Monday, May 25, 2015

A look at the Innate Potato

Oh! Hello there, gentle viewers... Today's episode of "FrankenFoodFacts" is brought to you by the "Innate Potato". This post has 3 sections: an overview of the potato itself, a summary of peer reviewed articles about the potato, and my conclusion including whether I'd consider buying it for my family.

The Spud

The Innate Potato is a GMO that was recently approved for cultivation in the US. It is made by Simplot (or J.R Simplot Company). According to their website, they are a "food and agribusiness empire". They do everything from seeds and fertilizer, to frozen foods. Apparently, they made billions by "commercializing frozen french fries", and later became one of McDonald's major suppliers. So I think it's safe to say that they know their spuds.

The Innate Potato uses RNAi to silence 4 different proteins. RNAi is the same methodology that is used to make the non-browning Arctic Apple. Here's the entry for RNAi from Wikipedia (it's actually a pretty decent overview), but very briefly, RNAi or RNA interference is a naturally occurring
As an Iranian, most of the fried potato in my diet
is in the form of Tahdig: thin potato slices that
are placed on the bottom of the pot
in a layer of oil when rice is steam. It comes out
nice and crunchy. This is Tahdig that I made with
a slight sprinkle of zaffron
process in cells that can turn off or silence specific RNA molecules, and consequently, the proteins that they make. In the past few decades, scientists have harnessed RNAi to turn off genes that they're studying. If you add a properly-designed sequence of DNA corresponding to the gene you're interested in silencing, it will produce an RNA molecule that will trigger RNAi and then, wham!!! The protein gets shut-down.

In the context of our discussion on the Innate Potato, it's important to note that a protein from a different organism has not been added. It's not like the mythical "fish genes in a tomato". The DNA sequence that has been added is from the potato itself, which is why they've called it the "Innate Potato". Thus, this isn't a transgenic crop, where the gene added is from a species distant to the potato. It is a cisgenic crop, where the genes came from closely related species; in this case, either from the potato itself or from a wild potato native to Mexico (Solanum verrucosum).

So what proteins are silenced in the Innate Potato and why? Four different proteins are silenced and these are involved in three different traits:
  1. The first trait is prevention of potato bruising (again, this is very similar to the non-browning Arctic Apple). Potato bruising is caused when damaged cells release an enzyme known as polyphenol oxidase (PPO) which interacts with different compounds creating the black or dark grey color. In the Innate Potato, the PPO enzyme is "turned off" only in the tuber and remains on in the leaves. Currently, many steps are taken in potato farming and handling to prevent bruising, but it doesn't seem to be enough. Potato bruising costs the industry "at least $298 million annually". Keep in mind that those bruised potatoes don't make their way to the store, so that translates to a lot of food waste, too.
    The company claims that the potatoes will not turn brown for several days, compared to just 10 minutes with a normal potato.
  2. The second trait is reduction in the amount of acrylamide produced in the potatoAcrylamide is a chemical compound which is also a known carcinogen at high doses. We use it in the lab fairly frequently. When I started doing lab work, I had the annoying task of making our acrylamide solutions, since I was the lowly undergrad... Fear not, spouse! I took heavy precautions: a full mask, a full lab coat, etc. Once I got into my PhD, our lab had more funding, so we'd buy the acrylamide solutions pre-disolved. Now that I'm in industry, we buy our acrylamide lab items ready-to-use. Such is the nuisance of acrylamide that no-one wants to deal with it.
    So what's acrylamide doing in potatoes? When potatoes are heated, a chemical reaction (known as the Maillard reaction) occurs between the amino acid asparagine and sugars (such as the naturally occurring sugars in the potato). When I was discussing this article with the spouse, he knew all about the Maillard reaction because it's what causes browning in food such as meats or bread, and is not to be confused with caramelizing. He had read about it when doing research on how to cook the perfect steak (He's Texan... It's the only explanation I have). At high temperatures, such as when potatoes are put in a fryer, acrylamide also forms in the reaction. In the Innate potato, the amount of the enzyme that synthesizes asparagine has been reduced, so consequently, less acrylamide is made. The company's website claims that the Innate potato produces up to 70% less acrylamide than other potatoes cooked at the same temperature.
  3. The final trait is improvement in starch quality and potato color. I had a tough time finding a decent description of this trait and relied on information from a Q&A with one of Simplot's VPs over on Biofortified. Basically, they've reduced the amount of sugar in the potato, which can result in "consistent golden color". Their website and the Q&A say "under certain conditions", but do not explain what those conditions are so I'm a bit skeptical. I wish there was more information about this trait.
The Papers

