Biology Fortified, Inc. Stronger life, stronger science, and stronger communication. Fri, 24 Oct 2014 01:00:48 +0000 en-US hourly 1 2014 Frankenfood Carving and Costume Contest Thu, 23 Oct 2014 19:32:53 +0000 ]]> Hello everyone! Frank N. Foode™ here to make an important announcement. October 31st – celebrated both as Halloween and the birthdate of this fine blog (what a coincidence?) is just around the corner. You know what that means? Oh yes, it is time for our annual Frankenfood Carving and Costume Contest!

In previous years, you’ve all stepped up and carved yourselves some gnarly pumpkins, assorted squash, and hacked up many other bounties from the harvest. You’ve also donned scary plant-based costumes. Well it’s time to grab the knives and sewing needles for another great contest with some awesome prizes!

Here are the rules:

  • This contest is open to everyone – you need not have ever commented on the blog before the day you enter in the contest.
  • You’ve seen the scary pictures. Needles in tomatoes, and corn with sharp jaws to bite off your fingers. This is what some people imagine GMOs are like. You and I know better, but that doesn’t mean we can’t have a little fun! Take a pumpkin, squash, corn, celery, you-name-it, and carve it up into the scariest, most OMG-worthy GMO you can think of. Stitch different plants together, make a real Frankenfood!
  • OR – make yourself a costume worthy of being seen in one of those GMO protests – or a counter-protest – dressed as a plant or something related to it! It’s your choice – and either one gets you into the contest.
  • Upload a photo of your mad creation to the forum. Or upload it to our Facebook Page.
  • To give you time to upload a picture from Halloween, the contest is open until November 2nd, at midnight Pacific time in the US.
  • The Biofortified Blog’s Editors will decide on a winner and announce it within the next week.

Pick some news during the past year and make fun of it. The scarier, the funnier, the more clever – the better!


What is a contest without prizes? For our winners, you get your choice of a Frank N. Foode™ or Lanakila Papaya™ plushie sent to you, and our first place winners will get their choice of one of the books on our prize page as well. Now if we get a lot of entries, we’re going to throw in some more prizes just to make it interesting!

So go! Run out to the field and find a worthy cucurbit, grab your surgical tools (be safe!), and make us some monsters! Can you top last year’s winner?



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Review of “Complete Genes May Pass from Food to Human Blood” Mon, 13 Oct 2014 10:02:17 +0000 ]]> The 2013 PLoS One article Complete Genes May Pass from Food to Human Blood is often used as evidence that genes from GMO can “transfer” into our bodies (such as in this article from Collective Evolution). In this post, I’d like to review the paper with you and discuss this nightmare-inducing scenario.

The authors of the paper examined the content of DNA outside the human cell, known as “cell free DNA” or cfDNA. As a reminder, the DNA we inherit from both our parents is packed up nicely and tucked away within the nucleus of the cell. The paper outlines that the source of DNA in our plasma (i.e. the stuff that’s in the space between our cells) is thought to originate from cells that have died. However, there are also foreign sources of DNA in plasma from bacteria, viruses, and from our food. Fetal DNA can also be detected in maternal plasma and is the basis for non-invasive prenatal testing (NIPT).

The authors of the paper took 200 blood samples from 4 different types of patients who had different intestinal diagnoses, and included patients with no symptoms as their control. They separated the blood cells from the plasma, extracted the DNA and pooled the DNA from each group. So, for example, if there were 50 patients with irritable bowel syndrome and 50 control patients, each group of 50 was pooled into a single tube so that there were only 2 samples at the end: one sample representing the irritable bowel syndrome patients and another representing controls. They sequenced the DNA in the pools.

The authors threw out all the DNA sequences from vertabraes because a) they weren’t interested in human DNA sequences and b) it would be difficult to tell what organism the DNA came from due to similarities in DNA sequences (after all, we’re more similar to chickens than we’d like to believe). They took the remaining DNA samples and compared them to a database of sequences of chloroplast DNA.

Chloroplast DNA is unique because it is separate from the DNA found in the nucleus of plant cells. It is circular and there are multiple copies of chloroplast DNA in each plant cell (sounds a bit like mitochondrial DNA, if you’re familiar with that from 23&Me or other ancestry DNA sequencing services). The authors found that there were quite a few chloroplast DNA sequences, particularly sequences for potato and tomato chloroplast.

Then, they wanted to determine the original size of the DNA fragment. It is generally thought that most DNA gets fragmented during digestion, so if the authors could demonstrate that the DNA sequenced was long, then they might be able to make a case that entire genes could be floating around. THAT would be a pretty interesting finding. However, this is pretty difficult to demonstrate because during the process of preparing a sample for sequencing, you generally chop up the DNA into bits and pieces.

Here’s an analogy. Imagine that the preparation of a sample for sequencing is like baking cookies and the DNA are walnut pieces that go into the batter. You get a bag of walnut pieces, which may contain a few whole walnuts. The recipe calls for throwing the walnut pieces into the food processor before you add them to the cookie batter. So, how do you figure out how many whole walnut pieces were in the original bag, if any at all, based on the walnut pieces in the final cookies??

To get around this conundrum, the authors physically filtered the DNA according to size. They had 3 filtration sizes which became 3 different samples. Each sample was then chopped up. When it was sequenced, they could infer that the DNA’s original size was larger than the filtration cutoff. If we go back to our walnut analogy, imagine that you take the bag of walnut pieces and pass it through a 1/2 inch sieve. Everything that gets caught goes in one bowl. Then you take the stuff that went through and you pass it through a 1/4 inch sieve. You repeat the process with a 1/8 inch sieve. Then you take the 3 bowls of walnuts and you put each one of them through the food processor, make the cookie batter, and end up with 3 batches of cookies. All 3 batches will have roughly the same walnut size, but you can infer that the original starting size of the walnut pieces was >1/2″, 1/2-1/4″, and 1/4″-1/8″.

The authors infer that a lot of DNA sequence came from the largest filter size in patients diagnosed with irritable bowel syndrome (IBS). The filter size that they used was 10 kilobases. If you consider that the average size of a human gene is 10-15 kilobases, it implies that most of the cell-free DNA in patients with IBS is large enough to have a gene in it.

The authors then wanted to confirm their findings. They searched publicly available DNA databases and found 909 samples of cell-free DNA, representing 907 individuals. They also found non-human DNA in the electronic data, but noted that the amount that was present had “large variations” from person to person. They followed the same data analysis workflow as before. The DNA in the public databases came from 2 projects: one project was studying patients with an autoimmune disorder and the second was trying to detect fetal DNA in pregnant women. Here’s the breakdown of the DNA from the two studies.

  1. Autoimmune disorder: The most common matches were to chloroplast DNA from Brassica rapa, as well as orange. The authors state that there’s a lot of plant DNA in these samples when compared to control. Since this is the same observation noted in the patients with irritable bowel syndrome, the authors state that high levels of plant DNA circulating in plasma may be associated with inflammation.
  2. Pregnant women: The authors were able to determine that the most common match to chloroplast DNA were from soybean. Additionally, since these samples weren’t actually pooled together (i.e., each sample was sequenced independently), the authors were able to identify differences in the abundance of plant DNA in these samples, which represents differences in the diets of the pregnant women. This finding suggests that the plant DNA detected in these samples are not actually contaminants.

The authors conclude that the presence of foreign DNA in the plasma is not unusual, that its concentration is highest in patients with inflammation, and that these findings should lead us to revisit our views on the degradation and absorption of DNA/RNA in our bodies.

I think that the finding that there is plant DNA circulating in our bodies isn’t a big deal. The paper provides several references for studies that have examined this issue and have found DNA from our food in our organs and tissues (see here and here). However, what’s novel and unique in this paper is the suggestion that it’s whole genes, not gene fragments, that are circulating in our plasma and the suggestion that increased levels of circulating plant DNA may be associated with inflammation. As such, I’m going to focus on these unique findings from the paper.

I have several issues with the experiment the authors performed in their lab (i.e not the data analysis work on the plasma samples from autoimmune disorder patients or pregnant women):

1) Contamination. As I stated at the beginning of this piece, the authors are sequencing the DNA in the space between our cells. There’s very little DNA in there so the risk of sequencing a contaminant is high. It’s a matter of abundance: if you had actual cellular material, all that plant DNA would get drowned out by the vast amount of human DNA that you’d end up sequencing. The authors probably had very little DNA when they started, so any DNA from the environment or from their equipment could be mistaken for DNA from their samples.

