I write letters: The Present Craziness

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While I was browsing the genetic engineering news for something to write about, a letter in the San Diego Reader caught my attention. “The Present Craziness” by Pat Palmer read had a very bizarre take on biology, have a read:

Thanks for the optimistic article “Can We Create New Life?” (Feature Story, November 26). One has to be suspicious of any government policy being fast-tracked, especially one as revolutionary as genetic-engineering promotion. From a rational perspective, such a mysterious business requires more caution than normal, not less. To express the problem/risk as simply as possible requires an analogy:

Think of GIGO — garbage in, garbage out — as used in information processing. The “mal-ware,” such as viruses, etc., which can damage computers, are created to appear to be normal information. In this way the computer is tricked and absorbs these programs into the computer software as if they are beneficial. Only later does the damage appear. But by then it is too late; your work is garbage, or lost altogether.

Science often regards humanity’s existence as depending on a delicate balance of forces in nature. These forces evolved this balance over a long time with perhaps trillions of iterations of trial and error in genetic combinations to get to us and our environment now.

With this in mind, think of the information that we must absorb in order for our life programs to exist, to continue, to improve. Food is not just energy that we consume to keep the machine going. Food contains genetic information that our bodies have evolved with since our beginnings. When we eat, we accept and integrate that information via our messenger RNA into our own DNA and are so modified. Genetic engineering tricks our cells into accepting new, unnatural information as if it were the familiar natural information.

Possible dangerous consequences may not appear right away, or even in the present lifetime of the unwitting victim, unlike the genetic damage caused by nuclear radiation, which seems to be limited to existent life. This makes genetically engineered products ingested by living beings even more dangerous than radiation poisoning. Why? Because once our DNA integrates the new information as if it were natural, the new characteristics will be passed on to the next generation and the next and the next. This is because it is not recognized as damaging and does not trigger the disabling of the germs of reproduction.

Bottom line: the closed testing of genetic engineering, before introduction into the environment, requires at least a couple of generations of experimentally reproduced human subjects. This is only rational. The present course is therefore irrational. I hope that nature somehow provides some remedy to our progeny to reverse or repair the results of our present craziness.

Pat Palmer
Normal Heights

Worse than radiation poisoning?! Hey, um, I’ll drink gallons of high fructose corn syrup from genetically engineered corn in one sitting before I expose myself to a high dose of radiation from a nuclear source.

So I did the only natural thing, I wrote a letter to the San Diego Reader in response, and they accepted it. Thanks to Chemjobber’s reminder, I can now share it with you:

A Dose Of Science

In response to “The Present Craziness” letter by Pat Palmer (December 4), I think a good dose of factual scientific information would be appropriate.

Pat said, “When we eat, we accept and integrate that information via our messenger RNA into our own DNA and are so modified. Genetic engineering tricks our cells into accepting new, unnatural information as if it were the familiar natural information.”

This is not true in the slightest. During digestion, our bodies break down whatever DNA is in our food into its individual building blocks, destroying whatever genetic information was present. It doesn’t matter whether you think that DNA is “natural” or not, it all gets broken down the same way. And the part about messenger RNA is completely backwards. Messenger RNA carries the information from our own genes to a structure called the ribosome that translates the code into a sequence of amino acids for making a protein. It does not incorporate new genetic information into our DNA, least of all from our food!

The genetics of our food crops have been in constant change with and without human intervention. The kinds of changes occurring with genetic engineering are far less drastic than the majority of genetic changes that have been made through the history of these plants. Whole chromosomes have been duplicated, recombined, mutated, inserted, and deleted. Adding one or two new genes pales in comparison.

There are real issues and challenges facing our species as we figure out how to use genetic engineering to benefit us and the environment, but in order to properly address these questions, we need to educate ourselves about what is actually going on. Comparing genetic engineering to radiation poisoning is a form of hyperbole the likes of which I have never seen before. In the absence of knowledge about a new and complicated issue, people will often come up with ideas that speak of impending and widespread destruction rather than address those issues rationally. That’s “the present craziness.”

P.S. I’m a plant genetics grad student. Our website, biofortified.org, is a group blog that I write with another grad student and two professors, where we try to educate people about plant genetics, including genetic engineering.

Karl Haro von Mogel
Madison, WI

As Chemjobber stopped by, maybe it worked a bit to help people find out a little bit more truthful information about genetic engineering. And maybe we might pick up a few readers. Welcome San Diego Reader readers!

One more comment about the Pat’s letter – It also reveals a fundamental misunderstanding about Mendelian Genetics – Even if you were to accept a piece of DNA into some of your cells, it would not pass on to the next generation unless it was inserted into the germline. These are the cells that divide and turn into sperm and egg cells. What Pat is talking about is Lamarckian genetics – the inheritance of acquired characteristics. Weirdness.

Pat is also saying that breeding a gene from a wild relative into a food crop (or using an obscure variety of a crop) would mess with the ‘delicate balance’ of genetic information being absorbed into Pat’s belly. A great many anti-GE arguments are equally (or even more so) applicable to plant breeding itself.

Follow Karl Haro von Mogel:
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 recently moved back to his home state of California. His favorite produce might just be squash.