In the first paper (which is freely available via the company's website), the authors attempt to silence 2 genes that synthesize the amino acid asparagine. They had success in greenhouse trials, but to their surprise, the field trials failed: the potatoes were really small and "cracked" (the picture in the paper is worth looking at. The taters definitely look wonky). However, the controls grew fine suggesting that it wasn't something environmental: it was the silencing of the two genes that caused these problems. They went on to do a series of experiments where they silenced the 2 genes individually. They got potatoes with quality equivalent to controls but with reduced asparagine levels by silencing just one of the genes just in the tubers/potatoes (scientists can often control what part of the plant they want to turn a gene off/on in). They managed to reduce amounts of asparagine by 60-80%.

The second paper was behind a paywall (I forgive Simplot for not publishing in an open access journal only because the paper was accepted in 2006, before open access was a popular "thing"). The paper starts by outlining that the Russet Burbank strain of potato is more pest resistant, but is seldom used because it has issues with discoloration and sensitivity to bruising. Additionally, it accumulates high levels of sugar in cold storage which, not only result in higher levels of acrylamide, but also makes french fries less golden. The paper set out to address these issues by a) reducing the levels of the enzyme that causes bruising (explained in the previous section), and b) reducing the amounts of two enzymes associated with starch formation so that fried potatoes have a more appealing hue and have less acrylamide.

As a side note, this sentence in the Materials and Methods was somewhat hilarious: "Sensory evaluations of French fries were performed by a panel of eight professionally trained experts at the optimum time of 3 min out of the fryer." Who is a professionally trained expert on French fries sensory evaluation? More importantly, how can I get that job??

The authors did a series of tests to confirm that the potatoes grown in the field actually had the physical traits they wanted. For example, when testing for bruising, they "physically impacted" the potatoes and after 2 weeks, fries were made out of them to see if they blackened (I'd LOVE to be the grad student on that project... You'd spend your time throwing around potatoes, all in the name of science :) ). They show that the modified potatoes have less acrylamide formed, and they have lots of pictures of French fries showing that the modified potatoes have more of a golden-hue to them. They also performed a few experiments showing that the modified potatoes kept their "agronomic performance": when compared to controls, they weren't more susceptible to blight, they were of the same size, and had more starch content. All in all, the paper's findings suggest that silencing of the 3 genes didn't have a negative impact and had all the desired traits.


So I couldn't find any papers that convincingly indicated that there's enough acrylamide in fried potatoes to be a huge concern. Additionally, no reputable organization states that acrylamide in food causes cancer in humans (here's info from the National Cancer Institute on the topic). In fact, a few studies that have examined the incidence of cancer and dietary acrylamide have failed to find any association (see here and here, and a recent meta-analysis here). Keep in mind that we eat natural toxins everyday, but not in amounts that are of concern. However, dietary acrylamide is enough of a concern to some people that all places that serve french fries in California have the ubiquitous (and therefore useless) warning stating that the location has food known to the state of California to cause cancer or birth defects (i.e. Prop 65). So it seems that this could be a potato of interest to the general public and the food industry.

Many of the usual arguments against GMOs don't hold for the Innate Potato. Here's why I think that the Innate Potato has less GMOiness (and by "GMOiness" I mean that subjective, intangible thing that makes people protest the introduction of any GMO into the market):
-It doesn't need any additional pesticides or treatments
-The sequence added isn't from a virus or bacteria that crosses the species barrier
-It doesn't have Monsantonization
-It doesn't have the DNA sequence for antibiotic resistance.
-It addresses genuine health concerns that some may have (reducing acrylamide in our diet), as well as environmental concerns (reducing food waste)

So I'm not sure what argument people would have against the spud. To be honest, it's not one that I'm terribly interested in as a consumer, because I haven't read anything to suggest that acrylamide in our diet is at levels that cause harm, and we don't waste too many potatoes in our family. But I'd buy them if they weren't much more expensive because they're less wasteful. I do think that the food industry should adopt them because they could make a genuine impact on reducing food waste from the farm to the store (and also because those ridiculous Prop 65 warnings annoy me).