Since the risk of contamination is higher, the authors should have included a negative control yet the authors failed to do this simple test. More recent studies have noted the importance of a negative control in experiments that use new sequencing technologies, particularly those with low biomass (full disclosure: I work for companies that develop sequencing technologies). Another paper’s finding suggest that contaminant sequencing “are ubiquitous” and that cross contamination between samples probably goes unnoticed. The absence of a negative control in this study, particularly given the little amount of DNA that they’re working with, is a glaring omission and should have been an important consideration in the experimental design.

2) The authors find high levels of tomato and potato DNA in all their samples. This doesn’t make much sense to me. Why would the authors find the same two DNA samples to be of highest abundance in all the different patient types and filtration sizes? As seen in the study with pregnant women, there should be variation between the different groups. I know that tomatoes definitely don’t make up the biggest part of my veggie/fruit diet, so this strikes me as odd.

3) The authors find abnormally high levels of plant DNA in the irritable bowel syndrome patients, but only for the largest filtration size. The authors conclude that foreign DNA in plasma is elevated in patients with inflammation. As such, you’d expect to see increased levels of foreign DNA in every filtration size. However, the medium and small filtration sizes have plant DNA levels equivalent to the patients with no symptoms. There’s one thing that I think you can agree with: concluding that “plant DNA is elevated in patients with inflammation” is a HUGE conclusion to draw from a single sequencing run.

4) Filtration controls? Where are you? The authors infer DNA size based on physical separation of DNA. However, they have no controls. It would be fairly simple to just spike in DNA of different, but known, sizes (the use of a “ladder” in DNA size separation is very common, so it would have been trivial to do). This size control would have also helped determine contamination: if you find some of the large DNA control in the small DNA results, then you know that some sort of contamination may have occurred during the filtration process. It would be similar to placing a brazil nut, a hazelnut, and a peanut whose sizes you’ve measured into the walnut size separation. The brazil nut should filter out with the large walnut chunks, the hazelnut with the medium chunks and the peanut should end up in the small bits and pieces. If any pieces of these nuts appear in the “wrong” cookie batch, then you could conclude that there was contamination. Maybe you didn’t wash the blade on your food processor well enough. Or maybe you got carried away by the music you were playing in the kitchen and made an inadvertent mistake. Seriously. Anything is possible, and if you don’t have controls, you’ll never know.

5) Why chloroplast DNA? I think it’s odd that they focused exclusively on the  analysis of DNA from the chloroplast, and not the DNA from the nucleus of the plant cell. Is this truly reflective of all the DNA in the cell? Is it possible that due to the circular nature of chloroplast DNA, it can avoid degradation more readily? Since there are more copies of chloroplast DNA in each cell, how does this affect their findings?

But, let’s imagine that the findings of the paper are not an error and that someone else actually replicates the results. What does it mean?

  • This has little to do with GMOs. If a transgene is floating in our system, so is a full gene from a traditionally bred crop as well as any other cellular material we eat. It doesn’t matter if the DNA came from fried bacon, pesticide-laden spinach or organic blueberries: your body doesn’t know the difference and can’t pick/choose what DNA to absorb. This fact alone should debunk titles of articles such as “Genetically Modified DNA transfers from food to blood“.
  • The most important question: then what? There are two scenarios that I can think of (but please feel free to comment below if you can think of something else):
    • Somehow these whole genes that are floating about have to make their way through the outermost layer of the cell (cell membrane), avoid getting degraded by proteins that chop up foreign DNA, make their way into the nucleus, and then somehow get integrated into the cell’s DNA (i.e. act like a virus even though it doesn’t have any of the viral proteins/genes). But let’s say that somehow one of these scenarios were to play out, and the gene that was floating about was the transgenic gene from a GM corn (the odds of this alone are 1 or 2 in 32000, since there are only 1-2 transgenic genes added to corn, which has 32000 genes). The DNA somehow manages to defy all odds and get made into RNA. The RNA will then be made into a protein. And let’s pretend that this happens stably: meaning that this protein keeps getting made. That’s 1 cell out of the 46-68 trillion in our body that is making a foreign protein. The two most likely fates for this protein produced by this single cell in your body is a) your immune system will take care of matters or b) the protein will just fade away (all proteins have a half life; they don’t just float around forever).
    • The second scenario is that the gene gets integrated into the DNA from the bacteria in our gut. Again: that’s one cell out of the 100 trillion bacteria in our gut. In order for it to proliferate and “take over”, the gene that gets integrated would somehow have to confer the bacteria some form of selective advantage. Why would that happen specifically with a transgene and not with anything else that we eat? Additionally, what sort of selective advantage would Bt-resistance, for example, give to the bacteria in our gut? With the microbiome sequencing projects that are currently underway, there’s no evidence to date that “gene integration from our food” happens.

However, if you want to lose sleep over these scenarios, go right ahead.  I’m more worried about the zombie apocalypse, and the CDC thinks you should be too.

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Jimmy Kimmel gives GMOs the Gluten treatment Thu, 09 Oct 2014 19:29:35 +0000 ]]> Jimmy Kimmel jumped into the discussion of the “Gluten-free” trend, showing that many people who avoided wheat gluten did not understand what it was or why they were avoiding it. Now, Jimmy Kimmel has done the same thing with GMOs. He sent a film crew to a farmer’s market to find out if people avoided GMOs, why, and what “GMO” stood for. This is the hilarious result.

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The day I unwittingly became a pro-science activist Fri, 03 Oct 2014 02:42:51 +0000 ]]> fun facts

What kinds of Fun ‘Facts’ Fester in yonder tent? Credit: Jeff Fountain

Early this September I attended the National Heirloom Expo in Santa Rosa.  It’s an event that’s centered around the pure food movement, heirloom vegetables, and anti-GMO activism.  The speakers included Joseph Mercola, Jeffrey Smith, Andrew Kimbrell, and my personal favorite pseudoscientist, Vani Hari, a.k.a. the Food Babe.  For those unfamiliar with Food Babe, she is an anti-GMO, pro-organic public figure who attacks food and agricultural companies for what are essentially harmless practices.  The reason I mention her is because she inspired me to start my own Facebook parody page called Food Hunk, which is what sort of drove my foray into ‘activism’.  Food Hunk is to Food Babe, what Stephen Colbert is to Bill O’Reilly.  I joined a community of other wonderful Food Babe critics such as Chow Babe and Science Babe, with my page being a bit of a broader commentary on fallacious ways of thinking, such as the all-too-common naturalistic fallacy.

I’ve been interested in science all of my life, but only in the last few years have I become more involved with skepticism and the idea that you don’t need to be a scientist to think like a scientist.  As usually proliferated on social media, a constant barrage of anti-GMO fear mongering flooded my Facebook feed on a daily basis. I started trying to counter these claims with sound science.  Because many of those spreading erroneous info were good friends, I felt compelled to actually know what I was talking about and inform them, instead of simply calling them out their ignorance.  I became active in various online forums devoted to exploring the issue of genetic engineering, and found myself learning from some of the best science communicators on the topic.  Upon realizing that I couldn’t learn enough, I decided to go back to school and learn about biotechnology.  I’d recently left my fifteen-year career working in the wine industry and was exploring my passion for science.  My wife found a certificate program at CCSF called Bridge to Biosciences where I am enrolled today.  I am nowhere near as educated as many of the people I correspond with about science, but I’m always trying to learn and never pretend to wield knowledge I don’t have.  In my opinion, this is one of the most important components of skepticism.  If more people only stopped pretending to know what they do not know, we wouldn’t see the blatant misinformation that so predominantly surrounds the topic of GMOs.

Recently I was in a GMO enthusiast forum, when I noticed a post from Karl at Biology Fortified.  He mentioned the Heirloom Expo and was asking if anyone from the Bay Area was going to attend.  Santa Rosa is only about an hour from where I live, and so after realizing I didn’t really have anything planned for the day I thought, “How could I possibly pass up the opportunity to introduce Food Hunk to Food Babe?”  I put on my ‘I love GMOs’ t-shirt, (carefully concealed under my sweatshirt) and hit the road to Santa Rosa.


Zen Honeycutt at the Moms Across America booth. Credit: Jeff Fountain

My modest intention was to snap a few pictures and possibly end up with a nice photo of the Hunk and the Babe for my Facebook page.  At this point I was still sporting a hoodie over my pro-science t-shirt.  I had an ongoing line of communication with my pro-GMO internet collaborators, joking that I felt like Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver, or a democrat at a Tea Party rally.  I truly began to feel alone, particularly as I walked past the booths of anti-biotechnology organizations like GMO Inside and Moms Across America.  They were handing out flyers damning GMOs as if they were trying to rid the world of malaria, and here I was secretly concealing my ‘I Love Malaria’ t-shirt.  Thankfully I felt like I had all 7000 member of the Facebook group (GMOLOL) cheering me on and offering suggestions for questions to ask the speakers.  My initial intention of possibly snapping a few photos to use as gags, started to turn into a feeling of not wanting to let my compadres down.  However, I soon learned that a documentary film crew was at the expo, and after talking with one of them, I learned they were looking for someone, anyone, to ask thoughtful questions during the Q and A with the speakers, rather than just joining everyone in nodding their heads in the crowd.  This had me a little more interested. I agreed to try and pose some questions for the film crew, and first up – Vani Hari.

