Tag Archives: genetically engineered food

Genome Integrity and the Unsafe Genes

DARPA created the Safe Genes program to gain a fundamental understanding of how gene editing technologies function; devise means to safely, responsibly, and predictably harness them for beneficial ends; and address potential health and security concerns related to their accidental or intentional misuse. Today, DARPA announced awards to seven teams that will pursue that mission, led by: The Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard; Harvard Medical School; Massachusetts General Hospital; Massachusetts Institute of Technology; North Carolina State University; University of California, Berkeley; and University of California, Riverside. DARPA plans to invest $65 million in Safe Genes over the next four years as these teams work to collect empirical data and develop a suite of versatile tools that can be applied independently or in combination to support bio-innovation and combat bio-threats.

Gene editing technologies …[can] selectively disable cancerous cells in the body, control populations of disease-spreading mosquitos, and defend native flora and fauna against invasive species, among other uses. The potential national security applications and implications of these technologies are equally profound, including protection of troops against infectious disease, mitigation of threats posed by irresponsible or nefarious use of biological technologies, and enhanced development of new resources derived from synthetic biology, such as novel chemicals, materials, and coatings with useful, unique properties.

Achieving such ambitious goals, however, will require more complete knowledge about how gene editors, and derivative technologies including gene drives, function at various physical and temporal scales under different environmental conditions, across multiple generations of an organism. In parallel, demonstrating the ability to precisely control gene edits, turning them on and off under certain conditions or even reversing their effects entirely, will be paramount to translation of these tools to practical applications…

Each of the seven teams will pursue one or more of three technical objectives: develop genetic constructs—biomolecular “instructions”—that provide spatial, temporal, and reversible control of genome editors in living systems; devise new drug-based countermeasures that provide prophylactic and treatment options to limit genome editing in organisms and protect genome integrity in populations of organisms; and create a capability to eliminate unwanted engineered genes from systems and restore them to genetic baseline states. Safe Genes research will not involve any releases of organisms into the environment; however, the research—performed in contained facilities—could inform potential future applications, including safe, predictable, and reversible gene drives….

A Harvard Medical School team led by Dr. George Church seeks to develop systems to safeguard genomes by detecting, preventing, and ultimately reversing mutations that may arise from exposure to radiation. This work will involve creation of novel computational and molecular tools to enable the development of precise editors that can distinguish between highly similar genetic sequences. The team also plans to screen the effectiveness of natural and synthetic drugs to inhibit gene editing activity.

A North Carolina State University (NCSU) team led by Dr. John Godwin aims to develop and test a mammalian gene drive system in rodents. The team’s genetic technique targets population-specific genetic variants found only in particular invasive communities of animals. If successful, the work will expand the tools available to manage invasive species that threaten biodiversity and human food security, and that serve as potential reservoirs of infectious diseases affecting native animal and human populations….

A University of California, Berkeley team led by Dr. Jennifer Doudna will investigate the development of novel, safe gene editing tools for use as antiviral agents in animal models, targeting the Zika and Ebola viruses. The team will also aim to identify anti-CRISPR proteins capable of inhibiting unwanted genome-editing activity, while developing novel strategies for delivery of genome editors and inhibitors….

A University of California, Riverside team led by Dr. Omar Akbari seeks to develop robust and reversible gene drive systems for control of Aedes aegypti mosquito populations.

Excerpts from Building the Safe Genes Toolkit, DARPA Press Release, July 19, 2017

The Manipulation of Insects: DARPA

Insect Allies program DARPA

DARPA’s Biological Technologies Office s working on new Insect Allies program. Insect Allies will seek to develop vector[insect]-mediated modification technologies for mature plants to rapidly counter environmental and biological threats to crops. Threats might include pathogens, pests, drought, and salinity, among others. DARPA believes that the high specificity of genetic modification coupled with quick plant gene uptake could allow crops to be protected from threats within a single growing season.The Proposers Day will be held on November 18, 2016

Excerpt from  DARPA Press Release Insect Allies Proposers Day, Nov. 2016

The Land of Promised Dough: Monsanto in India

money growing

Monsanto Co, the world’s biggest seed company, threatened to pull out of India on March 2016 if the government imposed a big cut in royalties that local firms pay for its genetically modified cotton seeds.

