Seralini seeks to dilute biology education

Taking a page from the modern creationist movements that seek to weaken high school education in evolutionary biology, a French group is looking to do the same to biology classes – but now it’s genetic engineering that is the target. Nature News reports in Transgenic bacterium sparks row in French schools, that CRIIGEN, led by Gilles-Eric Seralini, is advocating that useful, direct education in fundamentals of genetic transformation should be kept from high school students.

I guess it was only a matter of time. The particular brand of extreme belief about the risks of genetic engineering espoused by Seralini, who is the president of the scientific board of The Committee for Research & Independent Information on Genetic Engineering (CRIIGEN), has now spilled over into the inevitable conclusion that anything and everything GMO-like should be in advanced low-air-pressure biosafety labs only. Because simple things done a million times over such as adding a plasmid to a tube of harmless bacteria to demonstrate how basic genetic engineering works is knowledge that French high school students should not have access to. Why? Because doing a safe, controlled experiment “trivializes” a touchy subject.

[Seralini] warns against trivialization of a sensitive subject, contamination risks and possible violation of European directives on the manipulation of genetically modified organisms in confined spaces. “I am also concerned that practical classes erode the time spent imparting knowledge of biology,” he adds.

We see these same arguments brought up against the time spent on evolution education. ‘If only they would spend more time learning biology… and not learning this aspect of biology we have a problem with.’

As for contamination risks, the laboratory strains used for these kinds of experiments are weak non-virulent strains, and the trait being discussed is Ampicillin resistance, which occurs naturally in many bacteria. That’s where the resistance gene came from. They are worried about this gene getting out into wild bacteria… which already have it. The issue of antibiotic resistance is not about the shockingly ever-present resistance genes floating around – it is about misuse and overuse of important antibiotics. As scientists they should know this.

With regard to the possible violation of European directives on handling GE organisms, I don’t think this is about following the letter of the law at all. If there was a legal issue somewhere then it would be cause to revisit the directives in question – perhaps they weren’t nuanced enough for all the different ways that GE organisms would be used, such as in education. But note that they say “possible” violation – as in, not actual.

As for the argument that it should not be done because it is a “sensitive” subject – I am simply surprised that this argument was used at all. This is straight out of the creationist playbook and it is not only a worthless argument for determining whether or not a subject in science is proper to be taught, it is also very revealing about motivations. The impetus seems to be that in an effort to improve biology education, French education ministers wanted to make it possible for students to learn about it at a younger age than before. And this has them riled up. I think CRIIGEN is revealing in this statement that they may be worried that a population of French students that learns about genetic engineering at a young age will become more comfortable with the idea of it then if they learned about it through CRIIGEN press releases.

Luc Chatel neatly dices apart the argument that this is detracting from other learning activities:

Luc Chatel, France’s education minister, today unveiled a plan to encourage more students to opt for science and technology subjects at university by improving teaching in schools, but he told Nature that increasing the amount of compulsory practical work is not part of the scheme. Schools can choose how much time they devote to experiments, as long as students are prepared for the hands-on work that makes up 20% of marks in the scientific baccalaureate exam at 18.

The rest of the article does a good job pointing out the issues of safety, and the importance of these kinds of activities in basic biology education, everything from getting a hands-on understanding of the process, to basic lab protocols. Well framed.

The one thing they really left out is the inspirational effect that amazing science has in a high school classroom environment. My real interest in biology over other scientific subjects could be traced in part to creative and involved laboratory experiments that I had a rare privilege to have in a one-time offered AP Biology 2 class in my junior year of high school. One of the things we worked with was E. coli. We also made yogurt, measured the oxygen usage of germinating seeds, and beyond. It was a great experience, but we never got to do anything with DNA. In fact, even after two years of biology in high school, DNA seemed more theoretical than anything else. Yes, of course it existed and was real, but not doing anything with this molecule in class kept that real-because-you-can-see-or-touch-it experience from happening. I didn’t realize you could do so much with it until I studied genetics in college.

But before I got into college, there were exams that were testing my knowledge of biology. The AP biology exam that year had genetic engineering and recombinant DNA as one of the essay questions. I remember they asked me to describe and to draw how to get DNA from one organism into another. I also remember my answer very clearly – even though I was not entirely sure about the process, I reasoned that since viruses could introduce their own DNA into a cell, what could keep us from using a virus to accomplish it? Not too far off, I did very well on that test, which doubtlessly helped me get where I am today. In a few short years after going to college in Davis, I heard about improvements in high school biology classes, such as doing PCR and electrophoresis gels which are the backbone of genetics research today. Students who wish to excel in biology will need these kinds of hands-on experiments, and denying them that opportunity will put them at a disadvantage compared to their peers.

Students in the US, France, India, China, and Ethiopia should have the opportunity to have the best education in biology (and other subjects) that they can get in their secondary education, which will help them decide what course to take and if they want to contribute to those fields with exciting careers. One of the strengths of science is how people from all over the world can be working and collaborating on and contributing to an advancing field on the same level. And it is not just the scientific career-bound that will benefit. We need a populace that is familiar enough with what genetic engineering is if we can ever hope to have a worthwhile discussion of this technology. Seralini and CRIIGEN are indicating that they do not believe that students in France should have this opportunity.

CRIIGEN “will urge the education ministry to impose a moratorium until a full debate on the question is organized”, says Séralini. “We believe such material should not be manipulated by students before they reach university.”

This puts CRIIGEN in a different light. It is looking more like they are becoming an organization akin to the Discovery Institute in the US that pressures teachers to avoid the ‘sensitive’ topic of evolution. I would go so far as to suggest that there may be a bit of a culture war at play in this issue – and that it is not really about safety or regulations or classroom time – but on preventing the spark of inspiration in French students that hey, I could imagine doing this in the future at college or as a career. Efforts to dilute science education to serve narrow political viewpoints must be resisted at every turn.

