Issue 249: September 2007


Complexity and Diversity are the Rules of the Game


by Brewster Kneen

Remember the  little slogan – “one gene, one protein”– which laid the foundation for the ready approval of genetic engineering by Agriculture Canada, then the Canadian Food Inspection Agency, to say nothing of the US regulatory apparatus. Since then there has been almost a daily announcement of the discovery of a gene for this or that – obesity, hyperactivity, menopause, baldness, even sexual orientation. Perhaps it’s the gene for skepticism that keeps me saying “Nothing in life is that simple!” Long ago I started to just skip an article as soon as I spotted the word ‘promise,’ or some other conditionality, such as ‘if successful.’

“Biofortified Sorghum: the Promise of Improved Health and Nutrition”
“Sorghum is a dietary staple for more than half a billion people around the world because of its unique ability to grow in dry environments where irrigation is not accessible or affordable. However, it lacks some essential nutrients and is not easily digested.

“Pioneer Hi-Bred, a DuPont business, is partnering with Africa Harvest (Florence Wambugu,CEO & project coordinator) as the scientific lead institution on the Africa Biofortified Sorghum (ABS) Project. The Project, with a budget of $18.6 million over five years, is funded by the Grand Challenges in Global Health initiative, itself funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the Foundation for the National Institutes of Health, the Wellcome Trust, and the Canadian Institutes of Health Research.

“The ABS project provides a ‘promising long-term solution – using biofortification – to fight hunger, malnutrition, and poverty in Africa,’ according to Pioneer scientist Paul Anderson, principal investigator of the project. . . .

If successful, in the long term, the project could help improve the health of 300 million people in Africa.”
[our italics] – The Africa Journal, USA, 1/7/07

Life was very simple in those days – and incredibly simplistic. The ‘scientists’ assured themselves and everyone else that they really did know what they were doing with their violent genetic interventions. The public remained skeptical, but the world of business and government wanted to believe the promises of the scientists and acted accordingly. So virtually every novel genetic construct devised in the name of ‘improvement’ to nature’s offerings was accepted as ‘safe’ and put on the market, starting about 12 years ago. Now the birds of truth – or genetic consequences – are coming home to roost.


The Gene for Skepticism

Nothing could be further from the truth than ‘one gene, one protein.’ Diversity, complexity, and constant change (‘evolution’) are the biological facts of life. Of course, lots of  people have known this for a very long time. If  biology followed the rule of ‘one gene one protein’, diversity as we know it, including human diversity, would not exist.

To illustrate:

(1) “In June, a consortium of scientists published findings that challenge the traditional view of how genes function. The exhaustive four-year effort was organized by the United States National Human Genome Research Institute and carried out by 35 groups from 80 organizations around the world. To their surprise, researchers found that the human genome might not be a “tidy collection of independent genes” after all, with each sequence of DNA linked to a single function, such as a predisposition to diabetes or heart disease. Instead, genes appear to operate in a complex network, and interact and overlap with one another and with other components in ways not yet fully understood. . .

The presumption that genes operate independently has been institutionalized since 1976, when the first biotech company was founded. In fact, it is the economic and regulatory foundation on which the entire biotechnology industry is built. . .  Known as the Central Dogma of molecular biology, it stated that each gene in living organisms, from humans to bacteria, carries the information needed to construct one protein. . .  The scientists who invented recombinant DNA in 1973 built their innovation on this mechanistic, “one gene, one protein” principle. . . Evidence of a networked genome shatters the scientific basis for virtually every official risk assessment of today’s commercial biotech products, from genetically engineered crops to pharmaceuticals.