I'm also very curious to see how they're going to handle the labeling of the potato. The potato is designed to be nutritionally different from other potatoes, so it is not substantially equivalent. As you may know, the reason why genetically modified ingredients are not labeled in the United States is because they are nutritionally equivalent to their non-genetically modified counterparts. So technically, the Innate potato should be labeled. Will they just list "Innate Potato" as an ingredient? It'll be interesting to see how this plays out.

That's my take on it. Please leave any questions you may have below! And remember to subscribe to the blog so that you don't miss any posts!

ADDITION May 29th, 2015: Here's a great and recent Q&A with a Regulatory Compliance Specialist from Simplot about the Innate Potato.

Friday, May 22, 2015

California, The Drought, and GMOs

I recently had to make a trip to Canada. I love going back to Canada for many reasons, but this trip was a bit rough because it was for a family funeral. We tried to make the most out of the trip, and stayed longer to visit with my parents and siblings. And I promise that this narrative has a point :)

It was great for my son. He got to spend lots of time with his cousins, but he just couldn't wrap his mind around the fact that we were in Canada, because every time we skype with my folks, they show him the snow banks outside; so Canada is synonymous to snow in his young mind (it's actually not too far from the truth :) ). Since we were visiting in April there was no snow, but there was PLENTY of rain. It was probably just as fascinating for the kid, because he seldom sees rain. Several times, I
River in Belleville, ON
caught him with his face pressed up against the glass, just staring at the novelty of rain (and leaving face prints on my sister's windows). 

As you probably know, our home state of California is in the midst of one of its worst droughts on record. There are regulations in place to conserve water and there are many ideas being tossed around on why there's a drought and what can be done or could have been done to deal with the water shortage. Regardless of the reasons, the drought was at the forefront of my mind as I watched the torrential rain pour down, and I admired the brooks and rivers in Belleville, Ontario.

My dad asked me several times if we had thought of moving back to Canada. Of course, he'd love to have all his kids (and more importantly, grandkids) around him, but he was concerned about the future of California and our future living in the state. He explained that if the drought continued as some predict it may, California might become less than hospitable, our home (and a good portion of our investments locked into it) may lose its value, and he suggested that we consider cashing out and moving somewhere more water-rich. There's some logic to his reasoning, but I don't agree. Here's why:

Moving somewhere else to escape a drought implies that the changes in our weather are unique to California, and they're not. Extreme weather patterns, including extreme cold/heat, will become more frequent as we see deepening impacts of climate change. The World Health Organization highlights that with changes in climate come changes in infectious diseases, as well as impacts to our food supply. Even if you don't live in California, you'll be impacted by its drought since so much of America's fresh produce is grown here. So there's no escaping climate change. As apocalyptic as it sounds, there's no safe haven. If it's a drought in one place, it'll be more severe hurricanes in another, or a longer winter, or a harsher summer. 

If you accept the scientific consensus that our climate is changing, you have to admit that providing food is going to be a big problem in the next few decades. Not only that, but there's also going to be more people living on the planet, which makes the problem even worse. Although I've joked on this blog that switching to a career in plant sciences would be awesome (because I want to make a peelable pomegranate), given the gravity of the challenges we'll be facing, it legitimately seems like a future-proof career path.

Anti-GMO advocates argue that GMOs will not be able to feed the world as we start facing these challenges. But as many GMO advocates point out, transgenesis is simply a tool that researchers have at their disposition when developing a crop. There's no doubt in my mind that we will need any and all tools available to deal with the challenge of feeding our population while dealing with the changes in climate that will become more and more apparent as we continue living our lives in the status quo.