I sat down near the front of the stage so I could easily pose a question if given the chance.  I had my question planned out.  The Food Babe’s most recent scare-campaign was directed at Starbucks Coffee for their Pumpkin Spice Latte.  In her ‘investigation’ she cites the International Agency for Research on Cancer as having grouped one of the chemicals found in caramel color (used in the beverage) as a ‘possible carcinogen’.  What she fails to mention is that the IARC also groups coffee itself as a possible carcinogen (group 2B), along with pickled vegetables and the cell phone in your pocket.  In fact the highest level they categorize (group 1, two levels above 2B) includes outdoor air pollution and alcoholic beverages.  If we are to use Food Babe’s judgment of what is ‘harmful’, we would be at a much higher risk by enjoying a nice glass of wine in the outdoor seating of a quaint little bistro in LA.  My question would be simple: “According to the IARC, what poses a higher risk of carcinogenic exposure, caramel color or the coffee itself?”  I never got a chance to ask her that question.


Vani Hari, aka the “Food Babe” spreading Fear, Uncertainty, and Doubt (FUD). Credit: Jeff Fountain

What I’m going to recount next may resemble conspiracy, but I’m almost certain that Food Babe knew exactly who I was when she entered the auditorium.  Before going on stage, she stared right at me (I was only about 15 feet away), and summoned her handlers and event coordinator. They all whispered covertly for half a minute while occasionally glancing over at me.  For a moment I thought I might be asked to leave.  Keep in mind that I am still wearing my sweatshirt over my GMO shirt, and at this point I hadn’t spoken to anyone at the event about my intentions of being there.  But I had been all over Facebook posting about it in public groups.  I also know that she, or more likely someone that works for her, ironically pre-banned members of a Facebook group called Banned by the Food Babe.  You see, she has a reputation for immediately silencing anyone who dares ask actual science questions on her page, and so a group was created for people to discuss their bannings.  Many members were surprised to find out that they had been preemptively silenced just by joining this public group.  Thus, it makes logical sense to conclude that she must also know about the various Food Babe parody pages, and my face is plastered all over mine.  In fact, after hearing her speak and noticing just how concerned she was about herself and her image, I’ve concluded that there is no way that she could NOT know about a semi-popular Facebook page that is making fun of her.  My suspicions were further confirmed when I later saw her walking alone through another area of the expo.  She spotted me and quickly looked away.  She then met up with her handlers and they pulled the ‘don’t look now, but that’s the guy’ routine, which of course means all four of them simultaneously turned around and checked me out as they scampered away.  At the risk of sounding like a stalker, I only wanted to ask her a question.

Vani’s talk conveniently ran long and she decided not to field questions.  She stuck around to take some photos with fans, and when I tried to join the party, she avoided me like the plague.  I decided that since there would be no ‘Food Hunk meets Food Babe’ photo op, there was no more need to hide my true identity.  The sweatshirt was coming off.

Strangely, the very first interaction I had with anyone while wearing my pro-GMO shirt was with the infamous Jeffrey Smith himself.  For those unaware of Jeffrey Smith, he is an anti-GMO, pseudo-science promoting author, documentarian, and former politician for the obscure Natural Law party.  He was walking alone when I asked if I could take a picture with him.  He said, “Absolutely not. Not with an ‘I Love GMOs t-shirt’” I responded “Why, don’t you love insulin?” He kind of snickered so I asked one more time, “Please, just one picture?” He refused and walked away.

It was fascinating wearing my ‘I love GMOs’ t-shirt to the event.  I was receiving looks of real, visceral anger.  I even experienced some schoolyard bullying type of behavior, with people purposefully refusing to move as I walked by, or sticking out their elbows hoping to get a jab.  I remained respectful, never antagonizing anyone, even when people remarked about my shirt or my questions to the panel in disgust.  The best way I can describe it is this: through their lens, they were like a convention full of astrophysicists, and I was a moon landing denier.  They just couldn’t fathom how uninformed I was.  Yet when they questioned me, they were surprised at my tangible knowledge and desire for respectful conversation.  This wasn’t what they were expecting; they were either hoping to teach me something, or to be rude or hostile.  Still, I hesitate to keep referring to ‘them’ as if they are the enemy.  The people at this expo were mostly just good, well-intentioned people who want to do what’s right.  The problem is they don’t realize how full of crap the Jeffrey Smiths and the Vani Haris of this world are.  If everyone realized it, there wouldn’t be any Jeffrey Smiths.

food is medicine

It wasn’t all anti-GMO posturing at the expo, there were also some heirloom crops. Credit: Jeff Fountain

The Q & As with Andrew Kimbrell (another well-known GMO oppose) and Jeffrey Smith had me the most wary.  I have a decent understanding of the science behind genetic modification, but nobody can obfuscate and use ‘sciencey’ sounding double-talk like these guys.  Finally, opportunity struck and I asked if Andrew thought there was any inherent danger to GM technology, and whether there could be ‘good’ or useful applications for genetic modification through gene transfer.  I continued by citing examples of recent advancements in disease treatment. (Gaucher’s disease, Ebola, etc.)  To paraphrase, he responded by discussing the difference between prokaryotic and eukaryotic cells.  My guess is that he knew this jargon would only serve to confuse and simultaneously impress the majority of the audience.  He then completely twisted and botched the science into concluding with “No. There are no good uses because it doesn’t work” even though I just given him perfect examples of beneficial applications.  As Karl later explained to me, he has latched onto the canard that “genetic engineering is based on obsolete science” and he brings up the 1-gene-1-protein hypothesis and that genetics has disproven that.  He twists this to mean that GMOs don’t work.  However, the fact that some genes can code for different proteins does not in any way imply that transgenes don’t work – or even that they code for multiple proteins.  Nevertheless, Mr. Kimbrell can get away scot-free lying to good people by using a meaningless phrase like “GM does not work.”  Forget about the fact that he just spent half an hour trying to frighten a gymnasium full of people about the dangers of herbicide resistance, and Bt expressing corn – both traits introduced by GM technology that clearly “works.” Unfortunately, the majority of the audience doesn’t see the contradiction in these statements.

For the next speaker, Jeffrey Smith, I didn’t have questions prepared.  I just wanted to listen and pose whatever questions came up.  Eventually, he ended up living up to his M.O. by trying to scare people with debunked claims of GMO causing “leaky gut,” and links to autism, ADHD, Alzheimer’s, cancer, diabetes.  I asked him if that were the case, why do we see the same rates of these diseases and conditions in the European Union? He at first stammered about the EU still using glyphosate, but he had just said that it was the Bt corn causing the leaky gut, not the glyphosate resistance.  So I followed up by asking if it was because of pesticides, and not because of any inherent defect or danger in GMOs?  He started citing the debunked, fraudulent Seralini study, directing his attention towards an audience that probably didn’t know any better.  And then to my disbelief he said something to the effect of, “We know that correlation does not imply causation, but with what we know about Monsanto, and the government, and the industry-funded studies, and the USDA,… that’s when you get the causation.”

I said out loud to myself, and probably audible to a few people seated around me, “No, that’s when you get a conspiracy.”

After the Smith talk, I was standing outside the auditorium and reporting back to my siblings-in-arms on my smart phone.  An older white-haired farmer-type gentleman (a guess for sure – I don’t know what he did for a living) followed me out of the building and wanted to talk. He carefully whispered while looking over his shoulder, “I tell ya, you got a lot of balls wearing that shirt here with these people, but I think you’re right.  I listen to these guys, and the science is just not there.”  We talked for a few minutes and it was one of my favorite moments of the event.

expo collage

Lots going on at the expo. Credit: Jeff Fountain

I don’t know how much of this, or if any of it is ever going to see the light of day in the documentary that was being filmed.  I know they can film countless hours of footage and most of it hits the cutting room floor.  I found out later that the director was nominated for an Oscar a few years ago. He took a few minutes to interview me on camera about what I was doing there, and I got to tell him about my page.  Again, I seriously doubt that any of it will be used in the film, but I’ll forever be able to tell my friends that I was interviewed by an Oscar nominated filmmaker about ‘Food Hunk’.  I’m still trying to wrap my brain around that.

Overall I’m happy with how things went in my first small attempt at pro-science activism.  But can we really call the act of simply asking questions ‘activism’?