Sure, its just some rings of DNA and some little cells in the lab, why get passionate about this little experiment? Like it’s just some silly birds on a group of islands near South America. Not that that ever amounted to anything…

Karl earned his Ph.D. in Plant Breeding and Plant Genetics at UW-Madison, with a minor in Life Science Communication. His dissertation was on both the genetics of sweet corn and plant genetics outreach. He currently works as a public research geneticist in Madison, WI. His favorite produce might just be squash.

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54 comments on “Seralini seeks to dilute biology education
  1. MaryM says:

    I just shook my head when I saw that. Well, at least if Europeans want to follow this guy we can be assured that the US will maintain a lead over them in biotech. Which is fine with me.

    We have plenty to worry about with China prepared to kick our butts.

    But–I imagine he’s really arguing that this experience is some kind of gateway drug to GMOs. And we’ve seen where the French education system took that idea–right to the fields to destroy non-GMO sunflowers:

    French Anti-Biotech Protests Achieve A Glorious State of Sheer Lunacy wherein they destroy natural and conventional mutant sunflowers.

  2. Ewan R says:

    The company I used to work for made kits for use in high schools which involved making and proving you’d made transgenic bacteria – who knew I was already steeped in evil years before I joined Monsanto.

    On a more serious note – this is almost too good to be true in terms of “the message” ™ as Seralini offered a veneer of scientific respectability to anti-GMO arguements – this surely must fall apart now in the minds of anyone who is remotely scientifically literate – Seralini does now appear to totally be the Behe of the GMO debate.

  3. Jonathan says:

    This is the man who, funded by the Human Earth Foundation, deliberately chose to test the effect of Roundup herbicide on human plancental cell cultures and then when the cells were damaged spread the word that glyphosate is an endocrine disruptor[1].

    He surely knew full well at the outset that the surfactants in herbicides would damage any cell culture in the lab and deliberately chose his cell lines to cause a political storm amongst people who don’t understand biology.

    You’ll also never find him discussing the fact that his paper showed little/no “endocrine disrupting” effect of glyphosate itself. His conclusion with was that the Roundup formulation increases the toxicity of glyphosate, not that the surfactants in the formulated product are killing the cell cultures which would be obvious to almost anyone else.

    His final conclusion was that “toxicity on placental cells could induce some reproduction problems”. I’m willing to bet there’s not another cell biologist in the world who would agree with that assessment in light of the research presented.

    An absolute disgrace to science. I hope his university are ashamed to support him.

    Jonathan

    [1] Sophie Richard, Safa Moslemi, Herbert Sipahutar, Nora Benachour, and Gilles-Eric Seralini (2005)Differential Effects of Glyphosate and Roundup on Human Placental Cells
    and Aromatase. Environmental Health Perspectives, 113: 716-720

    • Henry Kuska says:

      Jonathan did you you use Google Scholar to see whether the reviewed scientific literature supports your opinion concerning the paper you gave a reference to? If so please present the reference or references in this thread. I am interested in: “factual information”.
      ————————————————
      Here is a 2010 Séralini paper on the subject.
      http://www.occup-med.com/content/pdf/1745-6673-5-29.pdf
      “In conclusion, it is demonstrated and explained that high hepatic cell line mortality is provoked by R, at doses far below those used in agriculture. The mechanism of action on various essential enzymes is detailed in Figure 8. This impact on cell death was observed at doses far smaller than legally allowed residues of G in GM food or feed (400 ppm, [29]), in our study LC50 was in comparison 40 to 96 ppm. Of course G can be metabolized and excreted out of the body but this has to be balanced in regard to its cell penetration and bioaccumulation due to adjuvants.”

      • Note, Jonathan’s comment was left in February, so it is likely he is not watching this discussion anymore.

      • Jonathan says:

        Henry

        I have just found this bizarrely delayed attack on my personal opinion of the Seralini paper after reading through the recent comments feed. Yes I am aware of all the related literature thank you and stand by everything I said. Feel free to disagree with a comment in your own words rather than referring to an extensive paper that doesn’t back up any of your implied contradictions.

        Some questions for you, seeing as you are so interested in this 7 month old topic….

        Firstly, do you think the Seralini paper shows an endocrine disrupting property of glyphosate? A ‘Yes’ or ‘No’ will do.

        Second, please look at figure 2 in the paper you so kindly provided the link to and tell me what your interpretation of the difference between Roundup and Glyphosate is (SPOILER: I think it does back up my assessment of the Seralini paper). I know its difficult for you, but please give me YOUR interpretation of what that Figure 2 says. No referencing, no nit-picking as to the exact meaning of what I or you have written previously. Just your interpretation of what that figure is showing.

        Finally, (in the interests of risk rather than hazard) tell me if you think that a hepatic or reproductive tissue cell would ever be exposed in a living human being to the glyphosate conentrations that Figure 2 suggests affect cell viability. A simple ‘yes’ or ‘no’ will suffice for your answer to that one too.

        I look forward to your concise responses but I won’t hold my breath. I notice you aggressively ask a lot of questions and demand evidence but never provide answers or evidence to anyone else. That’s not how discussion works.

        Best wishes,

        Jonathan

      • Jonathan says:

        The paper you quote seems to be by the same group of known anti-GM activists and funded by the same New Age charities. Hardly a representative sample of the published literature.

        Maybe you’d like to read a review of the general scientific evidence on G toxicity. A bit dated now but wide ranging nonetheless. Whether it passes your “factual information” filter I wouldn’t dare to guess…..

        Williams GM, Kroes R, Munro IC. (2000). Safety evaluation and risk assessment of the herbicide Roundup and its active ingredient, glyphosate, for humans. Regul Toxicol Pharmacol 31:117–165.

        Jonathan

  4. “Seralini does now appear to totally be the Behe of the GMO debate.” I felt like putting that in the post, so now I know I’m not crazy. Or at least only just as crazy as a pernicious petri-plate pusher from the corporate world! :)

  5. GregH says:

    And here I though he was getting his pages out of the British Chiropractic Association’s book with his libel suit.

    • MaryM says:

      Wow–can I sue people who claim I’m paid by Monsanto and that influences my statements? That would be great. Next vacation–France! Some blogging, some commenting…that trip should pay for itself in about 20 minutes on the right blogs.