Mahyco Monsanto Biotech (India)(MMB), a joint venture with India’s Mahyco, licenses a gene that produces its own pesticide to a number of local seed companies in lieu of royalties and an upfront payment. MMB also markets the seeds directly, though the local licensees together command 90 percent of the market.  Acting on complaints of local seeds companies that MMB was charging high fees, the farm ministry last year formed a committee to look into the matter.

The committee has now recommended about a 70 percent cut in royalty, or trait fee, that the seed companies pay to MMB, government sources said. The farm ministry is yet to take a decision on the committee’s recommendation.  “If the committee recommends imposing a sharp, mandatory cut in the trait fees paid on Bt-cotton seeds, MMB will have no choice but to re-evaluate every aspect of our position in India,” Shilpa Divekar Nirula, Monsanto’s chief executive for the India region, said in a statement…

Separately, MMB has filed a case in a Delhi court, challenging the authority of the committee to determine the trade fee agreed upon by MMB and a number of Indian seed companiesIn a partnership with Mahyco, U.S.-based Monsanto launched a GM cotton variety in India in 2002 despite opposition from critics who questioned its safety, helping transform the country into the world’s top producer and second-largest exporter of the fiber.

In a ruling on Feburary 2016, the Competition Commission of India, the antitrust regulator, said there were indications that MMB had abused its dominant position in the country and asked its director general to complete an investigation within two months.  The government-appointed committee has also recommended cutting Bt cotton seed prices to about 800 rupees for a packet of 400 grams. Currently Bt cotton seeds are being sold between 830 and 1100 rupees in different parts of the country.

Excerpts from MAYANK BHARDWAJ, Monsanto threatens to exit India over GM royalty row, Reuters, Mar. 4, 2016

See also India v. Monsanto: the Eggplant

Why the United States is GM Food Happy

gm-soybeans.  image from wikipedia

Because America was a new country, argues Greg Ibach, head of agriculture in Nebraska’s state government, a primary concern was feeding a growing population and moving food large distances. Europeans fussed about appellations and where food came from. Americans “treated food as commodities”.  Such differences of history and culture have lingering consequences. Almost all the corn and soyabeans grown in America are genetically modified. GM crops are barely tolerated in the European Union. Both America and Europe offer farmers indefensible subsidies, but with different motives. EU taxpayers often pay to keep market forces at bay, preserving practices which may be quaint, green or kindly to animals but which do not turn a profit. American subsidies give farmers an edge in commodity markets, via cheap loans and federally backed crop insurance.

Lexington: Farming as rocket science, Economist, Sept. 7, 2013, at 34

State Capitalism at its Best: US Support for the Biotechnology Industry

These transgenic plums called C5 contain a gene that makes them highly resistant to plum pox virus.  Image from wikipedia

American diplomats lobbied aggressively overseas to promote genetically modified (GM) food crops such as soy beans, an analysis of official cable traffic revealed on Tuesday.  The review of more than 900 diplomatic cables by the campaign group Food and Water Watch showed a carefully crafted campaign to break down resistance to GM products in Europe and other countries, and so help promote the bottom line of big American agricultural businesses.

The cables, which first surfaced with the Wikileaks disclosures two years ago, described a series of separate public relations strategies, unrolled at dozens of press junkets and biotech conferences, aimed at convincing scientists, media, industry, farmers, elected officials and others of the safety and benefits of GM products..The public relations effort unrolled by the State Department also ventured into legal terrain, according to the report. US officials stationed overseas opposed GM food labelling laws as well as rules blocking the import of GM foods. The report notes that some of the lobbying effort had direct benefits. About 7% of the cables mentioned specific companies, and 6% mentioned Monsanto. “This corporate diplomacy was nearly twice as common as diplomatic efforts on food aid,” the report said….

