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Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Fuel to the fire

I often get challenged by people dogmatically adhering to the anti-GMO position - despite patient and careful explanations (and Lord knows, I am not as patient as Kevin Folta), opponents cling on to the same arguments, despite evidence to the contrary.

Or maybe they're not so crazy after all. Among the problems with GMO technology activists rattle off are the potential for genetic "pollution" as modified organisms breed into the wild population, or that genes encoding toxins are being used, or the "terminator" technology that renders the modified organisms effectively sterile so they can't be propagated, bringing farmers back to the supplier (presumably Monsanto) for more.

Well, there's a biotech company out of Oxford, UK, that is precisely doing all these things. And thank goodness.

Oxitec is commercializing genetically engineered sterile insect techniques. How this works is they engineer a gene producing a toxin into insects, but this is under control of a suppressor (I believe in this case, it's tetracycline). So, as long as the insects are fed tetracycline, they're fine, but withdraw it, and the engineered bugs die. They also made a specific version which is primarily active in the females, such that a population will only produce males if the inhibitor is withheld. In this way, insect factories can be built that produce volumes of insect males that are, effectively, sterile. When released in large enough volumes, the sterile males competes with wild populations, bringing down the population of a problem insect species. And while they are currently targeting mosquitos (colluding with major governments like Brazil), nothing stops this same technique to be applied to major crop pests like bollworms or animal insect parasites.

Then again, the sterile insect technique is not exactly new - it began back in the 90s, when sterile insects were produced by irradiation. Unfortunately, irradiated insects were also sickly, and didn't compete against healthy ones as well. Even so, this has been a standard technique of insect pest control for a long time. It's specific, non polluting - and improved with genetic engineering.

1 comment:

  1. Look at your second paragraph. You seem to give credence to the anti-GMO criticisms as if they were based on fact. Someone reading that paragraph without prior knowledge would take the statements as fact.

    But the so-called terminator technology does not exist in commercial agriculture. All the claims about sterile seeds are false, even though widely believed.

    Genes encoding toxins is propaganda nonsense. There are some perfectly nutritious proteins that happens to be poisons only for plant-eating caterpillars. By calling them toxins when they are nutrients, the anti-GMO propagandists have had a field day.

    And GMO pollution is exactly the same "name-it-to-blame-it" trick. Any new gene, whether it arises by biotechnology gene transfer or by natural mutation or by chemical manipulation, has the potential to interbreed with wild relatives of the crop, but the propagandist doesn't call that pollution in the latter two cases.