  6. Annette Lutyens says:

    The knowledge of what dangers children might be exposed to has obviously led Dr.Seralini to recommend that manipulating DNA in unsafe environments might lead to unexpected dangers.

    All I read Seralini as saying is – if students are to be allowed to work with recombinant DNA then proper facilities and protocols should be put in place.

    This is a sensible suggestion and should be heeded as Dr. Seralini is an expert in his field.

    Just because you don’t agree, vilifying him does not lead to intelligent debate. Just give your reasons why High Schools should be able to manipultate DNA with no protocols.

    • I didn’t say that the high schools should be able to manipulate DNA with no protocols. All science is done with a protocol (or should be at least). The article doesn’t contain any information about what precautions are in place, and I suspect that these experiments conclude with sterilizing the equipment and waste. One interviewee did mention bleach. Naturally, they should be wearing gloves and goggles. The teacher should make sure that all the materials get autoclaved or sterilized in some other fashion such as with bleach. My Biology 2 teacher did that stuff when we were
      Transforming bacteria with a plasmid is not a crazy, dangerous procedure in and of itself. You put bacteria in a solution with your plasmid, put that in a cuvette, zap it with a jolt of electricity, and spread them on a plate of nutrient agar. A couple days later you look for spots on the plate – without even having to take off the lid.

      Recombinant DNA is not Seralini’s field, BTW. I would read it as making suggestions about improving safety except that he said clearly both that 1) They should not do transformation in class because it is a touchy subject and 2) High school students shouldn’t be doing it at all anyway. That goes beyond safety and instead leads to other motivations.

      I did list my reasons why I think high school students should have the opportunity to do something like this – quite passionately in fact. :)

      • Henry Kuska says:

        Karl Haro von Mogel stated: “I did list my reasons why I think high school students should have the opportunity to do something like this – quite passionately in fact.”
        ———————————
        H.Kuska comment: Karl’s positive experience was within the context of an Advanced Placement course (“AP Biology 2 class in my junior year of high school”).
        —————————–
        This is similar to what the French were doing: “For several years now, transgenesis, a technique for obtaining GMOs, has been taught within the framework of the curriculum of Life and Earth Sciences, to French upper sixth forms (or twelfth graders) who study optional biology.”
        (12 grader corresponds to our U.S. senior high school level.)
        —————————
        This is what is now being done in France: “Since the start of the 2010 school year, transgenesis is being taught to all year-11 students (or tenth graders), both in general education and technological education.”
        (This would be our U.S. students sophmore year.)
        ——————————-
        In my mind there is a huge difference between: 1) teaching recombinant DNA in an advanced topic and corresponding laboratory experiment to a second biology AP type course to select Juniors or Seniors.
        and
        2) teaching all sophmores in general education biology and technological education biology about recombinant DNA to the level necessary that the corresponding laboratory experiment would be meaningful.
        —————————————
        The cited Nature article quotes Valérie Sipahimalani, national secretary in charge of biology and geology for the National Union of Secondary Teachers, part of the Unitary Union Federation in Paris: “Personally, I don’t believe in teaching manipulation for manipulation’s sake,” she says. “More importantly, DNA takes a lot of time to explain — it is very complicated for secondary school-students to understand.”
        —————————————
        My own experience has been in teaching college chemistry. In the freshman courses, we did very different experiments in the beginning science majors course and in the introductory non-science majors course. Each course’s experiments were designed to assist in learning the corresponding important lecture topics.

        • I think that the kinds of experiences that I had in my AP biology 2 class should be more widely available to other students. I do not believe that a privileged few should learn about it – this is information that is needed in order to have an informed populace – informed about something that is becoming increasingly important in their lives.
          One of the points brought up by others here is that it is easier to manipulate someone and scare them if they have not learned about it in a formal setting.
          “Each course’s experiments were designed to assist in learning the corresponding important lecture topics.”
          And what would be better than to cement the knowledge learned about transgenics – which all biology students should know about – than the chance to do something hands-on?

          • Henry Kuska says:

            Karl stated: “And what would be better than to cement the knowledge learned about transgenics – which all biology students should know about – than the chance to do something hands-on?”
            —————————————-
            H.Kuska comment. Teaching advanced biological concepts at the EARLY high school level is complicated by the fact that: “It appears that about one-third of 10th grade biology students consistently demonstrate concrete reasoning and only about one-fifth consistently show formal reasoning. The vast majority of 10th grade biology students are thought to be advanced concrete or transitional: they operate concretely in some tasks and formally in others (Lawson & Renner 1975; Lawson & Blake 1976).”…….”However, high school biology students who were not formal were found to understand very little of required formal concepts (Lawson & Renner 1975). Many major concepts including evolution, genetics and ecology, taught in high school biology, require formal operational thought to understand. Since students were found to be unable to develop appreciable understanding of abstract concepts, it appears that a science course that deals extensively with abstractions may be inappropriate for this population.”
            —————————-
            The following is not about high school but perhaps it will help put the discussion in perspective:
            “These generalizations also hold for a surprisingly sizable fraction of students enrolled in introductory biology at the college level as well, where approximately one-half of students are believed to be not fully formal operational (Lawson 1980).”
            ——————————
            The above quotes were from the following:

            Title: What Research Says about Biology Laboratory Instruction

            Author(s): Don Igelsrud and William H. Leonard

            Published in: The American Biology Teacher, Vol. 50, No. 5 (May, 1988), pages 303-306

            Published by: University of California Press on behalf of the National Association of Biology Teachers

            http://www.jstor.org/stable/4448741

            ============================
            The National Science Teachers Association has prepared a document on the teaching of transgenics at the high school level. http://www.enviroliteracy.org/nsfmod/GM-Crops.pdf
            ——————————————
            H.Kuska comment. The pertinent question here is: at what level of high school biology instruction would this report be useful? Please note the following: “……assume student familiarity with the molecular basis of heredity. You may want to administer a pretest to assess the readiness of your students to undertake this module.”
            ALSO please see page 17.

