Seralini seeks to dilute biology education

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.