Why Genetic Engineering Is So Dangerous
January 25, 2002 7:35 AM   Subscribe

Why Genetic Engineering Is So Dangerous Environmentalist/biologist Barry Commoner's essay in the February issue of Harper's magazine warns about the unknown dangers of genetic engineering. "...billions of transgenic plants are now being grown with only the most rudimentary knowledge about the resulting changes in their composition. Without detailed, ongoing analyses of the transgenic crops, there is no way of knowing what hazardous consequences may arise. But, given the failure of the Central Dogma, there is no assurance that they will not. The genetically engineered crops now being grown represent a huge uncontrolled experiment; its outcome is inherently unpredictable. Our project is designed to help develop effective public understanding of the dangerous implications of this critical predicament." He asserts that the "Central Dogma", the basis for the Human Genome Project, was known to be flawed prior to the inception of the $3 billion program. Should we be amused/impressed or very worried when we read about pig/spinach crosses and the like? Related article here.
posted by martk (14 comments total)
I tend to worry about it. IMO, the potential for devastating unintended consequences outweighs the benefits. More on the subject.
posted by gimli at 8:05 AM on January 25, 2002

Oops, sorry about the link error first time around.
Related article here
posted by martk at 8:25 AM on January 25, 2002

I distrust any article that uses the phrase "potentially disastrous" so many times in such a short space.

Waking up in the morning is potentially disastrous. Walking down the street is potentially disastrous. Having a baby contains so many different types of potential disaster that it boggles the mind.

...none of this "failure of the central dogma" stuff is new, at least not to the protein scientists I know.
posted by aramaic at 8:34 AM on January 25, 2002

Yeah, aramaic, you're right. Commoner says:
The genetically engineered crops now being grown represent a huge uncontrolled experiment; its outcome is inherently unpredictable. Our project is designed to help develop effective public understanding of the dangerous implications of this critical predicament...
If the outcome is "unpredictable" how does it constitute a "critical predicament?" We should not do a thing simply because we don't know the outcome in advance? In you believe that, you'd never take a wee in the morning, or tie on your shoes. In any case, we need more data, which we'll never get as long as people stand in the middle of the road, waving their arms and going "booga booga!"
posted by Faze at 9:06 AM on January 25, 2002

If I get hit by a car as I walk down the street, the accident doesn't self-replicate indefinitely. It is hard to overstate the possibilty for "potentially disastrous" outcomes in this field, though I agree that the piece is rather alarmist. I know I'm just dreaming here, but I would like to see the general public (or at least our policymakers) become as familiar with this old-hat "failure of the central dogma" stuff as the protein scientists are. I approve of careful, controlled research, but most of it is being done in a for-profit, race-to-patent setting.
posted by gimli at 9:13 AM on January 25, 2002

...the accident doesn't self-replicate indefinitely...

Tell that to the thousands upon thousands upon thousands of people killed every year by cars. It's been that way for decades, in every country that has significant numbers of cars.

But seriously, all modern carrots you have ever eaten in your entire life can be traced to a single mutant plant that grew in Holland. Yet you aren't dead. Amazing, isn't it?

Fiddling about with genetics isn't a party trick, and I certainly agree that there should be precautions. But random Rifkin-esque scaremongering does nothing but hype up a few gullible souls and drop money into a few PACs. People underestimate the extent to which genes are manipulated every day by good ol' Mother Nature, and humanity has been indulging in this particular pasttime since the first wolf cub got taken in by a caveman.
posted by aramaic at 9:32 AM on January 25, 2002 [1 favorite]

I say bring it on. If a genetically modified organism has what it takes to out-compete the old school variety-more power to it. That's the way the game is played. Larger forces are at work here. Something monstrous (in the value free sense) is being born. Just hurry up and get me my headless human clone.
posted by quercus at 9:36 AM on January 25, 2002

I read a piece in the Times the other day about cows that had been engineered to make spider webbing instead of milk. It turns out that spider webbing is as strong as steel and, obviously, very light weight. The army wants to harvest the webbing to make light wieght bullet proof armour. For whatever reason, stories like these creep me out more than the idea of human cloning. No rational reason.

One of the real dangers that genetic engineering is already posing (from "Fast-Food-Nation"), is that the hardier genes we construct quickly infiltrate and cross breed with natural less hardy genes. So we've already lost a lot of the thousand year old genes that made of several varieties of corn, for instance.