Although I started this blog to document my learning about GMOs, I guess I've become more of an advocate for transgenesis, because I think that dealing with climate change will be one of the greater challenges that my generation and that of my son will face. And yes, traditional cross-breeding will probably help develop some drought resistant crops. But in some cases, transgenesis might develop some crops more quickly and more precisely, so why not keep it as an option on the table? (that pun wasn't intended, but it's pretty awesome). A quick search for keywords drought+tolerance+transgenic in the NIH's pubmed database found hundreds of papers, an example of which is this very recent paper where alfalfa was made more drought and salt tolerant by adding a gene from the sweet potato. Let's assume that half of these studies are shown not to be feasible options for product development, but that still leaves us with a couple of dozen transgenic crops that might be viable options for farmers in years of drought. As the people and elected officials in California wag their fingers in disapproval at farmers who grow almonds, rice, or alfalfa, I wonder if many of these people would consider transgenic crops as viable alternatives.

And let me beat you to the punch: growing drought-resistant transgenics will not address the underlying causes of the drought. This all-or-none argument is often invoked by anti-GMO advocates, particularly those who oppose Golden Rice on the basis that it doesn't address the underlying cause of malnutrition. But using that as an excuse to oppose drought/salt/high-temp/low-temp resistant GMOs is a lame-ass excuse? It's like saying that I shouldn't take shorter showers or buy a water-efficient washing machine to reduce my water consumption, because neither one of these activities will address the underlying causes of the drought. Or that I shouldn't compost spoiled veggies/fruit because it doesn't address the issue of food waste.

So that's the long-winded answer to my dad on why I don't think we'll be leaving California. Also, I must admit to all my Canadian relatives and friends: I took long showers while staying at your houses. I'm kinda not sorry :)

Thursday, May 7, 2015

Better Know a Scientist: Entomologist Amelia Jordan

This week in “Better Know a Scientist”, I’m interviewing entomologist Amelia Jordan. Amelia graduated with her MSc in Entomology from Washington State University in 2014 where she studied the presence of native bees in alfalfa seed fields. If you missed my last interview with an entomologist, check it out here (it’s my way of weaseling out from reading any papers about bees). Amelia and I are BFFs: we go WAY back to January 2015 and we met on twitter a few months prior (you can follow her @Robot_Insect) - yet people say that nothing good comes out of social media!!

I had questions on a broad range of topics and her answers stand on their own, so you can skip around and read about topics that you’re interested in learning about. Here we go!

Q: So… You did your Masters in “Insect Identification”... Is that where you just look at an insect and tell me what it is? And once you've identified an insect, is the next step to reach for a shoe or can of bug spray?

Amelia's very own picture on the bee she studied
Agapostemon texanus
A: Yes, insect identification is being able to ID an insect, however, it is not that simple. With an estimated 10 million insects on the planet, and only ~1 million discovered, ID’ing an insect can be incredibly difficult. You have to look for microscopic hairs in very hard to reach places, or tiny, tiny sutures that are only detectable when the light bounces off of them just right. That’s even if there is a key to the species, let alone genera. Most keys are dichotomous, meaning that you look for the presence or absence of a feature, like the color of the back legs or wings, and then go with option A or B.  To make an insect key, you need to have a large representation of the local insect genera to create an overall species, genera, and family template, then you have to look for key differences of one species against the others in the genera.

Making an insect key can take decades and is often tedious work. Dichotomous keys can have hundreds of binomial features to look for, so it can take days to get through the key, and that’s if you’re familiar with the insect family/genus. Another hurdle to making a correct insect ID is that words are greatly inferior to describing the placement and form of these characteristics. Until the later part of the 20th century, entomologists had to rely on drawings of microscopic features in order to make sense of the words and pair them with visuals. The use of macrophotography has been instrumental to making dichotomous keys much more accurate, accessible, and easier to use for everyone. I think the future of insect keys is going to move away from dichotomous descriptions and into interactive, visual keys that make definitive identification easier and faster.

If I see a bug, I generally make it a rule not to bug them unless they are bugging me!

