While we here at GMO Journal have thus far focused on genetically modified foods, a recent news article further emphasized just how inescapable and ubiquitous biotechnology has become in our lives.
Discovery News is reporting that a new breed of genetically engineered dandelions is currently in development and could be implemented in a number of industrial, chemical and pharmaceutical uses. Currently, transgenic dandelions are used to create dandelion-derived latex. The biotechnology that is used in creation of dandelion-derived latex, however, can be implemented to create not only car tires but also insulin for diabetics, artificial sugars and drugs for other diseases.
Here’s why dandelion latex is valuable.
For thousands of years, most of the world’s rubber has come from tropical rubber trees. A diagonal cut in the trunk allows the white latex to drip into hanging cans, which can then be harvested and eventually turned into a variety of different materials.
Natural rubber contains trace amounts of biological impurities, which is a beneficial aspect for car tire makers as those impurities give vulcanized rubber a give and elasticity they can’t get anywhere else. Yet, those same impurities trigger life-threatening allergic reactions in some people. People allergic to rubber have to rely on synthetic or petroleum-based rubber as such rubber would typically have fewer impurities than natural rubber.
Now consider dandelions, which can produce latex that has both the elasticity of natural rubber without the allergens, making it an ideal alternative to rubber tree latex.
Here’s where biotechnology comes into play.
Naturally occurring dandelion-derived latex is difficult to obtain. Because dandelion latex transforms from a liquid to a solid on contact with the air through the action of enzymes (process known as polymerization), turpentine and naphtha are usually required to chemically extract the latex from the shredded remains of dandelions. To eliminate the enzyme responsible for the phase change, German scientists engineered a special virus. Once inside the dandelion, the virus deletes the genetic sequence from the dandelion’s DNA, and once the plant’s head is popped off, the latex begins to flow freely.
Elastic but allergy-free latex is only one of potential uses for dandelion. If the gene that eliminates polymerization can be knocked out through the use of a virus, genes that produce other enzymes can be added using the same method. Thus, as mentioned above, scientists could add enzymes for insulin, artificial sugars and drugs for other diseases using this method of plant infection.
Besides informing us about transgenic dandelions, the Discover News article also highlights vastly different views on biotechnology by Americans and the Europeans. Genetic modification is a pariah in Europe. At least the Europeans have a more vibrant debate with respect to genetically modified foods and crops. German scientists who developed the genetically engineered dandelion, not surprisingly, know that should they try to harvest genetically engineered dandelions, they will meet “fierce” resistance from groups opposing genetically modified crops. Which is why the Germans next attempt is to try and breed the offending dandelion gene using traditional breeding methods – but that will take five years.
The Americans, however, are said to have more liberal attitude towards GM, especially when it comes to plants that don’t produce food, and are expected to get to the harvesting faster. William Ravlin, for example, a scientist at Ohio State University who also works on dandelion-derived rubber, and whose research is funded by Bridgestone Tires as well as the State of Ohio, thinks five years is too long and I have little doubt that he will get there faster.
Does the rest of the world believe that Americans espouse “liberal” views with respect to GMO’s? Is it really accurate to describe Americans as having more “liberal attitudes” towards biotechnology? Or, rather, is it more accurate to say that Americans are not exposed to sufficient unbiased information from which to formulate their opinions? Personal responsibility certainly plays a role in opinion formation but many people do not have the time to explore all aspects of an issue and instead rely on sources that they think they can trust to deliver to them balanced views–sources which are probably not free from industry influences. I doubt that the same Americans with “liberal” biotechnology views would continue with their hearty approval if they knew that “pharma” food crops are very likely to contaminate the food supply with drugs and industrial chemicals that potentially pose serious human health risks. The word “liberal” implies a progressive and an enlightened view towards an issue. When people are ill-informed or under-informed their position can hardly be called “liberal.”
Secondly, implicit in the article is the unsettling idea that if you are living in America, harvesting of genetically modified dandelions (and other pharma crops) to produce rubber and drugs, is coming your way, sooner than one might think, especially if the USDA implements the new rules which many believe would provide exceptionally weak oversight of the agricultural biotechnology industry. Are we ready for an ever greater presence of genetically modified crops in our fields and our food?
Read the original Discovery News article here.
Further reading from Union of Concerned Scientists:
USDA Biotech Regulations Could Allow Drugs in Food, by Jane Rissler