            • “…it appears that a science course that deals extensively with abstractions may be inappropriate for this population.”
              Henry, first these references are over 30 years old – and likely a lot of changes have taken place in education theory in the intervening time. It would take a good deal of time to properly research the specifics of what is currently known in this area and to apply it to this particular situation. That being said, I would like to respond to this part of the quote above that deals with the abstractness of the concept. The whole point of a hands-on activity such as transforming bacteria in the lab is to take it out of the realm of abstract concepts and make it something tangible that could be grasped by the students. That’s something that Glo-Fish do, it take the arcane and turn it into something fun and interesting for those who aren’t as comfortable with imagining pieces of DNA moving around between test tubes and organisms in their heads – instead seeing the color that was moved from other organisms into fish. Plus, I find it troubling the inclusion of evolutionary biology (a very important cornerstone of biology) as being inappropriate for high school biology students, in my humble opinion. Moreover, the details about concrete reasoning seems to support the opposite conclusion – that hands-on is the way to go with something simple that can be tracked rather than imagining abstract coils of DNA.

              Finally, with regard to the genetic engineering module that you linked to – keep in mind this is a module that does not explain genetics itself – but extends knowledge of genetics. So their statement about pre-testing has more to do with making sure that your students already have the fundamentals about DNA and less about the topic being inherently too complicated for the average student.

              In any case, this still leaves the question of how the average person is to learn anything about genetic engineering in school before they are unleashed as members of the voting population? (copies of Tomorrow’s Table for everyone!)

              • Henry Kuska says:

                Karl regarding your question about what has changed since the 1988 publication. (First an explanation of why it was chosen. I felt that it gave a very good description of the concrete / formal thinking problem that faces 10th grade biology teachers.)
                Perhaps the following recent (2009) Ph.D. Thesis will suffice in indicating that not much has changed concerning the problems designing an introductory high school science laboratory.
                ————————————
                “The category of responses that emerged as the core idea focused on student understanding of the experience. Students desire to understand the why do, the how to, and the what it means of laboratory experiences. Lacking any one of these, the experience loses educational value for them. This single recurring theme crossed the boundaries of age, level in school, gender, and even the student view of lab experiences as positive or negative.”
                http://etd.ohiolink.edu/view.cgi/Lambert%20R.%20Mitch.pdf?acc_num=kent1239991811
                ————————————–
                “With clear voices students said they want to understand the experience. The final words belong to the students as they suggest improvements to laboratory experiences:
                • “Showing us how they’ll help us to understand what we’re working on and getting rid of the small pointless ones that don’t make sense.”
                • “If the point that the teacher is trying to get across is easier to understand or more clearly demonstrated in the lab.”
                • “Not having them at all. Maybe actually being able to understand them.”
                =====================
                I (H.Kuska) am going to repeat part of my earlier statement (September 8, 2011 at 7:25 pm).
                ————————————–
                “2) teaching all sophmores in general education biology and technological education biology about recombinant DNA to the level necessary that the corresponding laboratory experiment would be meaningful.
                —————————————
                The cited Nature article quotes Valérie Sipahimalani, national secretary in charge of biology and geology for the National Union of Secondary Teachers, part of the Unitary Union Federation in Paris: “Personally, I don’t believe in teaching manipulation for manipulation’s sake,” she says. “More importantly, DNA takes a lot of time to explain — it is very complicated for secondary school-students to understand.”

                • By all means, let’s remove all that pesky time-consuming complicated stuff from classrooms!
                  /snark

                  • Henry Kuska says:

                    In my last post the statement:
                    “Not having them at all…”
                    comes up. This is not as far fetched as some may think. Particularly in non major introductory chemistry courses (even courses for engineers) laboratory actual experience has been curtailed or is being considered. In one case that I am familar with the engineers took a first semester (fall) freshman laboratory but were not required to sign up for the spring lab that corresponded to the second semester (spring) freshman chemistry course (which they were required to take). Other “solutions” that I have read about from time to time is to have every other experiment be a student run computer simulation, a faculty demonstration, or replacement with a graduate student run small group tutoring session (which would cover both lecture topics and the next lab). The most extreme example that I am familar with is to eliminate the whole chemistry department as laboratory courses are too expensive. http://www.nature.com/news/2011/110907/full/news.2011.521.html

                    The following 2004 review may be of interest:
                    http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1002/sce.10106/abstract

                    This review suggests (to me) a possible answer to Karl’s question:
                    “In any case, this still leaves the question of how the average person is to learn anything about genetic engineering in school before they are unleashed as members of the voting population? (copies of Tomorrow’s Table for everyone!)”
                    —————————–
                    At the high school level, in addition to the cost and possible dangers of GMO type experiments, one has the “real” problem of whether the teacher has the background to effectively teach a subject this complex.
                    ——————————–
                    Industrial scientists in cooperation with teachers may be able to prepare a “GMO learning” “guest lecture” type computer based module.
                    “In addition, significant changes in computer technologies offer substantive new tools and resources for empowering teaching and learning science that can complement experiences in the school laboratory.”

                    • Ewan R says:

                      At the high school level, in addition to the cost and possible dangers of GMO type experiments, one has the “real” problem of whether the teacher has the background to effectively teach a subject this complex.

                      Cost – negligible.
                      Dangers – zero.
                      Complexity of the subject – vanishingly small.

                      Sorry what was the problem again?

                    • Henry Kuska says:

                      ————————-
                      Ewan, you gave a reply with no documentation on September 10, 2011 at 8:44 pm. Please provide some.
                      ———————————————
                      For example concerning the complexety of subject, the following statement was introduced by me: “The cited Nature article quotes Valérie Sipahimalani, national secretary in charge of biology and geology for the National Union of Secondary Teachers, part of the Unitary Union Federation in Paris: “Personally, I don’t believe in teaching manipulation for manipulation’s sake,” she says. “More importantly, DNA takes a lot of time to explain — it is very complicated for secondary school-students to understand.””

                    • Henry, asking for documentation for every one of someone’s opinions gets tedious. Particularly as you have not provided documentation for what the cost would be, for instance, and so, to be tedious about this, you have not provided evidence that cost is more a concern for this kind of experiment versus others.