[Biochica’s note: apparently, Amelia hasn’t seen the spider that ties up Frodo in LOTR, otherwise she’d be singing a different tune. That thing almost caused the demise of Middle Earth!!]

Q: Why is your field of research important?

A: Entomology is incredibly important because insects are a bedrock of all our food webs, and they pollinate somewhere around half of all our plant species. Not only that, but insects are also incredibly important model organisms. Decades of research on the fruit fly alone have yielded astounding discoveries about embryonic development, stem cell differentiation, genetic heritability of diseases, not to mention all the knowledge we’ve gained about disorders such as Down syndrome, autism, causes of blindness and deafness, and diseases such as cancer. In autism, research on the FMR1 gene was possible by looking at the Drosophila melanogaster (fruit fly) homolog gene DFRM1. Researchers were able to identify fragile X syndrome, which occurs in about 30% of people with autism, and study the way gene interaction and behavioral interaction correlate with DFRM1 mutations and autism associated behaviors. It’s amazing that something as simple as a fruit fly has to potential to help us understand complex disorders and diseases that are otherwise insurmountable by studying humans alone.

Insects have changed the tides of war, famine, and plague, by transmitting deadly human and plant diseases. Insects are an integral part of the world’s ecosystem and human history, and they have provided incalculable aid in researching everything from the physics of flight, the environment, and advanced chemical interactions to human diseases.

Q: You recently got your first job out of grad school, so congratulations on becoming a “real person”. What do you do? How is it related to entomology?

A: Thank you for the congratulations! I accepted an agronomy position at Westland Seed in Ronan, MT. It’s located halfway up the Mission valley, so I get to see the mountains and Flathead lake every day.

I love my job. I was hired specifically for my experience in alfalfa seed pollination. We’re attempting our first year of alfalfa seed production and no one in the company had any experience in growing alfalfa seed, let alone any form of commercial pollination. Since starting my job in mid-February, I have been learning non-stop about other aspects of agriculture, mainly fertilization, and making sure our seed field and bees are ready for bloom in mid-June. I know of several growers in the valley who are interested in alfalfa seed production, so if we have a successful first year, I’m sure I’ll be busy assisting our growers with alfalfa leaf-cutting bee management.

Eventually, I will develop an insect and crop scouting program for our growers (who number around 200 commercial and home productions), and hopefully a successful alfalfa seed crop for the company. I have vials ready to collect insect pests so that growers can hopefully ID common pests in office, rather than relying on verbal descriptions and cell phone pictures. I have also started pressing common weeds found in our fields, in the hopes to build a giant weed book that growers can page through. I have made myself available to our local cherry growers; Spotted Winged Drosophila and the Brown Marmorated stink bug are both invasive potential pests that could evolve into critical pests. Helping cherry growers successfully ID both insects now and having growers set up a cooperative insect pest monitoring network will help me be able to develop a good IPM program for both.

[Biochica’s note: what this boils down to is that Amelia is now somehow a shill for Monsanto and is making millions of dollars off of it.]

Q: There’s been much fuss lately about Oxitec’s genetically engineered mosquitoes designed to combat mosquito-borne illnesses. What’s your vote: yea or nay? Why?

A: I am yea on this. Currently, Florida uses an intensive pesticide spraying regime to control for these mosquitoes, so replacing that with a management system that only affects one species versus hundreds of species of insects, amphibians, and mammals makes much more sense on an environmental health level. We have used this control strategy before on male fruit flies; they were irradiated to make them sterile and released in order to control for damaging fruit fly populations in the South East. There’s no reason to think that this method shouldn’t also work when it comes to controlling mosquito populations and the spread of disease. The only difference between the two strategies is that one uses radiation and the other genetic modification.

[Biochica’s note: Amelia just wants GM mosquitoes to help control dengue because she’s a shill for Monsanto.]

Q: There’s a lot in the news about the health of bees and how it may be linked to GMOs or glyphosate. I haven’t written much about it, so I turn to you. What should readers here know about this topic? Is there an association between bee health and GMOs? If so, is there evidence of causation? Please provide references.