I do know one thing: If this event comes back around next year and it’s hosting the same brand of anti-science speakers, I’m going to be there again.  Only this time I’m going to be more prepared, and I’m bringing friends.

Editor’s note: Special thanks to Kavin Senapathy for providing editorial input for this post.

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Don’t believe what Dr. Oz is saying about an agricultural herbicide Wed, 24 Sep 2014 14:46:50 +0000 ]]> Dr+Oz+Wikipedia

Dr. Oz. Source: Wikipedia

Television personality Dr Oz has released a video which talks about an agricultural product called Enlist Duo.  Virtually nothing in this video is presented accurately.  It is a prime example of fear-mongering around the issues of “GMOs” and pesticides.  I’d like to respond, point by point, to what it says that is not true or misleading.  Dr Oz’s statements/image descriptions will be in red:

“The EPA is on the brink of approving a brand new toxic pesticide you don’t know about.”

The product in question, Enlist Duo is a combination of two very old herbicide products:  2,4-D and glyphosate. A great many consumers do know about these materials because they have been approved for homeowner use for decades and are common ingredients in products available at any neighborhood gardening center.  These chemicals are still approved for use in more than 70 countries around the world and for use in high exposure settings like lawns, parks, sports fields and gardens. They are still used this way because after multiple rounds of increasingly sophisticated scrutiny by regulators, they have been confirmed to be quite low in toxicity to humans and to the environment. This product is neither “brand new” nor is it notably “toxic.”

These products are for new GMO corn and soy crops that “survive even stronger pesticides.”

What does “stronger pesticide” mean?  The need for this mixture is that some weeds have evolved resistance to glyphosate. There is nothing unique about that associated with a biotech crop. Weeds have evolved resistance to all manner of control methods including mechanical tillage (some weeds like bindweed or Canada thistle are very well adapted to being chopped up and spread around a field by equipment).  The issue isn’t about something “stronger” but about something that is a mixture of two distinct “modes of action” which makes it harder for the weeds to adapt around the control.  The term “stronger” that Oz uses implies something about being more toxic or dangerous. That is not the case here.

This product includes “2,4-D  a chemical used in Agent Orange which the government banned during the Vietnam War.”  

As I have written before, this Agent Orange allusion is a callous exploitation of a real human tragedy.  The horrible health effects of that material were eventually found to have been caused by an unrecognized dioxin contaminant in one component of the herbicide mix, 2,4,5-T. It never was associated with the 2,4-D.  As you can imagine, while all of this was being sorted out, 2,4-D was intensively scrutinized.  The fact that it remains so widely approved around the world is only because its safety was confirmed in all these regulatory reviews.


Dr. Oz manipulates with inaccurate, life-sized graphics. Not even the plant is right. (Ears grow on the side-shoots of corn plants, not the top.)

These GMO crops (resistant to both herbicides) are “ushering in a pesticide arms race and the health of your brain could be the casualty.”

Again, the people who have been growing food for millennia have been fighting weeds and their ability to adapt to whatever methods we use to control them. Unless Dr Oz has some alternative suggestion, perhaps he should leave the topic of weed control to people who actually do this for a living and for our benefit.  Now as for the “health of your brain…”

“More than 1/2 million people wrote to the EPA” about this pesticide approval “including a letter signed by 35 prominent doctors, scientists and researchers” who raised concerns about “non-hodgkins lymphoma, Alzheimers and Parkinson’s disease.”

When a regulatory agency like the EPA or USDA has an open comment period about a pending decision, what they are looking for are relevant issues from a science point of view.  Its not about numbers of comments or whether the submitters are “prominent.”  The “35 prominent” signatories Oz describes are well known, perennial anti-GMO advocates.  If they had raised real health issues, the agency would have responded, but repeated and detailed risk analysis has never established a connection between these herbicides and human health issues.

“How concerned should you be about this product that could come to a farm near you?”

The image during this part of the video is of bell peppers and other such crops which have never been contemplated for the use of this technology. Throughout the video the images are mostly of crops and foods that have nothing to do with this product. The crops in question (as Oz himself says earlier) are corn and soybeans – crops mainly grown in regions far removed from Dr. Oz’s viewer-base. Even so, the “crops” nearest most of this audience would be their own lawns or their neighbor’s lawns, or the neighborhood park or sports field. These chemicals have been used there for decades. This is in no way a new threat in the context of the average American life.

“70-80% of the food we eat today contain GMOs.”

“GMO” is a meaningless term because essentially all crops have been “genetically modified” in some way throughout human history. That is why most of them are suitable for human consumption. There are ingredients in something like 70% of processed foods which originate from crops that have been improved via biotechnology.  There is nothing in those ingredients that is dangerous and in most cases there is not even anything related to the one or two genes that were different in the source plant.  Animals around the world have been eating these crops for feed for nearly two decades without any ill effects. Oz clearly makes this statement to sound ominous – but there is no basis for such a concern.

If this product is approved, “70 to 100 million pounds of additional, highly toxic pesticides will be used.”

OK, lets put this in a little perspective. Between corn and soybeans there are more than 150 million acres in the US, so the number Oz throws out represents less than a pound per acre. Herbicides were used on these crops long before biotech so this use isn’t really “additional.” Also, the term “highly toxic” simply does not apply to these materials from a human perspective.

At the end of this video clip, Oz speaks with a “concerned mom” who gives an anecdote about the improved health of her children after she switched to a “GMO-free diet” and “organic to avoid pesticides.”

First of all, one could find any number of anecdotal examples of families (like mine) that never made such a dietary choice, yet who never experienced the sort of health issues this mother described.  Second, by choosing organic she was not avoiding pesticides at all.  There are pesticides legally used on organic crops and there are often residues of other pesticides there as well.  Abundant data demonstrates the fact that most Americans would be best off to eat more fruits and vegetables because the benefits vastly outweigh any potential risks associated with pesticides.

Dr Oz may be an entertainer, but he is also in the fear business and in the supplement business – either directly or based on the sponsorship he gets because he can find an audience for these messages.  Oz normally gets by with this; however, he has been called on the carpet by Congress for some of the magical claims he has supported for certain weight reduction supplements.  I’m sure that Oz will have successfully frightened a huge number of people with this video.  I’m sure that will help drive his viewership and thus his sponsorship income. Unfortunately, society as a whole is worse off for the spread of this sort of disinformation.

You are welcome to comment here and/or to email me at

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Thomas Lang makes music for Frank N. Foode™ Mon, 22 Sep 2014 01:26:30 +0000 ]]> thomaslang-900As you know, we’re working on the music for our educational video series, Cooking with Frank N. Foode™, and we are seeking donations to help fund this important part of our new outreach project. Next, I want to introduce you to Thomas Lang, who composed the music for this series. We knew it would be a challenge to create music that fits the topics we would talk about on the show, and bring out both the science and the character of Frank N. Foode™. We were fortunate to not have to look very far to find Tom.

Several years ago, Ariela and I were already acquainted with Tom while he was a composition graduate student at UW-Madison. He worked in the campus music library, and he was a very helpful tutor and a fantastic composer, we soon learned. Three years ago we attended a concert that featured his award-winning piece, Music for Orchestra in However Many Incarnations, which was inspired by actors who played Dr. Who in Doctor Who.

Listen to the first movement (on YouTube) (William Hartnell)
Listen to the second movement (on YouTube) (Patrick Troughton)

Since I was doing a science radio show at the time on WSUM, we invited him to do an interview about his music, which  I told him sounded like early Jerry Goldsmith music. Because I used an array of science fiction soundtracks as theme music for the show, I was quite familiar with the different composers and their styles.

Three years later, when we realized that we needed fresh theme music for Cooking with Frank N. Foode™, Ariela naturally suggested we get in touch with Tom, who graduated with his doctorate and now resides in Minnesota. He was thrilled to take a stab at it, and we met several times via Skype to talk about the music and hear his samples and provide feedback. Ariela, the Musical Director for the project, helped bridge the language barrier between science and music. I’ve been really glad to have Tom’s help with our project, but let’s hear from Tom about what he thought!

Composing for Frank N. Foode™


Tom’s handwritten sheet music, before transcribing it to the computer.

I’ve always enjoyed collaborating across disciplines.  My first opportunity to do so was in 2007 when I worked with the Xperimental Theatre in Minneapolis, writing incidental and vocal music to accompany a new play by Harlan Chambers called “The Interrupted Dream.”  Since then, I have returned to various collaborations in one form or another, whether with visual artists, poets, or other performers.When Karl came to me with this project, writing music for an educational Internet video series, I couldn’t resist.  I’ve always felt an affinity towards music written for television and film, especially music from the classic series of Doctor Who, Star Trek: The Next Generation, anything by Alfred Hitchcock, and great swaths of music for the silent era, the film Metropolis in particular.