In some instances, there was little pretence at hiding that resort to pressure – at least within US government circles. In a 2007 cable, released during the earlier Wikileaks disclosures, Craig Stapleton, a friend and former business partner of George Bush, advised Washington to draw up a target list in Europe in response to a move by France to ban a variety of GM Monsanto corn.  “Country team Paris recommends that we calibrate a target retaliation list that causes some pain across the EU since this is a collective responsibility, but that also focuses in part on the worst culprits,” Stapleton wrote at the time.”The list should be measured rather than vicious and must be sustainable over the long term, since we should not expect an early victory. Moving to retaliation will make clear that the current path has real costs to EU interests and could help strengthen European pro-biotech voices,” he wrote.

Excerpts, Suzanne Goldenberg,Diplomatic cables reveal aggressive GM lobbying by US officials, Guardian, May 15, 2013

Genetically Modified Food: contaminated fields and damages

Europeans are notoriously squeamish about genetically modified (GM) crops. In America, however, they reign supreme. Since farmers first planted GM soya in 1996, engineered crops have steadily conquered America’s vast farmland. Last year 93% of cotton and soya acres contained genetically engineered crops, as did 86% of corn acres. In the past the Agriculture Department (USDA) has placed relatively meagre limits on this expansion. This month, however, that may change.

Alfalfa, that humble feedstuff, is at the heart of an intense debate. The USDA will soon decide how to regulate Roundup Ready alfalfa, engineered by Monsanto to resist a chemical used to kill weeds. The department may allow GM alfalfa but, for the first time, set strict rules on the extent of planting allowed. This could be a model for the future, the biggest policy change for GM crops since their introduction. Tom Vilsack, the agriculture secretary, says that the issue is not whether GM alfalfa is safe—the USDA maintains that it is. Rather, the question is how regulations might help engineered crops exist beside conventional and organic ones. It is a fraught endeavour.

The rule on alfalfa aims to ease growing trouble, on the fields and in court. America’s farms have seen two divergent trends over the past 15 years: the rise of GM crops and, on a smaller scale, an expanding market for organic products. Theirs is not a peaceful relationship. Wind has an unfortunate tendency to blow GM seed into organic fields. Farmers, like all good Americans, are stubborn and litigious. Lawsuits about contaminated fields have moved through the courts. One such case concerns GM alfalfa.

In 2005 the USDA approved Roundup Ready alfalfa. Opponents of GM crops filed a lawsuit soon after and, in 2007, a federal judge ordered the USDA to conduct a more lengthy review. After publishing a draft report in 2009 and receiving some 244,000 comments, the USDA issued its final report on December 16th. The department presented two preferred options. First, it may allow GM alfalfa to be grown freely, like GM corn or soya. In the second choice, it would approve planting with rules to prevent the contamination of non-GM crops. For example, five miles (8km) would have to separate GM alfalfa from conventional or organic alfalfa fields. The USDA will receive comments on the plan until January 24th. A decision is expected soon after, so that farmers can prepare for spring planting.

A frenzy of activity has followed December’s report, with Mr Vilsack encouraging further discussion among farm groups. At a meeting at the USDA on December 20th, organic advocates demanded more, such as compensation for farmers whose crops are contaminated. Big farm associations were horrified—by the proposed rule and by the meeting itself. “What the USDA did on December 20th was akin to the European process,” shudders Russell Williams of the American Farm Bureau Federation. Mr Williams fears that the rule on alfalfa augurs further limits on GM crops.

Mr Vilsack insists that his department does not prefer one type of farming over another. Rather, he wants to help them coexist more peacefully. Without any action, Mr Vilsack argues, courts will dictate the future of GM, organic and conventional crops. (In August a court halted planting of GM beets pending a review, and another lawsuit aims to stop GM eucalyptus trees.) Mr Vilsack’s course will not be smooth. Opponents of GM crops sued the department over its original decision on alfalfa. Now GM advocates may sue the department over its new one.

Rows over GM crops: Seed of Change, Economist, Jan. 8, 2010, at 32