A: I’m really glad you asked this question since my Master’s research was on this exact topic. The alfalfa seed growers in the Touchet Valley of Washington State plant conventional alfalfa, and they started growing Monsanto’s Roundup Ready alfalfa in 2011 when it was deregulated [Biochica’s note: to learn about the trait that confers resistance to Roundup, please see this post]. What makes the alfalfa system unique is that it requires insect pollination, and so ~90 years ago, the farmers of the Touchet Valley started cultivating a ground nesting native bee called Nomia melanderi, the alkali bee. Today, the Touchet Valley is home to the only domestically managed ground nesting bee species in the world, with annual emergence to the tune of hundreds of millions of bees. These growers actively create ideal nesting sites in the midst of their alfalfa fields and even run underground irrigation pipes to keep the bee-bed soil cool for the bees. It’s quite an amazing operation.

Amelia's picture of the valley
I was going to make a photoshopped image of mutant bees riding alfalfa pollen,
but this seemed much nicer. 
Population numbers of these bees have not declined in the slightest since the growers started using Roundup Ready alfalfa; in fact, the number of alkali bees have steadily increased. Along with the alkali bee, the growers import millions of alfalfa leaf-cutting bees from Canada and local honey bee beekeepers also leave their hives on public ground. The decades of survey data on these bees has provided no indication that the introduction of Roundup Ready alfalfa has been harmful to any of the commercial pollinators. My research, however, was centered around the other native bees. Do they enter alfalfa seed fields? Do they pollinate alfalfa? How many are found in seed fields? The answer is yes, they are there, probably pollinating alfalfa, but not to the level that the commercial pollinators are. I looked at populations between non-GMO and GMO alfalfa and there were no differences in number and variety of species caught. The largest factor in native bee diversity in alfalfa seed fields was proximity to native habitat. Fields on the edges of riparian habitats had the highest diversity of bees, versus those surrounded by alfalfa and wheat fields. If you’re looking for my published thesis though, I’m sorry to say that process is still ongoing. Hopefully it will someday be published. My research is being continued by a new graduate student and I’m excited to hear what she has found.

As for other GMO crops, this paper by Jian J. Duan et al. looked at Bt exposure in honey bees [Biochica’s note: to learn more about the Bt-trait/Cry protein, please see this post]. They did not find any direct impact of the Cry protein (the transgenic protein in some genetically modified crops, known as Bt-crops) on honey bee fitness and health. I have not heard about any impact from Rainbow papaya or any of the other disease resistant GMOs on pollinators, and I do not suspect that they are inherently dangerous to our bees.

As an aside, the growers of the Touchet Valley do use pesticides, but they are very, very careful about which ones they use and when. Alfalfa blooms between 6-9 weeks out of the year, so the growers use pest surveys to predict which pests will be most bothersome. They then spray before bloom and bee emergence (since the system is so well oiled that flower bloom and emergence are almost perfectly timed) and wait until bloom is over and the bees have died before spraying again. They also spray at night so as to disturb the bees as little as possible and to have as much time between spraying and foraging for the pesticide to decrease in oral toxicity. It’s a very finely balanced machine out there, and the bees are thriving.

I feel we need to encourage as much pollinator diversity as possible, and providing bee (and fly!) habitat in your home garden is a wonderful way to do that. Adjusting when you spray pesticides so that they don’t overlap with flower bloom, or spraying at night, are also ways to minimize pollinator interaction with pesticides. Despite what some people say, I can tell you that agriculture does care about pollinators. They know that a diverse and robust pollinator ecosystem increases pollination and fruit set (the amount of fruit produced) across all crops that require insect pollination. Theoretically, the greater the pollinator diversity, the greater the yield of the crop, the more food that is grown, and the less of a need to turn untouched land such as rain forest into agricultural fields.

[Biochica’s note: see what I mean? Amelia claims that Bt has no impact on bees, but it’s because she’s a shill for Monsanto, and she wants you to have a bee habitat in your home garden because she wants to see the demise of Middle Earth.]

Q: Be honest: if there’s a spider in your shower, do you squash it, drown it, or do you run away shrieking like a banshee? Is there size criteria for the spider that defines your behaviour?