My work with Cooking with Frank N. Foode™ has been particularly enjoyable, however, as this is the first time I’m working with someone from outside the arts altogether.  Finding a common language to discuss what we have in mind is always a quite enlightening endeavor, for as we learn about each other, we learn about ourselves in turn.

Thanks for your support of this project!  I hope you’re looking forward to the world premiere of Episode 1 as much as I am!

I hope that we will have more chances to collaborate in the future! Indeed, with your support, we can continue to make great, new musical interpretations of science. I hope you will consider supporting our project. Next time you will hear about the musicians that we recruited to play the theme music.

Thomas Lang’s Bio:

Thomas C. Lang’s music has been performed at the LaCrosse New Music Festival, UW-Madison New Music in April Festival, the Interlochen Center for the Arts, the Pittsburgh Festival of New Music, the Bennington Chamber Music Conference, and by the reed trio Le Triangle d’Or, the percussion ensemble Clocks in Motion, the UW-Madison Contemporary Chamber Ensemble, the Winona State University Wind Ensemble, the Badger Bones Choir, and the University of Minnesota’s Xperimental Theatre.  In 2010, the first two movements of his Music for Orchestra in However Many Incarnations (each movement based on an actor who played the Doctor in Doctor Who) won the annual UW-Madison Symphony Orchestra Composition Competition, and they received their world premiere in February 2011.  His music has been broadcast on WORT 89.9, WSUM 91.7 and Wisconsin Public Radio.

Upcoming performances include his Sonata for Euphonium, Trombones, and Percussion, a commission from euphoniumist Brett Keating.  The sonata will receive its world premiere as a multimedia performance featuring the photography of Xavier Nuez.  Further upcoming performances include a commission from Pittsburgh’s Incidental Chamber Players, a work for flute, viola, and harp, and he will also serve as composer in residence for the group for their 2014-2015 season.

Thomas has taught as a TA in music theory at the UW-Madison School of Music, and as an instructor of music composition and advanced theory for the UW-Madison Summer Music Clinic.  He has also taught as a guest lecturer in music theory at the University of St. Thomas, and has presented masterclasses in music composition at Southwest High School in Minneapolis.  He currently teaches private lessons in composition and music theory out of his home in Minneapolis.

Thomas holds a Bachelor of Science in music education from Winona State University and a Master of Music and a Doctor of Musical Arts in composition from the UW-Madison.  Laura Schwendinger and Stephen Dembski have been his primary teachers in composition.

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Let’s make Music for Cooking with Frank N. Foode™! Thu, 18 Sep 2014 04:59:47 +0000 ]]> frank-papaya-mozart

Frank, Mozart, and Papaya enjoy some Viennese coffee together

As many of you may have heard, following the unboxing of our Frank N. Foode™ and Papaya plushies, we have placed the order for these plushies and the factory is beginning production. Not only that, but we managed to increase our order from the original 500 Franks and 250 Papayas to 750 Franks and 500 papayas! The tremendous amount of support and enthusiasm that we saw in our Kickstarter campaign and while we perfected the new designs has been phenomenal, and I personally can’t wait to get the boxes ready to ship as soon as the plushies arrive!

We know that Frank N. Foode™ is going to be a hit, and he will help us reach more people and make science more fun for them. Right now we are preparing to launch Frank into a whole new domain with cooking videos and science festivals – and to do that we need to make music! And we’re going to need your help.

Here at Biology Fortified, we have developed innovative approaches to science communication. Just recently, we launched our GENetic Engineering Risk Atlas, and it has reportedly been used in classrooms already. We’ve sought out scientists working on genetically engineered crops to do interviews and Q/As for the blog. We have given talks and engaged in debates and discussions in a variety of different forums, including and especially on our blog. We have many more projects that we’ve only hinted at, and some are still in the planning stages. We have a “citizen science” project coming up that you can get involved in (see more at the end of this post), and a snopes-style resource that is being built (by the same programmer who built GENERA). But one project that I’ve talked about for a long time now is finally coming to fruition: “Cooking with Frank N. Foode™!”

We teased about it in our Kickstarter. Our Twitter followers have seen pictures from film shoots and updates dropped here and there. Some of the artwork for this show has been seen as well, and a draft episode was aired at the Wisconsin Science Festival last year. I’m getting ready to release the first episode, and work on other episodes is ongoing. I’m excited to finally share my vision for this show with you!

We discovered that our eponymous Frank N. Foode™ makes plant genetics approachable for people. People have fun with the character, and when the plushies arrive it will be even more so! His tongue-in-cheek style would be perfect for a video series about cooking that would be fun and engaging, educational, and encourage people to cook and think about science, culture, and art. Based on my experience with a test audience at the Wisconsin Science Festival last year, it will be phenomenal.

Cooking with Frank N. Foode™


Dr. Dennis Gonsalves, my guest for the first episode of Cooking with Frank N. Foode™

Food has changed, and will continue to change. But these changes are not always easily seen, explained, and experienced by most people. Some of these changes are done through genetics, which is even more difficult to relate to the everyday lives of people. Other changes include chemistry, geography, and culture combined with history. It is ironic that we’re talking about food that people eat every day, yet these facts and issues remain in obscurity. I want to people to experience and relate to these issues, and think about them in new ways – in their kitchens.

There are plenty of cooking shows out there – and many are built more for entertainment and gawking at the skills of professional chefs and showing off cuisines and restaurant fare that are inaccessible to most people. This mirrors the current socioeconomically one-sided dialog over food. Instead, I grew up watching The Frugal Gourmet and Yan Can Cook. I find more value in learning to make and enjoy fantastic foods and making that possible for other people than watching other people eat something that I cannot.

Instead, each episode of Cooking with Frank N. Foode™ will present recipes that are accessible to everyone. The ingredients, tools, and techniques will not be expensive or hard to find. I want people to learn how to make something new, learn about the science involved, and complete the experience by actually making it at home! Each recipe will be analyzed by a Registered Dietitian so people can learn the nutrition facts and portion sizes and incorporate them into their everyday meals.

It is my hope that it will also help encourage people to cook more at home. New foods, new ways to look at classic foods, foods from various cultures, and easy directions is one part. But we’re also going to use social media to encourage home chefs to show off their creations, submit their own ideas, and make it cool and fun to cook!

There are also many different topics and issues that we will explore on the show. Genetically engineered foods will certainly be a big part of it, but there are many other changes in foods that we will explore. And while we explore the science of these changes, there are social and cultural issues that intersect these changes that we will explore as well! How did a genetic change or culinary technique change how we interact with food, and what will new changes mean for the future? Here are some foods and topics that I want to discuss in Cooking with Frank N. Foode™.

  • Hawaiian Papayas and genes moving between species
  • Bringing back the American Chestnut with breeding and genetic engineering
  • Transforming Jalapeños into Chipotles through smoking
  • Combining genomes with bread wheat, durum, and triticale
  • Non-browning fruits and vegetables and how it might change the foods we eat
  • Corn smut fungus as a friend, foe, and taco
  • A dish made from genetically engineered fish
  • Genetic engineering meets organic food

Each episode will also have a story for Frank N. Foode™, and development for the character. He will explore the recipes in his own way, and go off on (mis)adventures with people and other characters as he learns about each food and issue with the audience. He’ll provide some comic relief, and help people relate to success and failure in the kitchen. See Frank run from protestors, battle diseases, and meet new friends!

Frank-pianoFinally, each Cooking with Frank N. Foode™ episode will be infused with art. Food is itself a great art medium, and I will explore food-as-art in these shows. Sometimes the recipe itself will represent the science or issues themselves. Other times the way the food is presented will express ideas that mere words could not. For example, in my science festival presentation last year I explored the debate over organics and GMOs with mere cornbread, and while I won’t yet say how this was accomplished – I can say that the audience opened their minds – and their mouths for a quick ‘wow.’ Our artist Celestia has made us some great cartoon pictures for the introduction, and of course a big part of the art will come through the music.

The Music of Cooking with Frank N. Foode™

A show like this needs the right kind of music. Something whimsical, cheerful, and curious with an air of comedy. Some old royalty-free music track just won’t do. So we enlisted the help of a composer!

Thomas Lang, who recently graduated from UW Madison’s school of music, joined the project and wrote some really great music that was exactly what we needed. He wrote theme music, some action and background music, and short themes that we can use in each episode to bring out Frank’s character and add depth to the story. The music will be played by a quartet with piano, cello, clarinet, and marimba. Here are a couple very rough recordings of two parts of the main theme played on a keyboard (and recorded via skype). The piano and cello parts of the main theme:

This forms the backdrop for the clarinet which takes the melody. Imagine the next piece being played over the last! The clarinet part:

These are just samples of the music, there have been some changes to the score since the recording, and you haven’t heard the marimba – but this should give you an idea of what it will sound like. Finally, there will be a dark, villainous theme, and I bet you would like to know what that will be used for!

