a protein which performs a specific function. For our example about high fructose corn syrup made from transgenic corn, let's imagine that it's from Bt-corn. The corn's genome now has a piece of DNA that has been introduced, and this piece of DNA produces a protein that is toxic to specific insects. The corn has two things that identify it as a transgenic organism (GMO): the insecticidal-protein and the gene that codes for it.

In the case of high fructose corn syrup, the process of making the syrup removes all proteins and degrades DNA. So it's virtually indistinguishable from high fructose corn syrup made from non-GMO corn. The same goes for sugar extracted from a GMO beet: refined sugar doesn't have the transgene or the transgenic protein. So if the "thing" that makes it a GMO isn't there, is it still a GMO? Does it need to be labeled?

Sort of sounds like one of those if-a-tree-falls-in-a forest-and-no-one's-there,-does-it-make-a-sound philosophical questions.

Except that there's nothing philosophical about it. The Non-GMO project, an organization that offers a voluntary label for food manufacturers who want to certify their products as non-GMO, states that if there's not enough DNA in a product to determine if it's a GMO, then you have to look at the supply chain and test products that are upstream (see of the link). To be clear: the Non-GMO project considers refined sugar from a GM beet to be different than sugar from a regular beet, even though there's no chemical difference between the two. The Non-GMO project also requires cows to be given non-GMO feed in order for dairy products to earn their label. However, Ben & Jerry's, who is leading the way in all things non-GMO doesn't consider their milk to be a GMO despite the fact that they use GMO feed for their dairy cows.
Determining which things should be labeled gets even messier when you look at the proposed legislation. In states where there have been ballot measures for GMO labeling, the exemptions are very strange: alcoholic beverages would have been exempt in Vermont, Colorado and California; Colorado's proposed ballot measure specifically states that chewing gum would be exempt; in Vermont, you don't need to label if the amount of GM material makes up less than 0.9% of the total weight of processed food, but in California the cutoff is at 0.5%. Some how GMOs are more GMOish in California so the state can't handle as much of it... Perhaps the GMOs have more Monsantonization...

I genuinely feel that the best solution is that individuals who are concerned about GMOs purchase organic goods (which already exclude GMOs and well as GMO feed) or purchase items voluntarily certified as Non-GMO. It makes WAY more sense than to create a mandatory GMO label and then try to decide what to slap it on.

On a different note, I've been reading "Tomorrow's Table" about organic farming and genetics. Fantastic read thus far. Maybe I'll write a book summary/review next time.

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