GMO Potato Creator Now Fears Its Impact on Human Health
Of all the genetic engineers who have renounced the technology—Arpad Pusztai, Belinda Martineau, Thierry Vrain and John Fagan, among others—because of its shortsighted approach and ability to produce unintended and potentially toxic consequences, Caius Rommens' story may be the most compelling.
Rommens was director of research at Simplot Plant Sciences from 2000 to 2013 where he led development of the company's genetically engineered Innate potato. But over time, Rommens started to have serious doubts about his work and worried about potential health risks from eating the GMO potatoes, which are now sold in 4,000 supermarkets in the U.S.
Rommens' concerns about the GMO potato led him to write a book, Pandora's Potatoes, which was recently published. The book is a case study on how a scientist's initial enthusiasm about genetic engineering turns to doubt and fear as he realizes the hazards the technology can create.
I recently interviewed Caius Rommens about his work developing the GMO potato and the misgivings he now has about it.
Please describe your work developing GMO potatoes and your position at Simplot.
Caius Rommens: I left my position as team leader at Monsanto to start an independent biotech effort at Simplot. During the 12 years I worked there, I designed a genetically modified potato that I believed was resistant to bruise and late blight, and that could be used to produce French fries that were less colored and less carcinogenic than normal fries.
The main genetic engineering of the Simplot GMO potatoes as described in your book was silencing genes called RNAi. What are some of the possible negative consequences of silencing genes?
CR: Silencing is not gene-specific. Any gene with a similar structure to the silencing construct may be silenced as well. It is even possible that the silencing that takes place inside the GM potatoes affects the genes of animals eating these GM potatoes. I am most concerned about bees that don't eat GM potatoes but may use GM potato pollen to feed their larvae. Based on my assessment of the literature, it appears that the silencing constructs are active in pollen.
You say that silencing the PPO (polyphenol oxidase, a gene responsible for browning in potatoes) gene increases toxins that accumulate in the GMO potatoes. Why are these toxins produced and what effects could these toxins produce on human health?
CR: Ex-colleagues of mine had shown that PPO-silencing increases the levels of alpha-aminoadipate by about six-fold. Alpha-aminoadipate is a neurotoxin, and it can also react with sugars to produce advanced glycoxidation products implicated in a variety of diseases.
(A Monsanto GM corn variety, LY038, was found to have high concentrations of alpha-aminoadipate, and an application for its approval in Europe in 2009 was withdrawn after regulators raised safety questions.)
There is no data on the actual levels of alpha-aminoadipate in GM potatoes, but I believe that Simplot should carefully determine these levels.
Similarly, ex-colleagues had shown that the damaged and bruised tissues of potatoes may accumulate high levels of tyramine, another toxin. Such damaged tissues are normally identified and trimmed, but they are concealed, or partially concealed, and much of it is not trimmed in GM potatoes. Therefore, it seems important that Simplot should determine the full spectrum of possible tyramine levels in their GM potatoes.
Another potential toxin is chaconine-malonyl. There is little known about this compound, but ex-colleagues had shown that it is increased by almost 200 percent upon PPO-silencing. This should probably be investigated.
In your book you write that the GMO potatoes don't eliminate bruising but just conceal it. Please explain.
CR: PPO-silencing prevents the darkening of bruises. The suppression of symptoms is so effective that we believed we had overcome the bruise issue. It took me a lot of time to understand that GM potatoes still have bruises—invisible bruises—that are just as damaged as the darkening bruises of normal potatoes. In other words, the invisible bruises still are entry points for pathogens and exit points for water, which are two important issues during storage.
In addition to the claim of eliminating bruises, Simplot says the Innate potato provides "protection against late blight pathogen," and "reduced asparagine, which contributes to reduced acrylamide in cooked potatoes." What are your reactions to these claims?
CR: The GM potato does contain a resistance gene that provides protection against late blight. The problem is that nobody knows how long the protection will last. Plant breeders have tested many different resistance genes in the past, and these genes are almost always overcome by quickly evolving pathogens.