                      Do I need to document this opinion too?

                    • Henry Kuska says:

                      ————————-
                      Karl, as a scientist, I expect a fact based discussion.
                      ———————————–
                      Second your question: “you have not provided evidence that cost is more a concern for this kind of experiment versus others.” Is taking my statement out of context.
                      ———————–
                      My statement about (laboratory) costs was in the context of my proposal to present the GMO material by electronic means. I documented that this method is:
                      ——————————-
                      “In addition, significant changes in computer technologies offer substantive new tools and resources for empowering teaching and learning science that can complement experiences in the school laboratory.”
                      ======================
                      Concerning your actual question relative to other experiments.

                      The paper under discussion stated: “•We question the safety conditions in which such experiments do take place with a view to avoid environmental contaminations due the reagents used and the products obtained during the tutorial classes, and we wonder about the sterilization, autoclave and decontamination equipment of high schools.”
                      ————————————–
                      I am not in a position to determine what % of French High Schools have sufficient equipment at present to handle this experiment for many students at the 10th grade. I assume that many would be able to handle the demands of a small advanced class. However, I presented links to references that laboratory costs are a major consideration in the “real world”.
                      —————————————

                    • “At the high school level, in addition to the cost and possible dangers of GMO type experiments, one has the “real” problem of whether the teacher has the background to effectively teach a subject this complex.”

                      Henry, your sentence as structured above strongly implies that you are talking about the cost of GMO-type experiments, where “GMO-type” is an important adjective. If you mean to say that the cost of laboratory experiments is too high, and this does not depend upon the GMO-type nature of the experiment, then that is a different argument. If so, then you are debating about the costs and risks and expertise for laboratory experiments in high school versus doing them in a virtual fashion on a computer – irrespective of the GMO or non-GMO-type of the experiments.
                      So let me get this straight, in your view, complex abstractions like DNA and genetic engineering (and evolution), etc, are too formal for high school biology students to have the opportunity to learn hands-on (and are only for advanced students), and costs should be cut by foregoing laboratory experiments in favor of computer learning? And this is a high school biology learning environment that will prepare all kids for being able to approach the world of modern biology that they will encounter when they graduate and go off on their own?

                      In all of this discussion, correct me if I am wrong, but you have never addressed how you think high school students – and I mean all of them and not just the advanced kids – will be able to learn enough about genetic engineering so that they can approach this topic in the “real world” and not be completely lost? (And not all these kids will go to college.)

                      If you can present a better idea than teaching all biology students about what genetic engineering is, and perhaps showing them, I’m all ears. Otherwise, the thing to do is figure out what is the best way to go about teaching it. To do it truly scientifically, programs and modules can be tested against one another for expected learning outcomes – and not dismissed by prejudice.

                    • Ewan R says:

                      Ewan, you gave a reply with no documentation on September 10, 2011 at 8:44 pm. Please provide some

                      I’m merely attempting to counteract your spree of documentation with no reply.

                      None of my claims require documentation. Any simpleton can look up the various claims.

                      There is negligible cost to doing simple transgenic experiments on e.coli – the company I used to work for produced kits specifically aimed at the high school audience for multiple different aspects of molecular biology – kit to teach a class of ~30 racks up at ~$100 – talking about the costs of equipment etc is equally silly and dull – electrophoresis equipment is generally easily obtained from local universities pro bono, a working autoclave is as simple as a pressure cooker (which one can likely find for under $20 at a yard sale) – and here I am not talking in the abstract – I worked as a science technician in a high school for just over 2 years, during which time we operated a pair of autoclaves just as described above – for sterilizing bacterial plates… which had been smeared with transgenic antibiotic resistant E.coli)

                      There are zero (in a meaningful sense, I know you’re ever enamoured with miniscule meaningless risks and unquantified (and unquantifiable) aspects of science, but frankly I think this obsession is silly and counterproductive) risks – we’re talking about very basic techniques which have been practiced widely over the past few decades in academic labs, industry labs, high school labs etc etc with no negative impact as any sensible person would categorize such.

                      The complexity of the subject, to get to a stage where one can do bacterial transformation, is vanishingly small, indeed doing the bloody transformation is part of coming to understand more fully the subject, and anyone who would argue that you require a full understanding of a subject to its deepest complexity (for yes, DNA can be amazingly complex to understand, but only an abject fool would suggest you require a deep understanding to perform simple techniques) is clearly a buffoon of the highest magnitude (I had my first experience working hands on with DNA before I’d ever encountered it in school – which is both a damning condemnation of the state of science education in the UK in the 80’s and 90’s and a glowing endorsement of the work experience program in the same period – apparently according to the ludicrous ideas of Seralini I should have been denied this opportunity – if a 13 year old with all the academic drive of a macadamia nut can understand it I’m assuming it will not be beyond all but the most challenged of students – and even here hands on experience likely trumps text-book teaching for this subset of kids (that is, at least, my experience) – it saddens me that anyone would harp on about culling practical experiments from students with less understanding of a subject as if it is some sort of positive thing – way to be part of the reason that even college graduates are increasingly ill informed about scientific issues.

    • Ewan R says:

      “I am also concerned that practical classes erode the time spent imparting knowledge of biology,” he adds.

      Does not correlate at all with

      Dr. Seralini is an expert in his field.

      Unless Seralini’s field is being a complete and utter moron.

      Transforming E.coli to be, for instance, kanamycin resistant, is utterly safe, anyone who suggests otherwise is completely clueless about transformation (given that any time you grow up transformed bacteria from a antibiotic resistance transformation you will generally have to test multiple colonies for your insery because some will, due to simple mutation, become resistant sans transformation – if I remember right last time I was doing transformations about 20% of the colonies I selected had no plasmid whatsoever – still grew fine on antibiotics though) – also to suggest no safety protocols are in place is utterly ignorant of how education systems operate in any remotely civilized country.

      Just because you don’t agree, vilifying him does not lead to intelligent debate.