A: Haha. I have never been very scared of spiders. I remember in 9th grade picking up a rather large spider (~50 cent piece size) in my science classroom and putting it outside when the rest of the class was screaming and jumping on their desks. Recently, a female wolf spider a little bigger than a quarter was disturbed when I changed my bedsheets. She crawled about my pillow for a little bit and then went back into the bookcase and the dark underbelly of my bed. I didn’t see a reason to disturb her. Spiders are my friends, no matter the size. If you don’t bother them, they won’t bother you. I even hauled a very wet and traumatized bat out of a bathtub once when my aunt realised it was in there with her. Lots of shrieking, but the bat was freed.

[Biochica’s note: I can only conclude that she hasn’t seen Starship Troopers either, otherwise she would have approached the spider with a can of spray in one hand and a shoe in the other.]

Q: Do you have any concerns about genetically engineered crops and any potential risks they pose to insects? Do you think that biotech crops or transgenesis in general hold any promise for bugs? Please provide references.

A: I do have concerns about genetically engineered crops, but they are very specific.

  1. There is a fitness cost to producing a plant defense chemical. It takes energy and resources to make a compound that has nothing to do with the growth or immune system of the plant, but is instead sequestered just in case something comes along to nibble on it. These defense mechanisms take resources away from growth and fertility. By stacking traits (inserting multiple insect resistance genes, such as multiple Bt coding genes) of these defense chemicals, we could theoretically create a slower growing plant, or one more susceptible to nutrient deficiencies, or more sensitive to inclement weather, or less able to fight off disease, etc etc. Would they under compete against non-stacked traited plants, even if they hadn’t been fed on? Will these crops require more land and/or fertilizer/input to make the same amount of food versus non-stacked traited plants? I don’t think we have encountered this problem, and the issue is very complicated to analyze in totality, but I think it’s something that plant breeders should consider when making decisions about breeding insect resistance. This concern can be applied to other forms of breeding, so by no means is this a GMO only concern.
  2. Herbicide tolerance (HT) is a topic that comes up a lot with GMOs, but HT is not something that is exclusive to GMOs (specifically Roundup Ready crops). Exemplified by the failed attempt of Chipotle to appear more environmentally responsible, the GMO HT soybeans they removed from production were replaced with HT sunflowers (conventionally bred), and the herbicide that the sunflowers are resistant to has over three times the number of resistant weed species than glyphosate! Herbicide tolerant weeds are a major concern in agriculture, and we need to tread very carefully in balancing chemical weed control with HT weed development. I do not think we should stop developing HT crops, as they have been very beneficial to no-till farming, but we need to be responsible with their use. I would hate to lose this technology due to irresponsible use.
  3. There is concern of GMO traits escaping into the wild and “polluting” native cousins, but in my opinion, this issue is more culturally important that biologically. Even if a gene did escape to a viable relative, the trait would have to confer a distinct fitness advantage in order to make it a threat to the genetic diversity of the species. We should be careful not to engineer something like that, and to also let governments decide if a GMO presents a threat to a culturally relevant crop like corn; we shouldn’t ignore agricultural heritage in the face of progress, or allow it to stop progress either. We should let our cultural heritage guide us in using this technology respectfully.

I think biotechnology holds incredible potential for agricultural pest control. If we can target only pests instead of the entire insect and arachnid community, which is what we do when we spray insecticides, I think that is a much better way of controlling insect pests. The same goes for disease resistance. I don’t think enough people realize how much food we lose every year to plant diseases, or how many insecticides and fungicides we apply to counteract them. Insects are disease vectors, so we spray to prevent the spread of disease just as often to stop feeding damage. By breeding disease resistant crops, we can harvest more with less land and theoretically reduce spraying by the tons.

Monocultures, intellectual property rights, cross-pollination, personal ideologies, industry transparency, and counter-culture agricultural ideals, these are issues that can be applied to more than just GMOs, and should be. By focusing on one breeding technique, we miss the whole picture. Again, see Chipotle restaurants substituting herbicide-tolerant soybeans for herbicide-tolerant sunflowers. Nothing truly productive was achieved by the move; herbicide tolerant crops are still being used for consumption (HT crop management was not addressed), there was no change in crop diversity to the US market, the company did not positively engage growers to help promote pollinator conservation or utilize soil erosion prevention techniques, they did not work with growers to provide greater financial security for them or the company, and they did not make an effort to foster a lasting and mutually respectful relationship with farmers. Those are actions that any company can take to improve our agricultural culture and support real efforts to make agriculture ever more low-impact, sustainable, and diverse.