Another issue is that late blight is usually accompanied by other pathogens. In humid regions of the world where late blight is most active, there are dozens of other pathogens. So, growing GM potatoes with a single resistance gene in, for example, Bangladesh is like getting vaccinated for one tropical disease and then moving to the tropics where there are many other diseases.
Next, the reduced asparagine levels do lower the amount of acrylamide in French fries, but these levels are already very low in normal fries. Simplot argues that the reduced acrylamide levels reduce carcinogenicity, but I could not find any reliable studies demonstrating that normal fries are carcinogenic.
The title of your book is Pandora's Potatoes. What led you to choose this title?
CR: During the five years after my departure from Simplot, I realized that I had not been rigorous enough in considering the possibility that my modifications might have caused unintended effects. I then studied the publicly available literature that was relevant to my past work, and identified a number of issues that had been hidden from my view. My GM potatoes had "hidden" issues—like Pandora's Box.
What do you think should be done with these GMO potatoes?
CR: I believe that, for the short term, GM potatoes entering the consumer market should be evaluated for the incidence of hidden bruise and infections and the range in levels of toxins such as alpha-aminoadipate and tyramine.
Do you think the problems you experienced in GMO potatoes will be similar in other GMO plants?
CR: It is my experience that genetic engineers are biased and narrow-minded. They may not be able to critically assess their own creations.
What is your perspective on genetic engineering now after your work with the GMO potato and misgivings about it?
CR: My concern about genetic engineering is that the absence of unintentional effects can never be guaranteed. It may take dozens of years before these effects reveal themselves, and we should be extremely cautious applying the technology.
What is your perspective on CRISPR/gene editing?
CR: The problem with CRISPR is that it changes the function of a gene in all tissues of an organism. This is a very important limitation, because gene changes are mostly "useful" only if implemented in a single tissue.
CRISPR has the same problems as genetic engineering. In my book, I explain that it requires manipulations in tissue culture that cause mutations. These mutations have a negative effect on crop performance and cannot be removed from certain crops including apple and potato.
What do you see as the best alternatives to GMO or conventional mono-cropped potatoes?
CR: Genetic engineering is meant to increase crop uniformity. I believe the opposite approach—to increase crop diversity—will be more effective in increasing the sustainability of farming.
I am most hopeful in the efforts of small companies such as Solynta (A Dutch company that has developed an innovative non-GMO technology for targeted breeding of potatoes). The main benefit of Soylnta's approach is that it breeds potatoes that have a simpler genetic structure than cultivated potatoes—more like that of wild potatoes—so that genetic traits can be combined much more effectively.
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By Zebedee Nicholls and Tim Baxter
Climate Explained is a collaboration between The Conversation, Stuff and the New Zealand Science Media Centre to answer your questions about climate change.