      The man vilifies himself with the above quote about practical work getting in the way of biology – the mask is off, he isn’t a concerned impartial expert – he’s either a crackpot or has strings attached to his money that he ain’t talking about.

      Just give your reasons why High Schools should be able to manipultate DNA with no protocols.

      Hilarious juxtaposition “does not lead to intelligent debate” followed by a straw man arguement extraordinaire.

  7. Jonathan says:

    Bacteria exactly the same as those used in lab experiments coat every surface that you can see. Once transformed they will quickly lose their plasmid as soon as they are not under selection pressure from the lab medium (usually contains Kanamycin, Ampicillin or Tetracycline). Therefore there is no risk from doing these experiments. They are also daily routine for 99% of jobs that have a molecular biology content. I believe they should therefore be taught in schools as an introduction to what millions of people do in their job. Its the absolute basics in todays biotech/pharmaceutical industry.

    Seralini is a scaremonger in the pay of Greenpeace, the Humane Earth Foundation (look on his papers to see who funds his research) and various other anti-GM campaign groups that base their arguments on non-scientific arguments and ‘cherry-picked’ data.

    Jonathan

    • qetzal says:

      Actually, the bacteria that coat every surface we see are much worse than the ones used in lab experiments. The lab bacteria are highly attenuated E. coli that couldn’t survive outside of a test tube or petri dish. Decades ago, someone did an experiment where they drank a high density culture of lab E. coli. Except for a brief period immediately after, those bacteria were never again detected in the GI tracts of that researcher. This despite the fact that human colons are E. coli’s natural home. The lab strain just couldn’t compete against the ‘homies.’

      • ivan_denisovich says:

        If you have the reference for this (even a news article) I’d love to keep this in my pocket of Awesome Gross-out Lab Facts. Thanks! :)

  8. Eric Baumholder says:

    Seralini was instrumental in India’s decision to block Bt brinjal/eggplant/aubergine. Which makes him morally complicit in all the debt and illness resulting from India’s farmers needing to spray the crop with insecticides as often as 70 times per growing season.

    Seralini also has a libel suit pending in France, against a scientist who dared question the validity of Seralini’s work.

  9. Pam Ronald says:

    Karl, this is a beautifully written article and right on target. Thanks

  10. Roy says:

    Seralini is clearly terrified that high school students will figure out that he is an idiot…as well he should be!

  11. Henry Kuska says:

    With a title like “Seralini seeks to dilute biology education”, what can one expect about “providing factual information”?
    ————————————————
    Please provide what “factual information” that you read led to your statement: “has now spilled over into the inevitable conclusion that anything and everything GMO-like should be in advanced low-air-pressure biosafety labs only.”

    • Ewan R says:

      With a title like “Seralini seeks to dilute biology education”, what can one expect about “providing factual information”?

      Seralini is flat out quoted as saying “I am also concerned that practical classes erode the time spent imparting knowledge of biology” – how is this not absolutely in line with Seralini seeking to dilute biology education – they guy does not want school children to be taught biology in a meaningful way.

      Clearly the information that led to the statement that has apparently stuck in your craw (and way to go at continually being incapable of allowing for a little poetic licence) was

      Gilles-Eric Séralini, president of the organization’s scientific committee, says that CRIIGEN is in favour of genetic engineering, as long as it is properly controlled. But the necessary restrictions are not currently in place, he says.

      CRIIGEN “will urge the education ministry to impose a moratorium until a full debate on the question is organized”, says Séralini. “We believe such material should not be manipulated by students before they reach university.”

      now it should be abundantly apparent to anyone who hasn’t had a frontal lobotomy that Karl was employing a little hyerbolae to the situation, however it is just as scary that Seralini is so bugshit crazy and either ill informed or downright dishonest about the science that he feels this sort of work should be restricted only to those in university – so not only is his cabal of anti-science minions (a very apt term in this case as they are literally being anti-science here, to argue otherwise is simply stupid) against extending the molecular biology lab to 15 and 16 year olds, they also want to remove it from the curriculum of 17 and 18 year olds – frankly it wouldn’t be surprising if should they be succesful that they’d want to then push the boundary further – freshmen shouldnt be allowed to do this, then it should only be final year students, then only grad students etc etc

  12. Henry Kuska says:

    Ewan stated: ” how is this not absolutely in line with Seralini seeking to dilute biology education – they guy does not want school children to be taught biology in a meaningful way.”
    ————————————————-
    H. Kuska comment. Your conclusions appear much broader than the evidence presented.
    ——————————————-

    • Ewan R says:

      To teach any science in a meaningful way practical classes are (in my opinion at least, and based on my interactions with science teachers theirs also) an absolute must. If one is of the opinion that practical classes “erode the time spent imparting knowledge of biology” then clearly one wishes to remove then, or at least go a great way to reducing them, from the curriculum – this would both dilute biology education and stop school children being taught biology in a meaningful way.

      My conclusions follow directly from the evidence presented, something alas that Seralini can not claim for the bulk of his own conclusions.

  13. Henry Kuska says:

    The statement under discussion is apparently from an interview with Professor Seralini that was given before the Nature News publication date of 31 January 2011 : “I am also concerned that practical classes erode the time spent imparting knowledge of biology,”
    ———————————-
    To answer the question of what does he mean by this statement? I suggest that the readers of this thread read the official statement by CRIIGEN (Tuesday, 01 February 2011). The exact CRIIGEN statement that applies to the laboratory is: “We deeply regret that the time devoted to the teaching of this biotechnology (acquisition of a know-how) should infringe on the necessary time that ought to be devoted to the acquisition of knowledge in biology and observation (for the students to develop their observation skills).” http://www.criigen.org/SiteEn/index.php?option=com_content&task=blogsection&id=5&Itemid=84

    • Ewan R says:

      Po-tay-to, Po-tah-to

    • I fail to see how recognizing and picking out transformed colonies of bacteria is not helping to develop observational skills, not to mention the other steps involved. If they get to do something with PCR, that’s even better. Their justification based upon ‘concern’ for the proper use of time in biology classrooms does not explain their position. Ergo, another explanation must be sought. Two viable alternative hypotheses are that Seralini et al truly believe that this classroom demonstration is seriously risky to a degree not justified by the science, or, that they don’t like the cultural implications or results of the students becoming familiar with these methods. There is evidence for both, particularly the quote I cited about “trivializing” a sensitive subject.

