Andreas Späth

GMO 2.0

2014-02-10 13:00

Andreas Wilson-Späth

The folks at your favourite agro-chemical giant Monsanto are at it again. In their selfless effort to eradicate global hunger through biotechnology, they are working flat-out to get the next generation of genetically engineered crops past regulators and onto the market by the end of the decade.

These novel varieties of GMOs make use of a process called RNA interference, or RNAi for short. It involves doubled-stranded RNA molecules, instead of the usual single strands of RNA which act as genetic messengers in cells.

When a cell in an organism comes across this type of doubled-up RNA, it thinks it’s dealing with a virus. In attempting to protect itself from the perceived threat, the cell initiates a process that effectively switches of any of its own genes that have the same genetic signature as the double-stranded RNA.

Exploiting this phenomenon, which is known to occur in nature, genetic engineers are able to deactivate just about any gene by artificially creating a molecule of double-stranded RNA which has a matching sequence of bases.

Here are two examples of how the technology is being applied in practice:

• Monsanto has developed a new variety of maize, called SmartStax Pro, which is genetically engineered to produce a type of double-stranded RNA that corresponds to a vital gene in the western corn rootworm, a major pest for maize farmers. The worm eats the maize, ingesting the RNA which enters its cells and targets a gene in the animal thought to have evolved as a defence against viruses. Confronted with the RNA, the worm’s cells deactivate the gene, effectively tricking the creature into committing suicide. The worm dies. Job done.

The irony: the western corn rootworm has increasingly become a problem because it has been evolving an ever-growing resistance to the BT toxin produced by the genetically engineered maize currently sold by Monsanto and other biotech companies under the guise of reducing the pest problem.
• Monsanto is trying to use RNAi technology to create a spray that would help its bestselling herbicide Roundup regain its potency against weeds.

The irony: Roundup has become less effective against weeds because several weed species have developed resistance to it. Roundup is sold in combination with “Roundup Ready” GMO crops under the guise of reducing herbicide use.

Is it just me or are they trying to sell us “new and improved” RNAi GMO products to fix some of the problems created by their existing GMO technology? Wouldn’t we have been better off not using GMO crops in the first place?

Monsanto is also proposing RNAi technology to kill varroa mites, while other scientists have suggested a similar approach to fight the so-called Israeli Acute Paralysis Virus. Both the mites and the virus infect bees and have been partially implicated in the widespread mass mortality observed among honeybees known as colony collapse disorder. In future, we are told, RNAi could be used to kill a variety of pathogens and insect pests by disabling specific genes in their makeup.

Critics have already raised a number of problems with RNAi-enabled GMO products:

• How would they behave in a complex natural environment and over long periods of time if widely applied in commercial agriculture? The potential risks remain largely undetermined.

• A controversial paper published by a group of Chinese researchers in 2011 argued that RNAi could potentially have an impact on human genes, although the results have been challenged by other scientists.

• There are concerns that RNAi pesticides may detrimentally impact on beneficial species which are not their intended target. One recent study suggests that beneficial ladybugs were killed by RNA intended to interfere with a rootworm gene.

If you ask me, RNAi GMOs are yet another reason to choose organic produce whenever you can.

- Andreas is a freelance writer with a PhD in geochemistry. Follow him on Twitter: @Andreas_Spath
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