‘The real worry for us has always been that the commercial agenda for biotech may be premature, based on what we have long known was an incomplete understanding of genetics,’ said Professor Jack Heinemann of the School of Biological Sciences, University of Canterbury in New Zealand  . . . Yet to date, every attempt to challenge safety claims for biotech products has been categorically dismissed, or derided as unscientific. A 2004 round table on the safety of biotech food, sponsored by the Pew Initiative on Food and Biotechnology, provided a typical example: ‘Both theory and experience confirm the extraordinary predictability and safety of gene-splicing technology and its products,’ said Dr. Henry I. Miller, who was the founding director of the Office of Biotechnology at the Food and Drug Administration, and presided over the approval of the first biotech food in 1992.”
– Denise Caruso, NYT, 1/7/07

Now that the consortium’s findings have cast the validity of that theory into question, it may be time for the biotech industry to re-examine the more subtle effects of its products, and to share what it knows about them with regulators and other scientists.


(2) The complexity and unpredictability of biotech is neatly described in an article in, of all places, Harvard Business Review (Oct 2006), titled “Can Science be a Business – Lessons from Biotech.”  The author, Gary P. Pisano, refers particularly to the drug industry, but his insights apply equally well to plant biotechnology. His thesis is that while “the anatomy of the biotechnology industry looks quite similar to those of other high-tech sectors, such as software and semiconductors,” this anatomy does not work for biotech, because of the  “profound and persistent uncertainty, rooted in the limited knowledge of human biological systems and processes.”

The failure of biotech as business, Pisano writes, is also due to the intuitive or tacit nature of the knowledge in the diverse disciplines required in biotech research and development. In other words, the ‘precision’ that was the marketing hype of biotech for years was so much nonsense.

Pisano’s comments on the biopharmaceutical industry can equally be applied to food. “Whether a drug [food] candidate is safe and effective can be determined only through a lengthy process of trial and error. Despite extraordinary progress in genetics and molecular biology over the past few decades, scientists still find it extremely difficult to predict how a particular new molecule will work in humans.” If this is true, and there is no reason to think it is not, then the regulatory agencies that have been approving genetically engineered food and drugs based on simplistic and erroneous logic are behaving in criminal fashion with their speedy approvals of novel foods and powerful, but mysterious, drugs.

(3) Another illustration of the growing recognition of         nature’s complexity and the unpredictability of biotechnology is the recent publication of the whole genome of  J. Craig Venter. Venter has gained notoriety for a variety of reasons, but mostly for trying to sequence the human genome a few years ago before anyone else so that he could patent it all. John Sulston, working for the Wellcome Trust in Britain and committed to sequencing the human genome and putting all the data in the public domain, got the better of Venter who ended up, in effect, as a collaborator. (For Sulston’s story of the human genome project, read The Common Thread, 2002.) What is fascinating about the sequence of Venter’s very own genome is the revelation – or is it a confession – that his (or anyone else’s) genome is vastly more complex than anyone anticipated.

“Each time we peer deeper into the human genome we uncover more valuable insight into our intricate biology,” said Dr. Venter. “With this publication we have shown that human to human variation is five to seven-fold greater than earlier estimates proving that we are in fact more unique at the individual genetic level than we thought.” He added, “It is clear however that we are still at the earliest stages of discovery about ourselves and only with the sequencing of more individual genomes will we garner a full understanding of how our genes influence our lives.”
– J. Craig Venter Institute, Press Release, 3/9/07

Venter will probably be long gone before “we garner a full understanding,” but such arrogance has been the driver and ‘stuff’ of biotech up to now.


#249: September 2007 TOC
Complexity and Diversity are the Rules of the Game: Brewster challenges biotech's Central Dogma, 'one gene, one protein'
GE Insects Opposed in Southern British Columbia: tree fruit growers challenge new rules for importing GE insects
Raising the Steaks: packing plant woes
Good Ol' Mountain Dew Revisited: ethanol plants and selling the spent grains
Cattle Industry Dying From Ethanol Poisoning: Paul Beingessner looks at the sad state of the cattle industry in Canada
Eggs Are Seasonal, Too: Joel Salatin meets a creative chef
Food Aid: CARE opts out of lucractive aid scheme
Water, Cargill, and Corn: biodegradable bottles are still no better than tap water
Monsanto loses, for once: US court refuses to ban advertising of rBGH-free dairy
Lobbying for Agrotoxins and Biotech: a look at CropLife