by Steve Wagner
“None of you would be here today if it were not for this protein,” according to Troy Ott, a reproductive biologist and associate director of the Huck Institutes of Life Sciences at Penn State University. “This protein is called syncytium (pronounced sin-SISH-um),” he told attendees at the 2017 Pennsylvania Dairy Summit. “If your mother could not express that protein, she could not form a placenta…Every baby was born because of this protein.”
It is a protein that came to humans from a virus. Many millennia ago, viruses injected their DNA into human DNA permanently. These are commonly called retroviruses. AIDS, for example, is a retrovirus. “If it gets into…one of the eggs or sperm, then it gets passed down from generation to generation.” Ott told his audience if he were to take random swabs of their DNA, sequencing their entire genome, roughly eight percent would be from viruses — a sort of junk pile of their chromosomes. Scientists studied the natural world and saw what was happening in nature, and used that information to benefit humans.
Rice is a staple for many millions of people. Those who eat rice as their staple food are often vitamin-A deficient. Golden Rice has been engineered to express beta-carotene. If it was adopted, says Ott, it could reduce the number of children from going blind every year as well as two million deaths from vitamin-A deficiency. “There are non-government organizations out there trying to sow fear about this technology,” he says. “One of the leaders is…Greenpeace. Greenpeace is wrong on genetic modification. And they are putting their philosophical beliefs ahead of people’s lives.”
He says slowly this is coming around and scientists are getting ready to release varieties of Golden Rice which offers the hope of improving life and health in some poor countries. “Some of the poorest countries grow cassava,” says Ott, “which is susceptible to virus…There are now two genetically-modified cassavas that are available to help poor farmers.” Cassava is a woody shrub native to South America and is a favorite in tropical climates.
“Some of the more exciting stuff on the horizon includes drought-resistant corn,” says Ott. “Many places that struggle to feed their people are countries with extreme climate, either drought or flood. GM technology has been used to create crops that are both drought resistant and flood resistant.”
Ott’s presentation included photos of conventional russet potatoes and modified ones. When cut open, the genetically modified potato doesn’t brown, and therefore is not wasted as much. In the U.S. colonial period, much of the Eastern seaboard was covered with chestnut trees which a disease wiped out in essentially a generation. Scientists have introduced a genetically modified American chestnut which has been changed to resist this disease. As a result, the American chestnut could be restored to its historic range. “Is this natural or unnatural?” A question for the unquestioning GMO disbelievers. “Is this the hand of an evil Penn State scientist in his lab…or is this a natural genetic mutation?” Ott showed a photo of an unusual looking boy, the possessor of some sort of mutation. “I think when he was four years old, he could bench press twice his weight. Mutations not only occur in cattle, but in other species…Nature makes changes in genes. Sometimes those genes confer benefits, and sometimes they don’t. When they do, they tend to stay around.”
Ott maintains people are hard-wired to be cautious and fearful of things they don’t understand. Is the process of genetic modification risky? “One of the most potent carcinogens on the planet is our sun,” he says. “…We have one couple that decides to lay out with no sunscreen and no umbrella, and they get burned. Another couple puts on sunscreen and puts up an umbrella. What has the second couple done? They have reduced their risk. They both have the same hazard, but the exposure here is very low. Are the uses of certain agricultural biotechnologies risky? We have to look at both hazard and exposure.” Ott then cited an illustration, a story he got from a nutritionist. This dietitian spoke of a young lady who came up to her, and was very animated. “She was concerned because she was pregnant and she liked to eat fish. But she was concerned about the mercury…She felt that was very risky. The dietitian said she didn’t know what to say to her because as the young lady was talking to her, she was smoking a cigarette.” This is an example where people get hazard and risk out of whack.
“When you use the same herbicide over and over again,” Ott cautioned, “when you don’t follow label instructions, when you don’t rotate crops and don’t rotate herbicides, guess what!? The weeds develop resistance. It’s the same with insecticides. This problem didn’t start with GMOs; it was around long before that.” Genetic engineering is considered to be the safest approach to improving crop traits. Regulatory agencies in 59 countries have affirmed the safety of more than 2,500 approvals now on 319 different GMO traits in 25 crops. The vast majority of those have been based on food safety.