TCS Daily

Designer Jeans From Designer Genes

By Henry I. Miller - July 27, 2006 12:00 AM

As the "new biotechnology" -- gene-splicing, or "genetic modification" (GM) -- enjoys ever more varied and impressive successes, the intractable opposition from environmental and other activists has become reminiscent of the old cartoon cliché about the person who year after year inaccurately predicts the end of the world.

Activists' antagonism belies the fact that gene-splicing offers enhanced efficiency for a vast array of processes, and proven benefits to both human health and the environment. For example, a single issue of a prominent monthly biotech journal contained three unrelated articles that illustrate a good part of the spectrum of benefits of the technology: agronomic improvement in an important crop plant, improved nutrition in another, and decreased animal waste deposited in the environment.

The first of these involved moving two barley genes into rice, which increases more than four-fold the yield in alkaline soil (a problem in thirty per cent of arable land worldwide). The second showed that moving a single gene from the petunia into tomato markedly increases the concentration of antioxidant compounds called flavonols, the consumption of which in food appears to be correlated with a decreased risk of cardiovascular disease. The third was a proof-of-principle experiment that demonstrated that the addition of a single bacterial gene to a mammal (in this case a mouse, used as a model system) enables the animal to more efficiently metabolize phosphates from feed, thereby reducing the phosphate content of their excreta. Adapted to large animals like cows and pigs, this approach could lower the phosphate content of manure from intensively farmed livestock and reduce the phosphate runoff into waterways and aquifers.

Another promising application is the more efficient production of ethanol (ethyl alcohol), which can be used as a clean-burning fuel, from various sources of cellulose -- wheat and rice straw, switchgrass, paper pulp, and agricultural waste products like corn cobs and leaves. Such an approach can produce twice as much ethanol per acre as growing corn, because of the large amounts of available biomass, and it uses material that is otherwise virtually without value. Conceptually, the conversion of cellulose to ethanol involves two basic steps: cleaving the long chains of cellulose molecules into glucose and other sugars, and fermenting those sugars into ethanol. Ordinarily, these processes are performed by different microorganisms: fungi and bacteria that use enzymes to "free" the sugars in cellulose, and other microbes, primarily yeasts, to ferment the sugars into alcohol, but molecular biologists are making progress at getting single organisms to perform more of the necessary conversions, and to carry them out more efficiently.

These examples of biotech's benefits are still in various stages of R&D, but others are already in the marketplace. Consider, for example, the two-part example of the use of designer genes to make designer jeans. The two principal components of blue jeans are, of course, cotton fabric and the indigo die that confers the characteristic color, and both can now be produced with environment-sparing biotechnology.

Gene-spliced, pest-resistant cotton differs from other commercial varieties by the presence of a protein from a bacterium called Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt). The protein, made by a gene transferred to the cotton plant by gene-splicing techniques, is toxic to certain insects but not to humans or other mammals. (Preparations of live Bt bacteria have for decades been sprayed onto plants by home gardeners and commercial farmers, with an admirable record of both safety and effectiveness.) The Bt-cotton is used to control several major pests, the cotton and pink bollworm and the tobacco budworm, which account for a quarter of all losses due to pest infestations and cost farmers more than $150 million annually. The states with a high rate of adoption of Bt-cotton have shown a significant reduction in the need to treat fields with chemical pesticides. Treatments were cut from an average of three treatments per acre to about one and a half. Bt-cotton has eliminated the need for millions of pounds of chemical pesticides since it was introduced a decade ago

In purely economic terms, Bt-cotton produces benefits to farmers both by reducing the need to apply chemical pesticides and by increasing the yield of cotton. Bt-cotton provides the highest per acre monetary benefits to farmers of all the Bt-containing crops, which include corn and soybeans. The aggregate advantage to cotton farmers nationally -- the net value of crops not lost to pests, savings in pesticides and so on -- is hundreds of millions of dollars a year.

But the economic benefits pale beside the environmental advantages.

Aquatic wildlife are threatened by three of the chemicals that must be used in much greater amounts on conventional, non-Bt-cotton -- endosulfan, methyl parathion and profenos. Environmental regulators have expressed concerns about the effects of such chemicals on birds, fish and other aquatic organisms.

The adoption of Bt-cotton and the resulting lessened need for chemical pesticides also reduces occupational exposures to the toxic chemicals by workers who mix, load and apply the pesticides, and who perform other activities that require their presence in the field. Moreover, the less pesticides that are applied, the less runoff into waterways, a significant problem in many of the nation's agricultural regions.