If you have a question you'd like an expert to answer, please send it to firstname.lastname@example.org
Methane is a shorter-lived greenhouse gas - why do we average it out over 100 years? By doing so, do we risk emitting so much in the upcoming decades that we reach climate tipping points?<p>The climate conversation is often dominated by talk of carbon dioxide, and rightly so. <a href="https://www.livescience.com/58203-how-carbon-dioxide-is-warming-earth.html" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Carbon dioxide</a> is the climate warming agent with the biggest overall impact on the heating of the planet.</p><p>But it is not the only greenhouse gas driving climate change.</p>
Comparing Apples and Oranges<p>For the benefit of policy makers, the climate science community set up several ways to compare gases to aid with implementing, monitoring and verifying emissions reduction policies.</p><p>In almost all cases, these rely on a calculated common currency - a carbon dioxide-equivalent (CO₂-e). The most common way to determine this is by assessing the global warming potential (<a href="https://www.epa.gov/ghgemissions/understanding-global-warming-potentials" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">GWP</a>) of the gas over time.</p><p>The simple intent of GWP calculations is to compare the climate heating effect of each greenhouse gas to that created by an equivalent amount (by mass) of carbon dioxide.</p><p>In this way, emissions of one gas - like methane - can be compared with emissions of any other - like carbon dioxide, nitrous dioxide or any of the myriad other greenhouse gases.</p><p><span></span>These comparisons are imperfect but the point of GWP is to provide a defensible way to compare apples and oranges.</p>
Limits of Metrics<p>Unlike carbon dioxide, which is relatively stable and by definition has a GWP value of one, methane is a live-fast, die-young greenhouse gas.</p><p>Methane traps very large quantities of heat in the first decade after it is released in to the atmosphere, but quickly breaks down.</p><p>After a decade, most emitted methane has reacted with ozone to form carbon dioxide and water. This carbon dioxide continues to heat the climate for hundreds or even thousands of years.</p><p>Emitting methane will always be worse than emitting the same quantity of carbon dioxide, no matter the time scale.</p><p>How much worse depends on the time period used to average out its effects. The most commonly used averaging period is 100 years, but this is not the only choice, and it is not wrong to choose another.</p><p>As a starting point, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change's (IPCC) <a href="https://www.ipcc.ch/report/ar5/wg1/anthropogenic-and-natural-radiative-forcing/" title="IPCC AR5 Ch. 8" target="_blank">Fifth Assessment Report</a> from 2013 says methane heats the climate by 28 times more than carbon dioxide when averaged over 100 years and 84 times more when averaged over 20 years.</p>
Many Sources of Methane<p>On top of these base rates of warming, there are other important considerations.</p><p>Fully considered using the 100-year GWP and including natural feedbacks, the IPCC's <a href="https://www.ipcc.ch/report/ar5/wg1/anthropogenic-and-natural-radiative-forcing/" title="IPCC AR5 Ch. 8" target="_blank">report</a> says fossil sources of methane - most of the gas burned for electricity or heat for industry and houses - can be up to 36 times worse than carbon dioxide. Methane from other sources - such as livestock and waste - can be up to 34 times worse.</p><p>While <a href="https://agupubs.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1029/2018GL079826" title="Understanding Rapid Adjustments to Diverse Forcing Agents" target="_blank">some uncertainty remains</a>, a <a href="https://agupubs.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1002/2016GL071930" title="Radiative forcing of carbon dioxide, methane, and nitrous oxide: A significant revision of the methane radiative forcing" target="_blank">well-regarded recent assessment</a> suggested an upwards revision of fossil and other methane sources, that would increase their GWP values to around 40 and 38 times worse than carbon dioxide respectively.</p><p>These works will be assessed in the IPCC's upcoming <a href="https://www.ipcc.ch/assessment-report/ar6/" target="_blank">Sixth Assessment Report</a>, with the physical science contribution due in 2021.</p><p>While we should prefer the most up to date science at any given time, the choice to consider - or not - the full impact of methane and the choice to consider its impact over 20, 100 or 500 years is ultimately political, not scientific.</p><p>Undervaluing or misrepresenting the impact of methane presents a clear risk for policy makers. It is vital they pay attention to the advice of scientists and bodies such as the IPCC.</p><p>Undervaluing methane's impact in this way is not a risk for climate modellers because they rely on more direct assessments of the impact of gases than GWP.</p>
Tipping Points<p>The idea of climate tipping points is that, at some point, we may change the climate so much that it crosses an irreversible threshold.</p><p>At such a tipping point, the world would continue to heat well beyond our capability to limit the harm.</p><p>There are <a href="https://www.pnas.org/content/115/33/8252" title="Trajectories of the Earth System in the Anthropocene" target="_blank">many tipping points</a> we should be aware of. But exactly where these are - and precisely what the implications of crossing one would be - is uncertain.</p>
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Two years ago, J35, a Southern Resident killer whale (SRKW) nicknamed Tahlequah, broke hearts around the world when she carried her dead calf over 1,000 miles over 17 days of apparent mourning. Now, she's given birth to a "robust and lively" calf that researchers are calling a ray of hope for the endangered population, reported The New York Times.
