The Fear of Genes

September 26, 2010

Genetically engineered food, it is an advance that could help feed a whole lot of people, but at the same time, subject to a whole lot of controversy. Unfortunately, a lot of the criticism seems to be a gut reaction towards how scary genetics is, as if scientists were out there to create chimeras and other mad science experiments. While there are legitimate reasons, like the environment, many of it seems to be based on ignorance on basic biology. For example, let’s take the Young Turk’s video:

Young Turks, it hurts me to be going at you guys. After all, you guys are the most reasonable people in American. 🙂 Unfortunately, some of the things you guys said in the video seemed to be based on ignorance on the subject of biology, and it is my job as a fan to smack you guys into place. Now, I am not a biologist, and if any biologist out there think I am wrong, I am all ears, but from my knowledge of introductory biology (I got credit for 2 biology college classes, so it has got to count for something), some of the things you guys said does not jive with what I know.

My main problem I had was Ana’s rambling about how she doens’t want genetically modified salmon because it has eel genes. Especially because the salmon was genetically modified, with genetically modified being the code word for scary. Two facts one should know before one goes ballistic on GMO. Firstly, there is no such thing as a special eel gene, or a special salmon gene that makes each species unique. Secondly, humans have genetically modified food for millenia. Now, hear me out, there is a reason I am pointing those out, and they have specifically to do with both Cenk and Ana’s claims.

As both had pointed out, the new salmon is not biologically the same as the normal salmon, but that argument against GMO can only take one so far. Think about it, every individual salmon is different. The difference might be unnoticeable, but certainly size is one thing that a species can be different in. Indeed, if one salmon is large and the other salmon is large because of the eel’s gene, then what is the difference except that both genes that say “grow!” have different origins and probably different composition of nucleotides, thereby having different composition of amino acid? I understand the environmental concern. It could be that larger fish consume more resources or something, although considering overfishing, I don’t understand how they could ever get to become such a threat. I understand that the flavor might be affected. In fact, I agree with them that GMOs should be labeled as such. But to say that one wouldn’t eat fish because it has eel genes is a gross misunderstanding of biology.

Look at humans and chimpanzee. They have in similarities over 99% of DNA, and salmons and eels probably share a great similarity too since they are both fish, though not to the extent humans and chimpanzees are similar genetically.What, are humans supposed to be scared because we have chimp DNA? Well, to those people, I have good news. Genes are instructions in what order to combine amino acids to make proteins, which does important functions in the cell. There is no magical human gene or magical chimp gene that if we mix with one another, it could result in some sort of ugly supermutant species. A lot of the differences between humans and chimps can be attributed to differences in genes telling cells “grow here!” and “stop!” For example, many human features are a result of neoteny (which means an evolved species with juvinile features, at least compared to the common ancestor). In chimps, there is no gene delaying or stopping the development of certain features, while humans have really slow development from child to puberty and very hairless compared to chimps. But those new salmons don’t even have the same level of difference! Their difference is size, just size. It is not like eating it will make it taste like eel, the way Ana seems to be implying, or that scientists created a new breed of supermutants that are half eel/half salmon. These new salmons, while biologically not the same, while larger, they are neither half eel nor half salmon!

This leads me to the second point, that humans have been genetically engineering plants and animals since the dawn of civilization. You might be wondering, “but but they didn’t have fancy schmancy tech thingys!” They didn’t need those, since they had artificial selection. I am now already hearing complaints of, “but it was all done naturally, by birthing them!” And that, I say, is completely irrelevant. Look at the banana. Do you even have any idea what the banana looked like before its radical makeover? Behold, the common ancestor of all bananas after humans:

Now, someone tell me, does that even look edible? The answer is that it isn’t, especially because of those huge seeds. Now, I don’t know what the humans did, but now they are freakin’ huge and delicious. Now, are you going to tell me that because the gene that said “make protein that makes banana larger” doesn’t come from an eel that it is not scary anymore? In fact, when people first made the banana, did anyone complain of its environmental effects? Is anyone complaining now? While its cultivation causes environmental problem, I don’t think the cause has been the invasion of banana itself, although again, I concede that larger salmons could have an effect in the environment. The fact is, their only differences seem to be that one was directed by humans over some period of time, while in the case of salmon, someone decided to use the direct method. Now, I know there is something called pleiotropy, where the production of one protein, due to its role in various pathways, can cause various physical changes. After all, it is known that by selecting for a gene also can mean selecting for other traits, as a certain Siberian experiment on foxes showed. But hey, if the changes in banana and foxes can go to their favor, why can’t the salmon? In any case, I can imagine that certain instances of direct manipulation of genes could be useful if one doesn’t want other traits that go along with the one that the breeder wants to select for.

So, a legitimate complaint would be: “The growth enzyme that the eel produces could have an effect in various metabolic pathways.” I haven’t read the whole story, so I don’t know on this one, but in other cases, it seemed to be paranoid delusions. Or it could be: “Look out, it affects the environement!” Which is something I am willing to concede. This: “OMG, it is GMO! So scary, eel gene mixed with another fish, ewww…” aside from being funny due to the reversal of OMG, it is not a remotely useful statement from which one can base one’s policy on.

Oh, and one more thing. GMOs  are already being used as food, other than the “naturally bred” variety (which is BS because artificial selection is not natural, whether you want it to be or not). Tell me, are there data supporting that these food are harming us? Are you going to go mad from The Revelation? While GMOs are not perfect, and I don’t claim that ALL of them are perfectly safe, many of the reasons for its detraction seems illogical. For more info, read what the World Health Organization says.

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