Cotton is only half the story when we're talking about blue jeans, however. To coin a phrase, without the right dye, you'll die in the marketplace. And the standard process for producing the indigo dye is an ecological and occupational monstrosity. Indigo production via chemical synthesis involves eight discrete operations and uses and produces highly toxic chemicals. The process requires special precautions and physical facilities to protect workers and the environment.

By contrast, the process of making indigo with a gene-spliced bacterium involves only three operations, uses water instead of toxic organic solvents, employs corn syrup (which is safe and cheap) as the primary starting material, and yields byproducts (biomass and carbon dioxide) instead of waste products.

Biotechnology's green approach and the other kinds of benefits it offers are being jeopardized by excessive government regulation and the relentless, mindless opposition of activists. If they were acting in good faith, activists (and government regulators) would be demanding -- not obstructing -- biotech used in agricultural and industrial applications.

Henry Miller, a physician, is a fellow at the Hoover Institution and the Competitive Enterprise Institute. He was an FDA official from 1979 to 1994 and is the co-author of "The Frankenfood Myth..." which was selected by Barron's as one of the 25 Best Books of 2004.


And is it dangerous?
People do not oppose gene splicing because of its benefits, but because of its dangers. But Miller's post ignores these completely. Do the dangers outweigh the benefits? By listing only one side Miller gets only part of the way to answering that question.

By the way, the 25 books on Barron's best list are best in the sense of promoting right wing nuttery (google it and see for yourself). This still is an accomplishment, given the number of such books, but it doesn't put Miller in competition with, say, Harry Potter.

More Proof
By the way, the 25 books on Barron's best list are best in the sense of promoting right wing nuttery (google it and see for yourself).

Hah!, more proof that the left can't or doesn't read, in spiter of all their delusions of intellect.

So what is the danger?
You get all hyped up about the unmentioned dangers that this article 'ignores', but fail to mention any dangers yourself.

Are you afraid we'll find ways to eliminate the use of so many toxic chemicals that some environmental groups funding might dry up?

dangers, real and imagined
The dangers of gene splicing lie mostly in the mind of the paranoid.

As to right wing nuttery, LG regards anything to the right of stalin to be right wing.

Risk vs. Reward and Gene Splicing
Are there risks to gene splicing? Of course. Are there benefits? Of course.

So do we eliminate research that could feed the world, deliver vaccines, cure disease and massively increase the efficiency of our agricultural sector because of nebulous fears?

When faced with the real and obvious threat posed by many of the pesticides and herbicides used today, especially in the Third World, can we afford to ignore the possibility of eliminating hazardous pests and plants by means other than chemicals?

Keep in mind, most of these products are thoroughly tested and have an approval process very similar to that of perscription drugs. If dangers arise, we can detect and eliminate them.

The real danger is driving this research underground. The coming biotech revolution has so much potential for gain that I believe that a black market in GM goods would be inevitable. Imagine the edge that being the only farmer on your block who can apply half as much fertilizer to his corn provides. Furthermore, by driving it underground, we make it likely that experiments involving humans will be carried out without proper safety protocols, or that geneticists will be paid to produce monstrosities like airborne Ebola or AIDS.

LiberalGoodman: I have to congratulate you. Though I disagree with almost everything you say, and I find your views repugnant, you can at least carry on a coherent argument.

Perhaps he doesn't list any dangers because none have been DOCUMENTED. Last year, the BILLIONTH acre of GMO crops was planted. Where are all the body bags predicted by that ying-yang who wrote "Seeds of Deception"? The cost of the safety testing that went into those crops is in the billions of dollars.
Oh, and don't give me any nonsense about threatening organic crops. The reason GMO is not a part of that culture is that the organic industry doesn't want it. It has nothing to do with any proven dangers.

Underground in another country can be "out in the open"...
Genetic engineering is only in its earliest stages of development. The Americans and the Europeans might have ethical problems that will hold them back regarding this work. However, if there is money to be made then global civilization assigns value to the biological products and bio-medical services that are certain to result.

When religious ethics result in a society failing to participate in technical or sociological evolution that will be embraced by the rest of the world and that will certainly bring great benefit then that society choses to be marginalized.

The Islamic nations were the most powerful in the world 500 years ago due to their autocratic political system infused with a militant religion. But as a warrior society they failed to industrialize from military economics to financial economics when the rest of the world did. Their priests refused to transition their own political power to favor the interests of the secular capitalists.

If the West should continue to sit back and resist biotechnology as some of our "ethicists" propose we will rapidly fall behind. And it will not take us 500 years to suffer for it.

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