[Biochica’s note: awesome answer... For a shill. No wonder she doesn’t appreciate Chipotle’s “Food with Integrity”. Why would anyone question the fact that beef flown in from Australia is better and has more integrityness than beef from right here? No one would. Unless they’re a shill.]

Q: Your Facebook profile suggests that you’re one of those cat people (as a dog person myself, I scoff at your tribe). If you could create a transgenic cat, what traits would you select? If you could only select an insect trait to bestow upon your cat, what would you pick?

A: I had a beagle named Socrates growing up, but when I got Babers on Valentine’s day 2007, I fell in love. Nothing better than a warm fire, a good book, and a purring cat on your lap. That’s heaven. If I could create a transgenic cat, what trait would I bestow…? Hmm… It would probably be reduced fertility. Cats are an invasive species worldwide and do much damage to local small mammal and bird populations. That’s why my cats are indoor cats. I’d breed a cat that only reproduced once a year and gave birth to 3 or less offspring, rather than going into heat once every 1-3 weeks. If I could engineer a cat with an insect trait, it would have to be silkworm fur. Imagine how soft that would feel.

[Biochica’s note: I’ve got to hand this one to her. That does sound pretty cool.]

Q: If there’s one thing you’d want everyone to know about bugs, what would it be?

A: I want everyone to know that insects are truly amazing creatures. They have the largest ratio of sizes in the animal kingdom, meaning that over half of insect species are 0.05-0.1 inches long, but species can be orders of magnitude larger (imagine apes with that size diversity!). Insects have the weirdest reproductive cycles out there, can be grotesque, stunning, complicated, and unfathomable creatures whose beauty is striking and lasting. Don’t be afraid of them, be awed by them.

[Biochica’s note: “...amazing creatures”... I just hope that Amelia remembers that when the world ends due to some mutant GMO insect made by her corporate overlords].

Q: If there’s one thing you’d want everyone to know about transgenic crops, what would it be?
A: I’d want everyone to know that the positive potentials of genetic engineering are vast. They could reduce our need for chemical controls drastically, increase nutrition and food diversity, and help us to farm in a more intense, but less environmentally damaging manner. GMOs can be a part of agricultural and environmental sustainability that benefit the world’s agroecosystem. Do not mistake my statements for thinking that we shouldn’t conduct all research with the utmost ethical standards; we should make sure that every new crop we develop, regardless of breeding technology, be done ethically and responsibly.

Q: You’ve been very open about being a diabetic. Could you share with us how synthetic insulin has impacted your life? If you had the choice between “natural” insulin and the genetically engineered material, which one would you choose?

A: Absolutely. I was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes in 2010, less than a month before my 24th birthday. I was immediately started on a regimen of two different synthetic insulins, a long lasting and a short acting. These medications saved my life and I would never switch to anything else. I’m now using an insulin pump and only one insulin, instead of two. Despite the term synthetic, these insulins are more molecularly similar to our own human insulin molecule than any of the bovine or porcine insulins that were in use before the advent of genetic engineering. This means the control is much finer, and blood sugar levels more natural. I have spoken with many diabetics who were diagnosed in the days of bovine and porcine insulin, as well as the days of NPH, R and N (older versions of synthetic insulin). Their ability to control their blood sugars has exponentially increased with each new generation of insulin, even if the cost has also dramatically increased. My life isn’t the same compared to my life before diabetes, but I can still live a relatively normal life. I even had a cupcake (gasp) during the Superbowl and sometimes make french bread with sugar free syrup every once in a while. Diabetes has made me a stronger, more driven person.

Want to be interviewed for “Better Know a Scientist?” to share your research and factoids about yourself? Feel free to contact me via Twitter @BiochicaGMO or via email (