What we need and what you will get


“When I said no check is too big – this isn’t exactly what I meant!”

Like I said at the beginning of the post, we need your help to make this happen. It costs money to make good music, from the composition, to the performers, studio rental and sound engineer, and green room refreshments for our artists. Not only that, but if we want to showcase the first complete episode at the Wisconsin Science Festival complete with food samples for our audience, it will take a little more. Our estimate for the costs for all of this together comes to about $1400.

That may not be a lot compared to what we raised during our Kickstarter campaign, but it is still a good chunk of change. Luckily, we have some help. The UW Madison New Arts Venture Challenge gave us a $500 grant for Cooking with Frank N. Foode™, and with additional money that we have that we can devote to the project, we’re already $750 of the way there! We only need $650 to make this all happen.

There are many ways that you can contribute – whether by direct donations or by getting yourself that Frank N. Foode™ or Papaya plushie you’ve been putting off. There are still a few books and other things left over from our Kickstarter campaign for whoever claims them.

Now I know what you are thinking – what else do I get for pitching in? Well we’ve got a few more things that everyone will get when we reach our goal:

  • A video of the music recording session
  • A video of the Wisconsin Science Festival presentation
  • Photos of the whole process
  • Satisfaction and excitement about science literacy
  • Remember that ultra-spicy chili I said I would eat? The donation counter is still ratcheting up since the Kickstarter. Once we hit 20k – I’ll eat it!
  • Any funds raised over our goal will go toward a citizen science experiment that you can be a part of!

In the coming days, we’ll tell you more about the music and the composer, the musicians, and what else we’re going to do at the science festival! I hope you will consider supporting us in this project! Spread the word.

Contribute Here. Or Here.

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Unboxing the new Frank N. Foode and Papaya Plushies Sun, 07 Sep 2014 04:48:05 +0000 A little box came in the mail today, with something we’ve all been waiting for. Watch the video, and let me know what you think!

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Sex and death in the cornfields, Part II- Why rootworms? Sat, 30 Aug 2014 21:39:36 +0000 ]]> Hi, I started this series to explain a little more background behind the news and opinion articles you may have seen about Bt-resistant corn rootworms, with scary titles like Voracious worm evolves to eat biotech corn engineered to kill it and Evolution one-ups genetic modification.  I started out talking about the system as it was originally developed for moths, but I wanted to come back to talk about why rootworms are so good at developing resistance to Bt crops.  Part I of this article talked about refuges and how they are used to slow insect resistance, so I’m assuming you know how a refuge works.  If you don’t, check out Sex and death in the cornfields: What is a refuge?

Diabrotica virgifera virgifera

Western corn rootworm. Image by S Gorski.

There are several different pestiferous species of rootworms, but they are often lumped together because their larvae are difficult to tell apart.  The Western corn rootworm (Diabrotica virgifera virgifera) is the most damaging and most studied.

As you may recall, transgenic Bt-expressing corn targeting rootworms has only been around since 2003, and there are already reports of resistance.  Resistance has been confirmed in Iowa.  Reduced susceptibility has been reported in Colorado, Minnesota, Nebraska, and South Dakota.  (Reduced susceptibility is basically the same idea as resistance, but is defined more loosely; there is a lower standard of evidence to meet.)  So it looks like there will be more resistance occurring in the near future.

It looks like we haven’t been as effective in slowing resistance development with rootworm-active transgenics as with moth-active transgenics.  Why? There are lots of things about the rootworm system that make it less simple and less elegant than the moth system.

Rootworms as resistance machines

Rootworms are really good at what they do- which, among other things, is developing resistance to stuff.  The first report of rootworm resistance to pesticides I could find was in 1959 (Ball and Weekman 1962).  They’ve even developed resistance to crop rotation (Onstad et al. 2001), as you may recall from the last article.

We’re not really sure why rootworms are so good at resistance development, but the lab of Dr. Marce Lorenzen is currently working on creating transgenic rootworms for use in laboratories.  These transgenic rootworms can be used as tools to learn more about resistance genes in rootworms.

High dose

To make matters worse, rootworm-active transgenic Bt corn is not high dose.  In the last article, I talked about how high dose meant that Bt toxin was expressed at such a high rate that the offspring of a resistant and a susceptible insect would probably not survive to pass on its genes. The important thing to remember is that high dose “forces” a resistance gene to act like a recessive gene.  This means that having a single (heterozygous) resistant gene won’t give the insects a survival advantage, so spread of the resistant gene will be a lot slower.

Simplified diagram of a block/strip refuge. Image by S Gorski.

Unfortunately, we don’t have any high-dose rootworm-active transgenic Bt corn available.  And research has shown that resistance by rootworms is inherited dominantly, not recessively (Petzold-Maxwell et al. 2012).  So the offspring of that resistant and susceptible insect will survive- and pass on that resistant gene.


For another thing, rootworms are just physically and behaviorally different than moths.  If you remember our refuge diagram, it’s important that an adult resistant moth find a susceptible mate from the refuge so that they can mate and produce heterozygous offspring.  But that means that the adult resistant moth has to actually fly over to the refuge area and find a boy/girlfriend (or vice versa).  What if the moth had to walk instead of fly?

Rootworms are beetles, and beetles aren’t as strong flyers as moths.  Most female rootworms won’t fly before they are mated.  So a resistant rootworm may just hang around the transgenic field until he/she finds a mate there instead of checking out the refuge field.  That means that a resistant rootworm from a Bt field will be more likely to mate with another resistant rootworm than with a susceptible rootworm from a refuge.  So her kids will have two resistant genes instead of one.

Simplified diagram of a seed mix refuge.  Image by S Gorski.

Simplified diagram of a seed mix refuge. Image by S Gorski.

Sublethal dose

Some smart people came up with a solution to the dispersal problem.  (They always do, don’t they?)  Instead of having blocks of non-Bt plants next to a Bt field, they intersperse non-Bt seeds randomly throughout the field.  So the refuge might be a single plant over here, a single plant over there, etc.

But this has its own set of problems.  Because non-Bt plants are located conveniently next to Bt plants, larvae might move from plant to plant as well as adult.  In the field, rootworm larvae congregate around non-Bt plants (Rudeen and Gassman 2012).  What if a rootworm moves from plant to plant during the course of its development?  It might receive some toxin, but not enough to kill it.  Sublethal doses of a toxin are a good way to develop resistance (Mallet and Porter 1992)- just as a little poison might not kill you.

Are these resistance reports the end of the world?

No.  At its very worst, insect resistance means that a tool we are using is no longer useful.  It happens to all pest management solutions, not just transgenic ones.  This continual reliance on more/newer pesticides just to get the same job done is sometimes called the “pesticide treadmill”, and it’s what insect resistance management (like refuges) was designed to combat.  It’s sort of analogous to what you may have heard about antibiotic-resistant bacteria.

We do want to preserve this technology as long as possible, though.

Experts say that when a field appears to have resistant rootworms, it probably has a few identifiable traits:  It is not rotated; the same Bt trait is used year after year; sometimes the farmer did not comply with refuge requirements.  So as is often the case, simply using best management practices can slow the spread of resistance.   Of course, this can be easier said than done- most farmers already rotate, but if a farmer doesn’t rotate his/her crops, it’s probably not because he/she just likes breaking rules or doesn’t know.  There are economic pressures that influence farmer decisions, and different crops require different equipment that the farmer may not have.

Rootworm-active Bt corn still works in most locations.  Traditional methods also work.  Crop rotation works in most places, as do seed treatments and insecticide applications.  There’s a nice article summarizing rootworm control methods available for farmers here.

More recent rootworm-active Bt transgenic corn is stacked, meaning that there are multiple transgenes of interest expressed in a single corn line.  For our purposes, “stacked” means that there are multiple rootworm-active Bt proteins incorporated into the same corn line.  The reason stacking multiple rootworm-active genes together is important is that it can be more difficult for a pest population to develop resistance to multiple strains of Bt at once.  Think of a lottery ticket- it’s not that hard to get one number right, but it’s much harder to get six numbers right!

Corn lines from just a few years ago contained only one or two rootworm-active Bt genes, but newer corn lines include several.  A few years ago, scientists engineered a new Bt protein active against rootworms, eCry3.1Ab, by combining two Bt proteins that were active against moths!  Because eCry3.1Ab is still pretty new, no resistance has yet been reported, but it is already being used.

New technologies are being developed that use methods other than Bt to target rootworms, such as RNAi.  There are still a few kinks to work out, but it’s already been shown that RNAi technology can kill larval rootworms.  I personally am looking forward to some new technologies!

