New Report Challenges Fundamentals of Genetic Engineering;
Study Questions Safety of Genetically Engineered Foods

U.S. Newswire  January 2002

NEW YORK — A study released today reveals a critical, long-overlooked flaw in the science behind the multi-billion dollar genetic engineering industry, raising serious questions about the safety of genetically engineered foods.

In a new review of scientific literature reported in the February issue of Harper’s Magazine, Dr. Barry Commoner, a prominent biologist demonstrates that the bioengineering industry, which now accounts for 25-50 percent of the U.S. corn and soybean crop, relies on a 40-year- old theory that DNA genes are in total control of inheritance in all forms of life. According to this theory — the “central dogma” — the outcome of transferring a gene from one organism to another is always “specific, precise and predictable,” and therefore safe.

Taking issue with this view, Commoner summarizes a series of scientific reports that directly contradict the established theory. For example, last year the $3 billion Human Genome Project found there are too few human genes to account for the vast inherited differences between people and lower animals or plants, indicating that agents other than DNA must contribute to genetic complexity.

The central dogma claims a one-to-one correspondence between a gene’s chemical composition and the structure of the particular protein that engenders an inherited trait. But Dr. Commoner notes that under the influence of specialized proteins that carry out “alternative splicing,” a single gene can give rise to a variety of different proteins, resulting in more than a single inherited trait per gene. As a result, the gene’s effect on inheritance cannot be predicted simply from its chemical composition — frustrating one of the main purposes of both the Human Genome Project and biotechnology.

Commoner’s research sounds a public alarm concerning the processes by which agricultural biotechnology companies genetically modify food crops. Scientists simply assume the genes they insert into these plants always produce only the desired effect with no other impact on the plant’s genetics. However, recent studies show that the plant’s own genes can be disrupted in transgenic plants. Such outcomes are undetected because there is little or no governmental regulation of the industry. “Genetically engineered crops represent a huge uncontrolled experiment whose outcome is inherently unpredictable,” Commoner concludes. “The results could be catastrophic.”

Dr. Commoner cites a number of recent studies that have broken the DNA gene’s exclusive franchise on the molecular explanation of inheritance. He warns that “experimental data, shorn of dogmatic theories, point to the irreducible complexity of the living cell, which suggests that any artificially altered genetic system must sooner or later give rise to unintended, potentially disastrous consequences.”

Commoner charges that the central dogma, a seductively simple explanation of heredity, has led most molecular geneticists to believe it was “too good not to be true.” As a result, the central dogma has been immune to the revisions called for by the growing array of contradictory data, allowing the biotechnology industry to unwittingly impose massive, scientifically unsound practices on agriculture.

“Dr. Commoner’s work challenges the legitimacy of the agricultural biotechnology industry,” said Andrew Kimbrell, Director of the Center on Food Safety. “For years, multibillion dollar biotech companies have been selling the American people and our government on the safety of their products. We now see their claims of safety are based on faulty assumptions that don’t hold up to rigorous scientific review.”

The study reported in Harper’s Magazine is the initial publication of a new initiative called The Critical Genetics Project directed by Dr. Commoner in collaboration with molecular geneticist Dr. Andreas Athanasiou, at the Center for the Biology of Natural Systems, Queens College, City University of New York. Contact: Dr. Barry Commoner of the Center for the Biology of Natural Systems, 718-670-4182



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