The killer whales, also called orcas, stay off the coast of the Pacific Northwest, near Washington State, Oregon and British Columbia. According to the Marine Mammal Commission, the SRKW population may have historically numbered more than 200 animals prior to the 20th century. Their numbers plummeted due to loss of prey, opportunistic hunting prior to the 1960s and the live capture of nearly 70 Resident and Transient killer whales for marine parks from 1967 to 1971, the commission found. There were only 88 of the iconic whales left when they were listed as endangered in 2005, The New York Times reported, and the population has continued to dwindle since. The birth of the newest orca, called J57, brings the population to 73.
"It's a bit of a nail-biter right now," whale researcher Dr. Deborah Giles from the Center for Conservation Biology told The New York Times. "I can't help but be thrilled that she had this baby and this baby didn't die right away. Everybody is worried and on pins and needles, wondering if this calf is going to make it."
"With such a small population … every successful birth is hugely important for recovery," said a blog post from SR3, the marine conservation group that used drone footage to confirm J35's pregnancy in July and monitor her condition.
Several factors have hurt the population's chances of rebounding, including food scarcity, toxic pollutants that bioaccumulate, and noise pollution, the news report said.
The whales are "essentially starving," reported Smithsonian Magazine. Eighty percent of the SRKW's diet consists of Chinook salmon, the Center for Whale Research wrote. The salmon have declined "significantly" due to commercial fishing and widespread habitat destruction, according to the Marine Mammal Commission.
Government reports also found that agricultural pesticides jeopardize the survival of the salmon. Then, when the orcas eat polluted fish, the chemicals and pesticides eventually end up stored in the whales' fat, suppressing their immune systems, leaving them vulnerable to disease and affecting females' ability to reproduce, reported Smithsonian Magazine.
Additionally, according to the Georgia Straight Alliance, noise disrupts the whales' echolocation and prevents them from hunting, navigating and communicating.
"Both the physical presence of vessels and associated underwater noise hinders Southern Residents' ability to perform basic life activities," the Alliance reported.
To make matters worse, many of the population's pregnancies fail, and around 40% of calves die within their first year, The New York Times reported. Recent scientific findings suggest that these reproductive failures and high calf mortality rates are linked to malnutrition and lack of their preferred salmon prey, reported the Marine Mammal Commission.
With nothing to eat and nowhere to live, the Southern Resident orcas have thus become a symbol for animals on the brink of extinction. J35 became the poster child for her population during her 17-day "tour of grief," catalyzing many groups to call for new protections for the endangered whales.
According to the Center for Whale Research, J52, another two-and-a-half-year-old calf from the J-pod, died presumably from malnutrition one ear earlier.
After the 2018 loss of J35's previous calf, Ken Balcomb, founder of the Center for Whale Research, estimated that the SRKW population only had about five years to rebound or face irreversible decline.
"We've got at most five more years of reproductive life in this population to make it happen"— meaning, to have viable offspring — "but if we don't do it in those five years it isn't going to happen," he told National Geographic in 2018.
That's why, with the birth of J57, researchers are cautiously optimistic.
The encounter report from the Center for Whale Research announcing J57's birth said, "Her new calf appeared healthy and precocious, swimming vigorously alongside its mother in its second day of free-swimming life … We hope this calf is a success story."
Balcom said, "The baby looked very robust and lively, so I have good expectations for this one surviving," reported The New York Times.
He told The New York Times he hoped that recent efforts such as the removal of a dam on the Elwah River would bring back more robust runs of Chinook salmon and issue a turning point for the orcas.
"This new birth brings new hope – for Tahlequah and for all of us," wildlife photographer Alena Ebeling-Schuld told The Guardian. "I am wishing Tahlequah and her new little one the very best with all of my being."
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