      With regard to my rhetorical flourish that Henry has latched onto, I would like to describe my posts as I would a plant. They all have roots, some will go very deep. The leaves synthesize new information, and the stems provide a structure to make it all work together. As with most plants, my posts also have flowers. If you are wondering how it stands up, look at the roots. If you are curious about the way the new information gets put together, consult the leaves. But c’mon, don’t expect the flowers to serve as roots, leaves or stems. They are there to keep your attention – they’re not what makes the post stand up, but to stand out.

  14. Charles M. Rader says:

    I conjecture that M. Seralini has a different motive.

    The anti-GMO propagandists like to portray genetic engineering as a very unnatural and arcane science. But in fact, when you actually do biotechnology, a lot of what you do can be done with stuff you have in your own kitchen. Besides the materials like soap and alcohol, you may need some esoteric substances most of us don’t have handy, like restriction enzymes, but they are items recovered from nature. Perhaps M. Seralini would like to keep the genetic engineering process mysterious, hence easier to demonize.

    • ivan_denisovich says:

      “Perhaps M. Seralini would like to keep the genetic engineering process mysterious, hence easier to demonize.”
      This seems to the point.

  15. Eric Baumholder says:

    I’m with Mr./Dr. Rader on this issue.

    Heading the list of Seralini’s concerns is the “trivialization of a sensitive subject”. Once physically working with genes is found to be trivial, it will no longer be a sensitive subject.

    That’s part of what we call ‘scientific literacy’, one intention of which is to make consumers/voters less susceptible to peddlers of misinformation.

  16. Henry Kuska says:

    ——————————-
    Ewan R on September 12, 2011 at 11:38 am replied (thank you) to my request for documentation concerning his comments: “Cost – negligible.
    Dangers – zero.
    Complexity of the subject – vanishingly small.”
    ——————————————————
    H.Kuska comment. In my early University teaching, I did a number of things similar to what you suggest to save laboratory costs. I will cite the most extreme example. Early on I would go to K-Mart to buy plastic dish rinsing containers. Later, we had to buy the approved plastic container from a chemical supply house. Why? Who actually knows – possibility – insurance liability – what if the K-Mart plastic was too course and harbored “bad things”. (Needless to say they would probably have had a stroke if I purchased used non laboratory certified pressure coolers!) Early on, I would buy used refrigerators (my own money) and modify them to be explosion proof, but that later was a no-no. They must go out for bid to chemical supply houses for certified safety refrigerators.
    The following link shows the present initial kits costs of (what I think are for a set of similar experiments to the one being discussed here):
    http://www.carolina.com/nav/i/category/life+science/ap+biology/ap+biology+kits/green+gene+colony+transformation+kit+student+teach/r/technique/bacterial+transformation/n/4294967147.do?sortby=ourPicks
    Please note that some of these costs are for 4/8 students. Thse costs may be acceptable in a small senior AP couse, but please remember we are discussing two sophmore level courses that have much higher enrollements. (Also chemicals are now a cradle to grave expense.}

    • Ewan R says:

      4-8 student station kits, not 4-8 students, students can work in pairs, threes, or fours (as I worked in fours at freshman level in university I don’t see this being a major drawback in a highschool setting) – so ~$100 for a whole class just as I stated above.

      A half way competent (pun intended, for anyone who gets it!) teacher would likey be able to fudge their way through the chemicals (it’s not like any of the media are hard to produce, and given that you have a pressure cooker anyway sterilization is mad easy)

      I’d guess that compares reasonably favorably with various chemistry experiments done on similar scales (we used to do all manner of titrations, group I metal experiments, explosive balloons and whatnot, whereas the biology lot tended to stick to pig hearts (hours of endless fun cleaning clots out so that poor lil students didn’t have to bother) bought in bulk from the local butcher with a little mol biol stuck in at the end)

      • Henry Kuska says:

        I am familar with groups of 4 in project type experiments where the students are responsible for designing the experiment. It is my understanding that this is often done in advanced placement type courses.
        ————————————–
        I would question the effectness of 4 students per experiment in sophmore general biology laboratories. I could not find any literature on studies of effectiveness of doing this. I would guess that it is pure and simple a cost saving technique (for example only half the number of labs would have to be scheduled).
        —————————————–
        Regarding the statement: “I’d guess that compares reasonably favorably with various chemistry experiments done on similar scales”.
        I have already pointed out that my statement of costs was relative to my proposal to educate the masses by using an electronic presentation, see: my post on September 10, 2011 at 10:55 pm .

  17. Henry Kuska says:

    Karl stated on September 10, 2011 at 11:37 pm

    “In all of this discussion, correct me if I am wrong, but you have never addressed how you think high school students – and I mean all of them and not just the advanced kids – will be able to learn enough about genetic engineering so that they can approach this topic in the “real world” and not be completely lost? (And not all these kids will go to college.)”
    H.Kuska comment. On September 10, 2011 at 9:43 am I proposed the following: “Industrial scientists in cooperation with teachers may be able to prepare a “GMO learning” “guest lecture” type computer based module.”

    • Henry, guest lectures from experts from the industry could help, however not every school will be able to have that luxury. Not every school has capable industries nearby, and not all will be able to get someone to come, particularly for all the classes in the day. Therefore, your proposal needs more critical analysis.

      • Henry Kuska says:

        The use of “guest lecture” has to be put in context (notice the next word “type”. I am talking about the “guest lecture” being a computer based module. “Industrial scientists in cooperation with teachers may be able to prepare a “GMO learning” “guest lecture” type computer based module.”
        ————————————
        The module would only have to prepared once (per country/language?), say with a government or industry education materials grant. After that the costs are of distribution. (Assuming that high schools have the electronics to present the module.)

