TCS Daily

Commoner's Cause

By Charles Murtaugh - February 7, 2002 12:00 AM

In 1994, when I started graduate work in biology, PhD theses were still being awarded for the isolation and study of single genes. Today, it is now almost routine to analyze the activity of thousands of genes in a single, weeklong experiment. Armed with the tools of genomics, biologists can take end-runs around formerly intractable problems. What was difficult then is now easy, and what was once nearly impossible is now difficult.

Imagine my surprise, then, at the cover story of this month's Harper's magazine: "Unraveling the DNA Myth: The Spurious Foundation of Genetic Engineering" by biologist-cum-activist Barry Commoner. The DNA myth -- who knew? (The text is unavailable online, but Commoner's website at Queens College provides a synopsis.) Commoner has been fighting this battle for four decades; as Ron Bailey of Reason magazine observes, his theories are even more skewed today than they were in the sixties.

Back then, Commoner disputed Francis Crick's "central dogma" that nucleic acids -- DNA and RNA -- embodied the information of genetic inheritance. The unit of inheritance, he wrote in 1964, "is not DNA, but a multi-molecular system which is so complex as to require the participation of the living cell." Today he writes that, "the experimental data ... points to the irreducibility of the living cell."

It's the same old song, although rustier for the years he devoted to anti-nuclear and environmental activism instead of biology. (According to Medline, the database of life science papers, Commoner hasn't published an experiment result in the field for over fifteen years.) For instance, he insists that biologists consider it "sacrilegious" to question the central dogma, although six Nobel Prizes have been awarded for work that does so, directly or indirectly (Chemistry 1989; Medicine 1965, 1975, 1987, 1993, 1997).

Has every aspect of the central dogma held up? Overall, it has done about as well as Newtonian mechanics in the post-quantum era: it explains much, but perhaps not all of inheritance. Every published theory can be challenged by subsequent developments, but without that first imperfect theory, those later developments would not have been. Each new experiment is risky, because it tests the scientist's cherished preconceptions. But as James D. Watson told The New York Times magazine, "an idea can be tested, whereas if you have no idea, nothing can be tested and you don't understand anything."

In short, progress in research demands a certain degree of confidence and optimism, as well as an openness to change. These features do not distinguish Barry Commoner, whose vision of science is as static and risk-averse as his view of the environment. In the sixties, Commoner warned that focusing on DNA would precipitate a "crisis in biology;" his doomsaying continues today. One rejoinder is to consider the advances in medicine -- real advances, already in use -- that Commoner's advice would have thwarted. Among these are the production of recombinant protein hormones like insulin and erythropoietin, both of which are prohibitively expensive to isolate from natural sources, as well as gene product-targeted drugs such as the HIV protease inhibitors and the new anticancer drug Gleevec.

This is to say nothing of the advances that the DNA gene theory promises to bring, such as pharmacogenetics and gene therapy: these are among the formerly impossible problems that are now merely difficult. But the central dogma touches our daily lives most directly through agriculture: genetically-modified (GM) crops are accounting for an ever-increasing fraction of our food supply. Commoner has always been anxious about what we eat (he helped popularize the notion that hamburgers cause cancer), and GM food represents a special worry: it threatens both the world and his worldview.

Although Commoner peppers his discussion of crop biotechnology with warnings about "consequences ... [that] cannot be foreseen," "potentially harmful" effects, "unintended, potentially disastrous, consequences," and "results [that] could be catastrophic," he can't point to a single case where human health, or even ecological health, has been damaged by GM foods.

What is needed in this controversy is to weigh risks against benefits, not to conclude that major catastrophes are due in the absence of even minor adverse effects. Developing countries, where poor growing conditions and population pressure combine to strain conventional agriculture, might weigh the risks of not developing GM crops. Indeed, a recent study in the journal Science shows that China has developed the largest GM crop capacity outside North America, and is focusing R&D efforts on insect and disease resistance.

China's efforts are paying off in economic and social terms: farmers planting cotton engineered for insect resistance have reduced insecticide use by 80%, saving money and resulting in dramatically fewer cases of pesticide poisoning. The Chinese experience with GM crops ought to inspire, but I doubt Barry Commoner will join in any celebration. His unwavering defeatism is not only unscientific, but in the end inhumane.

Charles Murtaugh is a postdoctoral research fellow in the Molecular and Cellular Biology Department at Harvard University, where he studies developmental biology.


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