Works Cited

  • Ball, H. J. and Weekman, G. T. (1962). Insecticide resistance in the adult western corn rootworm in Nebraska. J. Econ. Entomol., 55 439-41.
  • [EPA] Environmental Protection Agency (2014)  White paper on corn rootworm resistance monitoring for Bt plant-incorporated protectants.  Available from!documentDetail;D=EPA-HQ-OPP-2013-0490-0008
  • Gassmann A, Petzold-Maxwell J, Keweshan R, Dunbar M (2011) Field-evolved resistance to Bt maize by Western corn rootworm.  PLoS one 6(7): e22629.
  • Mallet J, Porter P  (1992) Preventing insect adaptation to insect-resistant crops: are seed mixtures or refugia the best strategy?  Proc. R. Soc London, 250(1328): 165-169.
  • Onstad D, Spencer J, Guse C, Levine E, Isard S (2001) Modeling evolution of behavioral resistance by an insect to crop rotation.  Entomologia Experimentalis et Applicata 100(2): 195-201.
  • Petzold-Maxwell J, Cibilis-Stewart X, French B, Gassmann A  (2012)  Adaptation by Western corn rootworm (Coleoptera: Chrysomelidae) to Bt maize: inheritance, fitness costs, and feeding preference.  J. Econ. Entomol. 105(4): 1407-1418.
  • Rudeen M, Gassmann A (2012) Effects of Cry34/35Ab1 corn on the survival and development of western corn rootworm, Diabrotica virgifera virgifera.  Pest Manage. Sci.  69(6): 709-716.
  • Vaughn T, Cavato T, Brar G, Coombe T, DeGooyer T, Ford S, Groth M, Howe A, Johnson S, Kolacz K, Pilcher C, Purcell J, Romano C, English L, Pershing J.  (2005) A method of controlling corn rootworm feeding using a Bacillus thuringiensis protein expressed in transgenic maize.  Crop Science 45(3): 931-938.
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GM Watch finds GENERA useful, “badly needed” Thu, 28 Aug 2014 23:00:09 +0000 ]]> Editor’s note: See an update at the bottom about GM Watch’s response to this post.

In a discussion about the scientific literature on genetically engineered crops, Claire Robinson of GM Watch has previously said: “I am, as you say, unaware of your GENERA project. A comprehensive list of studies on all aspects of GMOs is badly needed but beyond our means to gather together.” Biology Fortified, Inc., with our limited resources and volunteer staff, have come to the rescue and created this “badly needed” resource. Happily, GM Watch is now aware that GENERA is in beta testing, with more to come.

In response to our recent press release about the beta test of GENERA, Claire Robinson tried the resource out, and found it useful. She was able to use GENERA to search for literature, find the information she wanted, and she agreed with our evaluation of the scientific literature in at least two cases, as discussed in a post published on GM Watch* in response to our press release about GENERA. Although she thought it both needed and useful, the GM Watch post took an odd tone in the form of a criticism – claiming that we were misrepresenting the research contained in GENERA and leaving out important information. There were so many misunderstandings in Ms. Robinson’s post that I wanted to help her organization understand what it all means and clear up their confusion.

GM Watch agrees with assessment in GENERA of at least 2 studies

While GM Watch is criticizing our conclusions, they have indicated that they found GENERA to be both useful and accurate. They mention two studies and show that they agree with how we have classified the results.

These include Pusztai’s study on GM potatoes, which the GENERA authors correctly note had a “negative” conclusion for food safety. To be specific, the GM-fed rats showed gut cell proliferation that was similar to a pre-cancerous condition.

The GENERA authors also include the multi-generational study by Kilic and colleagues, which they note had “mixed” results. These consisted of damage to liver and kidneys and alterations in blood biochemistry in rats fed GM Bt maize over three generations, though other measured parameters showed no effect.

GM Watch picks out these two studies, but they seem to misunderstand science. Science is done not by cherry-picking single studies or data points within a single study to make conclusions that are at odds with the rest of the literature. Biology research is messy and data is often hard to interpret.


Table 4 from Kilic et al.

The Kiliç et al study is a perfect example of this. They fed rats three different diets (standard diet, control maize, and transgenic maize) for three generations, as part of a masters thesis project. The data was highly variable and confusing, thus it was classified as mixed results, but there were some strange issues with the health status of these rats. One of the control groups fed non-GMO corn had an average liver size that was 1/5 the normal relative size! What is going on with these rats? This shows the perils of cherry-picking data points from individual studies to claim that GMOs are “toxic,” when if you took their approach, this table on the right would be interpreted to mean that non-GMO corn is “toxic” to female rats. The Pusztai study on GMO potatoes suffers from many other similar problems that have been discussed elsewhere.

Scientists have to take all of the evidence into account, and now GENERA gives everyone the ability to step back and see the bigger picture. While it may seem ironic to be using GENERA to dig up individual studies to argue that GENERA is “misleading” while also confirming its accuracy, GM Watch is showing us that they are finding GENERA to be a useful resource for them. In addition, based on previous comments, Claire Robinson of GM Watch has said that it is badly needed. Hence the title of this post.

Conflicts and interests

GM watch mentioned a 2011 paper by Diels et al. That paper found that studies conducted by authors classified as “industry-affiliated” were more likely to show a favorable result for genetic engineering (being safer than or as safe as conventional, or effective at achieving the desired outcome). However, the authors only considered 94 studies which is a small subset of the total research available, and they had some strange definitions for how they classified the studies. For instance, some government agencies were classified as industry-affiliated while others were not, and without seeing the actual data, there’s no way to tell if this classification system makes sense. In addition, there was no consideration in the paper of funding or affiliation to competing industries or NGOs (or agencies for that matter) that are affiliated with these industries. There was also a “one drop rule” for industry affiliation – if only one author or funding source was considered “affiliated” with industry, it was classified with studies done entirely by the industry. These issues may introduce a bias into the data analysis, which is amplified when it is done on such a small subset of the research. Even so, they found no association between funding sources and outcomes, only between outcomes and their novel “one drop rule” classification system. For another view about industry funding, including analysis of the Diels et al paper, see this post by Marc Brazeau.

When we planned GENERA we wanted to avoid these kinds of pitfalls. We included an array of classifications for funding sources that includes governments, individuals, and different kinds of industries and NGOs. Most importantly, everyone can see how we have classified each study in the Atlas – the data is entirely public and transparent. GM Watch’s comments about taking our conclusions “on faith” just don’t make any sense considering that our data is public and the data for the study they refer to is not. In fact, we encourage people to do searches, make charts, and check individual studies and tell us if they find any problems! (That’s how a beta test works!) Finally, our tentative conclusion that the clear majority of studies in the literature indicate safety is based off of 197 studies, which is more than twice the number of studies that was included in Diels, et al. And when GENERA reaches its full release, it will have many, many more.


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Additionally, GM Watch claims that the Diels review study already found that half of the research was independent, however, that is not the case. They found that 39% of the 94 studies they examined were independent by their classification system, which is not half. In fact, 39% is closer to the 1/3 estimate that we made early on before we began work on the Atlas itself. We highlighted this result because it disconfirms our previous rough estimate as well as many of the claims that are made on the internet, including in articles republished by GM Watch and the Diels et al. study. There is a perception that nearly all of the research is conducted by the biotech industry, and we wanted people to know that the GENERA beta version shows that approximately half of the research on the safety of GMOs for consumption is funded by government agencies and independent nonprofit organizations.

So how do the results of studies funded by these different sources compare? As an infographic produced by the Genetic Literacy Project shows, we have found that industry funded studies have more favorable results for genetic engineering (4 safer than, 35 as safe as, and 1 less safe) (at least with our randomly selected 400 papers from the literature). We also found that independent (non-industry) government funded studies also overwhelmingly show a favorable result for genetic engineering (7 safer than, 62 as safe as, 7 inconclusive, and 6 less safe). We hypothesize that this trend will hold as we add more studies to GENERA. Either the industry results confirm the government results because they are based on the same science and genetic engineering is indeed a generally safe technology, or there is a massive global conspiracy among scientists working for governments around the world. In my years as a scientist, I have not yet found evidence of such a conspiracy, so if GM Watch has such evidence I hope they share with the rest of us.


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Just a misunderstanding

In our press release, I was quoted as saying “Systematic reviews have concluded that genetically engineered crops are safe to eat, and when you look at the results collected in GENERA, it agrees with that conclusion.” but the press release didn’t include specific citations to reviews. GM Watch took issue with that, claiming that  I had an “avoidance of specific citations”. Perhaps they think that the press release was a scientific journal article. I’m not sure why they think that, but that’s okay, it’s obviously just a misunderstanding. Press releases, as a form of prose, generally don’t have citations. Blog posts usually don’t have citations either, however at the Biofortified Blog, our blog posts often have scientific citations, so if GM Watch thought that this was a blog post then maybe that would explain their confusion?