      • I see. It helps to explain a little more about it. You’re just talking about putting together a video – not a guest lecture. I’d be more interested in making it a video about genetic engineering, plus a second one on how to perform the laboratory experiment in-class. I guess this is not very close to what I thought you were talking about.

    • By the way, as an afterthought – I wish to note a change in your apparent position, Henry. (It has been difficult to ascertain your precise position given that quotes from other people are being preferred over your own words.) You have indicated in your arguments against a genetic engineering lab experiment in high school classrooms several obstacles, in your opinion, to such a lab being useful for students as a learning experience. Such as, difficulties in teaching formal concepts, the complexity of the issue, etc. By suggesting this industry + computer educational module in answer to my question about how to prepare students for the topic of genetic engineering, that suggests that you do not believe that these obstacles are really obstacles at all if you believe the subject can be taught effectively for the students.

      So by answering my question you’ve fallen into my little trap… muh hah hah! You have implied that it is not too complicated for them to grasp at all. It would have been so much easier to say this up front rather than traveling through all manner of distracting quotes and references, merely to arrive at a position not too far from my own. Your suggestion of an industry rep also leaves open the possibility that an in-class transformation experiment is possible, because they would have expertise and could see about the risk-related issues. Not only that, but if the company wishes to sponsor such an event, the cost could evaporate. I wonder, would this satisfy some of your objections to the in-class genetic engineering demonstration?
      (Again, this would only be really feasible if an industry scientist is available in the area.)

      • Note the near-simultaneous comments by myself and Henry. I was writing the longer comment under the assumption that Henry’s module involved an in-person industry rep rather the pre-recorded video that he explained in a comment posted while I was writing mine. I still think that the students should be able to have the opportunity to do something more hands-on than sitting in front of a computer watching a scientist talk about GE. (Yes there would be some sort of interactive component, of course, but there is value in going through the transformation activity in-person.)

        There are other possible ways to present GE to kids, notably this idea: http://www.biofortified.org/2011/04/april-fools-comes-in-a-shiny-box/

      • Henry Kuska says:

        Karl stated: “So by answering my question you’ve fallen into my little trap… muh hah hah! You have implied that it is not too complicated for them to grasp at all.”
        —————————————
        My original statement (involving concrete thinking) was on September 9, 2011 at 8:18 am: “H.Kuska comment. Teaching advanced biological concepts at the EARLY high school level is complicated by the fact that: “It appears that about one-third of 10th grade biology students consistently demonstrate concrete reasoning and only about one-fifth consistently show formal reasoning.”
        ————————————
        Please note the use os “is complicated”. Students at the concrete level can be be taught with the appropriate techniques: http://www.designedinstruction.com/learningleads/c-r-a-strategy.html
        ————————————-
        It is not a static “doomed for life” issue. Seniors in a AP course can be taught one way, sophmores in a general biology require different techniques. This sub thread is about my comment: “In my mind there is a huge difference between: 1) teaching recombinant DNA in an advanced topic and corresponding laboratory experiment to a second biology AP type course to select Juniors or Seniors.
        and
        2) teaching all sophmores in general education biology and technological education biology about recombinant DNA to the level necessary that the corresponding laboratory experiment would be meaningful.”
        ————————————————-
        Please notice “to the level necessary that the corresponding laboratory experiment would be meaningful.”
        ————————————————
        That is different than your request: “will be able to learn enough about genetic engineering so that they can approach this topic in the “real world” and not be completely lost?”
        ———————————————–
        For your request I suggested the “learing module”.

  18. ivan_denisovich says:

    It occurs to me that no one here has first-hand knowledge of current biology class curriculum. From what I can gather, Karl and Ewan are graduate students or post-docs. Henry’s a professor emeritus, and I am just a water resources/climate scientist (thus, not able to really “engage” with everybody on the finer points). Wouldn’t it be great to see what the current thinking from current high school teachers is? The university crowd might think they know what its like to teach sophomores in high school biology, but the population represented in this forum is so biased towards high-achievers that its hard to know what a regular mix of students can handle.
    I was a biology/chemistry/physics geek in high school, and my undergraduate degree is in biology. I tend to agree with Henry’s dusty references (circa 70’s/80’s) regarding the cognitive ability to process and understand material. However, acknowledging the limitations of material available in 70’s/80’s (e.g. no computers, no VCR’s, etc.) its hard to compare those educational settings to what we have now in 2012, and the future educational settings that these policies will undoubtedly shape.
    The link Henry provided regarding the recent PhD thesis is very interesting (here’s the link again: http://goo.gl/MQnZs). The quote Henry used before:
    “Students desire to understand the why do, the how to, and the what it means of laboratory experiences. Lacking any one of these, the experience loses educational value for them. This single recurring theme crossed the boundaries of age, level in school, gender, and even the student view of lab experiences as positive or negative”
    HENRY KUSKA, SEPTEMBER 9, 2011….. !
    The fact that the theme crossed the boundaries of age suggests that using the notions of “cognitive development” from Henry’s dusty references are inconsistent with this modern work, given that the basis for the argument (a lack of of cognitive facility) is using 10th-grade/sophomore status as a proxy for age, which turns out to not matter (again, according to the PhD thesis).

    Its also worth considering that (a) this PhD was conducted by a teacher at the high school in question (from the Acknowledgements page: “My fellow teachers at Roosevelt High School”) and that (b) the responses were from a single high school. The fact that the author is a teacher is helpful, but the fact that the results come from a single school imply representation of just that school, not the broader population as a whole.

    Henry: Hats off for the diligence in noting time, date, commenter, and references. Your Borg-like method is maddeningly efficient at both riling up myself (and probably others), and making responding very easy. Keep it up!

    • Ewan R says:

      Actually I have a BSc only, and worked in a high school for 2 years (as a science technician, lowly but pretty hands on as to what various students can, and cannot handle).

      I just uses big words and pretends at the book lernin’ (plus I love what I do, and most my colleagues have doctorates and publications out the wazoo, so in order to tread water intellectually a certain amount of work has to be undertaken)

      Now someone needs to either put a bullet in the skull of this thread, or assume it is our saviour, as it has arisen from the dead.

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