I'm not anti-genetic engineering, but if it continues to be adopted without careful regulation the pool of genes from which we engineer will quickly get smaller. Once those genes are lost, they are gone forever. Like some really cool species of ant living in the rainforest that holds the secret to say, curing cancer or something. At the least, I think the dangers merit caution.
posted by xammerboy at 9:38 AM on January 25, 2002

Once those genes are lost, they are gone forever.

Not really -- short-term yes, long-term no.

Lots of the headline-grabbing stuff being done today is just transgenic -- swapping a known gene from one creature to another. That's entirely different from the ability to create wholly artificial genes and implant them successfully.
posted by aramaic at 9:52 AM on January 25, 2002


But seriously, all modern carrots you have ever eaten in your entire life can be traced to a single mutant plant that grew in Holland. Yet you aren't dead. Amazing, isn't it?

the only difference between that and genetic engineering in the article is that, with GE, when things go wrong we can find a person to blame. if things go wrong with the carrot as it has come to be, or anything produced through nature excluding the influence of humanity, we could only shrug our shoulders and ask "what can you do?"

i think GE puts some scientists on end because they do represent uncontrolled experiments. there is an implicit assumption, i think, that we did not have to make the experiments uncontrolled; that we did not have to rush into GE'd tomatos (if in fact we did, though i would figure a nice, long and controlled study to demonstrate some amount of safety could take several years) for profit.

the dangerous thing, really, is that should we have screwed up, we'd be SOL; some of these GE plants are germinating and spreading beyond their intended environments. again, this does not differ from many mutations which occur in nature, except that in this case there is blame to be assigned.
posted by moz at 10:08 AM on January 25, 2002

Faze, aramaic: I think that the more informed discussion on this topic is not concerned with whether or not genetic engineering is inherently safe or unsafe; it seems that most folks with a scientific background who raise wary opinions do so because of the speed with which genetically modified products (i.e. foodstuffs) are brought to market, with relatively short testing periods... It is indeed true that one cannot accurately predict results, but let's use a metaphor:
You are bungee jumping. You are offered a new type of cord that, while actually untested for its strength and durability, is theoretically much stronger than a traditional cable. While the consequences here are potentially more dire than with a modified vegetable, in this case, you are actually presented with the choice. Food is not labeled (in the US, anyway) in a manner that informs the consumer if it is genetically modified. Even 'organic' foods are often ccontaminated by bio-engineered food.
posted by nonreflectiveobject at 10:14 AM on January 25, 2002

The blame argument is quite powerful, I think. That's a really good point.

There's also, of course, the almost universal tendency to prefer "natural" things. There are innumerable food additives that exist in both natural and artificial forms -- in several amusing instances, the artificial form is healthier than the natural form, because the natural variant contains natural toxins that cannot be removed at a saleable price. But folks will still go for the "natural" product, all the while talking about contamination, toxins, those evil chemicals, etc. etc. etc.

mankind has been waking up for eons
Mankind has been meddling with genetics for eons too. That was my point.
posted by aramaic at 10:51 AM on January 25, 2002

GROUP STRIKES FRANKENTREES :The Washington Tree Improvement Association says these frankentrees can pollinate with real trees 400 miles away and...others are concerned that insect resistant corn and potatoes containing B.t. toxin (Frankenfood) may cause allergies in certain people or poisonous effects in those using ulcer medications or antacids that reduce stomach acidity. Probably worth looking into, unless you really trust business and government to be looking out for your best interests.
posted by Mack Twain at 11:22 AM on January 25, 2002 [1 favorite]

So, if I'm following this discussion...there's no inherent difference between someone breeding cattle (the old fashioned way) to produce animals with say, less fat, and a genetic engineer inserting jellyfish genes into cattle to produce animals that glow in the dark? I realize the genie's out of the bottle and we must now live with whatever consequences occur as a result of our engineering. But aren't we being just a bit arrogant here with the assumption that, despite whatever unknowns there are in this process, we can rest assured that the outcome will ultimately benefit the planet? I'm not a scientist, so I don't pretend to understand all I read on the subject. Maybe I took 'Frankenstein' too seriously as a kid.
posted by martk at 11:47 AM on January 25, 2002 [1 favorite]

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