Claire Robinson has also said that her organization purposefully didn’t provide citations in a report they published, so you’d think GM Watch would understand not including citations in a press release. Ms. Robinson said: “The reason is that such a list would be boring in a report for the public.” Of course, the citations simply weren’t included in our press release because it’s a press release. Biology Fortified, Inc. doesn’t believe the citations are boring for the public, in fact the entire goal of GENERA is to make the citations more accessible to the public.

So where are the systematic reviews?

In the case of this press release, I was thinking more of the statements produced by various organizations around the world in favor of genetic engineering as a safe technology. For example: the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) and the World Health Organization (WHO). See statements from well-respected scientific organizations by clicking on the image to the right (image by Axis Mundi).

There have, of course, been systematic reviews in the literature as well as these consensus statements from well-respected scientific organizations. One of the largest is Nicolia et al in 2014 (PDF). This review included 1784 studies about various aspects of safety of genetically engineered crops for the environment and human/animal health. They conclude:

“We have reviewed the scientific literature on GE crop safety for the last 10 years that catches the scientific consensus matured since GE plants became widely cultivated worldwide, and we can conclude that the scientific research conducted so far has not detected any significant hazard directly connected with the use of GM crops.”

Each consensus statement and review has its own focus. Once GENERA is complete, people will be able to do their own reviews of the literature and report their findings with our helpful graphs!

Perhaps GM Watch wants to help

As we say in the press release, there are only 400 randomly selected studies in GENERA right now. Surely there are other studies that GM Watch and similar organizations would like to see represented in GENERA. And we say that’s just fine! We fully acknowledge that there are many more studies than just these 400 randomly selected ones in our beta test, and we fully acknowledge that the format and function of the database still need some tweaking. Check out GENERA and take our survey to let us know if you spot any errors, and let us know if we are missing any studies (but first check our page about what is included in GENERA).

* An earlier version of this post indicated that the GM Watch post was not attributed to any author, as is usually the case for GM Watch. The author of the post was Claire Robinson, as identified in italicized text in the post.

Editor’s Note: Karl Haro von Mogel contributed to this post.

Update 9-30-2014: GM Watch now asks Questions

We were delighted to see that Claire Robinson of GM Watch responded to our post with questions about GENERA, and confirmed several of our statements while disputing others. Unfortunately, she chose to spend a great deal of the post engaging in personal attacks and name-calling, however, we do believe that there are some important and worthwhile points that she brought up in her post which we will address.

Ms. Robinson correctly noted our error that the post was indeed signed to her name, in italicized text. This is a welcome change from the historical policies of GM Watch, which usually posts unsigned criticisms. We encourage GM Watch to take it to the next level and allow comments on their site so that a true discussion can take place.

Ms. Robinson also addresses the issue of how many studies are independent, and appears to be making some creative assumptions about studies that have no funding data. If you recall, we announced that just over 50% of the studies in our beta release for GENERA are independently-funded. Ms Robinson, however said:

We didn’t need BFI or GENERA to tell us that half of GMO research is independent of the industry. That is old news…

As we point out, Diels et al only stated that 39% of the 94 studies they surveyed were known to be independent, and our result dis-confirms this number and elevates it to over 50%. But in her response, Ms. Robinson appears to be counting studies with no funding information as independent:

In other words, somewhere between 39% and 53% (just over half) of GMO studies were independent at the time of Diels’ investigation.

While it may be possible that as many as 53% of the 94 studies examined by Diels were independently funded, we don’t actually know that. It would be wrong to assume what the funding sources are, and we find it curious that GM Watch is assuming that these unknown funding sources are independent in order to create a criticism out of confirming the findings of other researchers. This is a very odd argument to make. But if you were to add the 21% of studies in GENERA that do not have funding information to our total, then that means that the independent studies are between 50% and almost 75%. This is very different from the results of Diels et al.

Biofortified accuses me of “cherry-picking” data points from the Kilic et al study, which found mixed results.

From the KQED discusssion:

Our report, GMO Myths and Truths, nowhere claims to present the entirety of the literature on GMOs (as I’ve said, that’s way beyond our means), but to present some studies that show risks and hazards of GMOs that have not been properly addressed – and which are often claimed not to exist!

Our goal is to be comprehensive, while Ms. Robinson has stated that her goal has been to present only a select subset which meet a particular conclusion. That is what it means to “cherry-pick.” This is a correct description of choosing only results you agree with in one study or from a group of studies and ignoring data that undermines it, or that calls into question the validity of the study in question. Ms. Robinson does not provide a counter-argument that negates this description so it still stands as uncontested and it seems that she is justifying it rather than negating the description.

With these errors and misunderstandings out of the way, we can now help Ms. Robinson understand what is contained in GENERA. In fact, we are glad that she is asking questions!

We’re told the chart is based on 197 studies “out of 400 randomly selected”, but no further information is given about the questions these studies addressed or which methodologies they used.

These 197 studies are the studies that made conclusions specifically about the relative risks of genetic engineering on the safety of foods for consumption. In fact, we gave quite extensive information about the kinds of studies that have been included in GENERA, and what has been excluded. This information was posted on the GENERA site since before the announcement of the beta release. This can only mean that we either 1. did not post the menu link to the “What is in GENERA” page clearly enough under the “About” tab, in which case it would be our error, or 2. Ms. Robinson instead did not find out what was actually in the Atlas before claiming that we had misrepresented its contents. We will leave it up to the reader to decide which is more likely.

Ms. Robinson also asks about how many studies are reviews, original research articles, and perspectives/opinions. There are zero perspectives/opinions included in the graphics being discussed, and there are some reviews that have been included. Again, it is easy to find out how many reviews there are, as GENERA has a full range of search and exclusion features, so anyone could repeat the same search and include only reviews, exclude them, etc. Since Ms. Robinson is asking this question after-the-fact, we can only assume that she has not taken the time to understand what is contained in GENERA before making broad-sweeping claims about it.

Ms. Robinson has similar questions about what the different outcomes mean, which we explain on the Glossary of Terms page, and what species these studies have been done on. This information is contained within the Atlas and she has had the ability to search and chart these details herself. Since she is asking this question after having declared that we are misrepresenting our Atlas, we can only assume that she has not taken advantage of this public information and was again making broad sweeping claims without first learning the facts.

Biofortified should also identify each GMO for which they are claiming safety, since GMOs are evaluated on a case-by-case basis and a finding that one GMO is toxic or safe cannot be assumed to apply to any other GMO.

Until now, no resource has existed which could allow an analysis of what they are requesting here. Indeed, on a future version of GENERA we intend to have “event-specific” features that would allow users to search for studies only conducted on specific genetically engineered crops. However, we would like to note a contradiction evident in the list of questions posted on GM Watch. Ms. Robinson both states that the control animals should not have been “fed non-GM feed,” but that no two GMOs are the same. This is a point of confusion which we note that GM Watch tends to make. If the GMOs are all different, then it doesn’t matter if the control and experimental diets both contain a GMO-derived ingredient from a crop that is not being tested in the experiment. As long as the variable that is different is the trait being tested, that is fine. If all GMOs were the same, then it would be correct to require excluding them. You can’t have it both ways.

This leads us to the final answer to her questions. We did not make judgements about the completeness or incompleteness of the individual studies. Our goal is to include every relevant study – warts and all – so that people can have greater access to them. A case in point is the inclusion of the retracted Seralini 2012 feeding study, which was criticized around the world for inadequate sample sizes for the duration of the experiment, and did not ensure that non-GM feed was fed to the control rats prior to the beginning of the experiment – both of which are criteria that Ms. Robinson identifies as study flaws. If we were to exclude studies that contain these flaws then we would be forced to exclude this study as well. We may in the future incorporate a feeding study completeness rating based on published critical reviews – which might help people gauge the overall study quality – but that is beyond the scope of our Atlas’s capabilities at this time.

It is a pity that Claire Robinson freely and readily casts aspersions when engaging in discussion and debate about genetically engineered crops, and attacks individual people with ad-hominem attacks rather than spending the time it takes to understand the science and the resource she is criticizing in the first place. We hope that these answers will help clarify her confusion and that she will be able to engage in meaningful and civil dialog and help us to improve this public resource for everyone. We are happy to clarify these and other details so that people can better understand what is in GENERA, how to use it, and what conclusions may be drawn from it. We look forward to constructive criticisms, and are thankful that Ms. Robinson has agreed with the results for what individual studies she has indicated that she has examined in the Atlas thus far.

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