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7. Gene Transfers Linked to Dangerous New Diseases

Sources: THIRD WORLD RESURGENCE, #92, Title: “Sowing Diseases, New and Old,” Authors: Mae-Wan Ho and Terje Traavik; THE ECOLOGIST, Title: “The Biotechnology Bubble,” Date: May/June 1998, Vol. 28, No. 3, Authors: Mae-Wan Ho, Hartmut Meyer, and Joe Cummins

SSU Censored Researchers: Jennifer Mintz and Amber Manfree
SSU Faculty Evaluator: Tom Lough

The world is heading for a major crisis in public health as both emergent and recurring diseases reach new heights of antibiotic resistance. At least 30 new diseases have emerged over the past 20 years, and familiar infectious diseases such as tuberculosis, cholera, and malaria are returning with vigor. By 1990 nearly every common bacterial species had developed some degree of resistance to drug treatment, many to multiple antibiotics. A major contributing factor, in addition to antibiotic overuse, just might be the transfer of genes between unrelated species of animals and plants which takes place with genetic engineering, according to Third World Resurgence. Despite the fact that the evidence is quite compelling, there is currently no independent investigation of the relationship between genetic engineering and the etiology (cause, or origin) of infectious diseases. What’s worse is that regulators are considering a further relaxation of the already lax safety rules regarding this unpredictable and inherently hazardous field.

The technology of genetic engineering, also called biotechnology, uses manipulation, replication, and transference techniques to insert genes “horizontally” to connect species which otherwise cannot interbreed. Normal genetic barriers and defense mechanisms, which degrade or deactivate foreign genes that they recognize as dangerous to the self, are in this way broken down. Used to facilitate horizontal gene transfer, genetic engineering can also result in antibiotic-resistant genes, which can inadvertently spread and recombine to generate new drug and antibiotic-resistant pathogens.

This, say the authors, has occurred. Horizontal gene transfer and subsequent genetic recombination may have been responsible for bacterial strains which caused a 1992 cholera outbreak in India, and for a streptococcus epidemic in Tayside in 1993. Antibiotic-resistant genes spread readily between human beings, as well as from bacteria inhabiting the gut of farm animals to human beings. Antibiotics can create the very conditions that facilitate the spread of antibiotic resistance because they can increase the frequency of horizontal gene transfer 10 to 10,000-fold.

Biotechnology firms have billions of dollars invested in these new technologies, and are concerned that their speculation bubble may burst, due to public outrage, before they can recoup their investments. In Europe, where the public support for such programs is dismal at best, EuropaBio, the non-government organization representing the interests of the biotech industry, hired public relations firm Burson Marsteller to initiate a public relations campaign to promote the benefits of biotechnology. In a document leaked to The Ecologist, it was reported that Burson Marsteller recommended that the industry stay quiet on the risks of genetically engineered foods, as they could never win on that argument, and instead focus on “symbols that elicit hope, satisfaction, and caring.”

Biotechnology is presented to the public as a highly precise science. Implications are that genes are linear causal chains, seldom influenced by the environment. We assume that genes are stable, and tend to remain in the organisms in which they’ve been created. Nothing could be further from the truth. Genes never work in isolation, but rather in extremely complicated networks with other genes. The network is always subject to layers of feedback from the physiology of the organism. This feedback can cause genes to replicate, reorganize, or even travel outside the organism. The danger is enhanced by the fact that microorganisms genetically engineered for “‘contained use” may not be effectively contained. DNA released from cells is not readily broken down in the environment, so it retains the ability to transform other organisms. Many varieties of dangerous rDNA, which contain cancer-causing viruses and antibiotic-resistant genes, can almost certainly transform bacteria in the environment, and further recombine, say the authors.

The need to reassess the safety regulations pertaining to genetic engineering is urgent. Effects of both deliberate release and contained use are in desperate need of further study. A greater understanding of the general mechanisms behind horizontal gene transfer must be reached. Research results should be used to strengthen the barriers against the transfer of rDNA and to provide a basis for scientific risk assessment. It is vital that this research be conducted by independent groups, and not left in the hands of those laboratories which are involved in the commercial exploita-tion of biotechnology.

UPDATE BY AUTHOR MAE-WAN HO: “A sound technology is underpinned by good, reliable science; but that’s not the case in gene biotechnology. Our story exposes the discredited science of genetic determination at the heart of the biotechnology bubble. It is misguiding a hit-or-miss technology and promoting projects that are not only dangerous and unrealistic, but socially and morally irresponsible.1

“The mainstream press, not surprisingly, has ignored our story. There is a general reluctance to question the science by all concerned, which is not helping the debate.

“Since our paper was published, many more problems with transgenic crops have come to light. For example, three transgenic potato lines planted in Georgia (of the former Soviet Union)2 yielded one-third to one-half of the expected harvest, two lines yielding ugly deformed tubers that could not be sold.

“Further evidence of controllable horizontal gene transfer has emerged. A genetic parasite belonging to yeast is found to have jumped into many unrelated species of higher plants very recently.3 And the genes transferred into transgenic plants can be up to 30 times more likely to spread than the plant’s own genes.4

“Opposition to gene biotechnology has ‘skyrocketed.’ France, Greece, the United Kingdom, and Denmark have joined Austria, Luxembourg, and Norway in imposing a moratorium or specific bans.”

1. See M.W. Ho, Genetic Engineering Dream or Nightmare? The Brave New World of Bad Science and Big Business, (Bath: Gateway Books, 1998).
2. Greenpeace Report, August 1998.
3. Y. Cho, et. al., Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. USA 95, 1998: 14244-9.
4. J. Bergelson, et. al., Nature 395, 1998: 25.

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