THE SELFISH COMMERCIAL GENE

L R B Mann Ph.D.
Retired Senior Lecturer from dept of Biochem. and Envir. Studies,
University of Auckland

 

- "Nuclear fission is scientifically understood, and we have the technology based on that science - nuclear power reactors - commercially mature."

- "Electricity from nuclear power stations will be reliable, clean, and so cheap we often won't bother to meter it."
- "Not one reputable scientist disputes these claims by the enthusiasts for this modern, hi-tech wonder technology."

 

Such euphoric claims went practically unchallenged for as long as a decade from the late 1950s. Then in the late 1960s a few scientists began to tell the public that nuclear reactors could devastate huge areas, and that even if nothing goes wrong at the reactor the spent fuel poses serious hazards. Fortunately for my little country, other sources of electricity (hydro and geothermal) were obviously cheaper so that it was not until the 1960s that our government's nuclear power programme began. The same New Zealand bureaucrats who in 1966 proudly paraded foreign experts planning a nuclear station at Baring Head (12 miles from Parliament) were by 1974 bitterly defensive when the First New Zealand Energy Conference featured1 the leading scientific critic of nuclear power, Henry Kendall of M.I.T. Then the Campaign for Non-nuclear Futures - a terminating ad hoc coalition - got going. By 1979 a Royal Commission of Inquiry had, in effect, laid the programme gently to rest; no-one of any importance has tried to revive it.

 

But let us never forget that several hundred nuclear power reactors were foisted on the world, and many thousands of people doomed by the 1986 Chernobyl accident, as a result of that disgraceful decade when sheer lack of interest among scientists, suppression of the few critics, and stunting of alternatives, left the public crucially ignorant.

 

The recent smug status of genetic engineering eerily recalls that period in the early 1960s when nuclear reactors were "commercialised" on the basis of enthusiasts' claims of understanding & control. New ranks of enthusiastic experts now tell us there's no significant threat from artificial gene transfers: no great harm could result, and any minor mishaps are (they claim) so unlikely that you can forget the hypothetical notion. "The hazards imagined in the mid-'70s have turned out to be unreal" is a typical recent expert quote.

 

Alongside airy dismissal of the dangers, the promised benefits are wildly exaggerated - for example, millions of venture-capital dollars have been procured by claims of imminent production of "pharmaceutical proteins" which in truth are nowhere near medical use and can in at least one case be already obtained free!

 

The nuclear/GE analogy, first propounded by Simring2, and recently taken up anew by Nobel prizewinner Prof. J. Rotblat and by Prof. Liebe Cavalieri, has been oddly neglected. There are very important similarities, but also I will point out some differences.

 

Some countries are further ahead than New Zealand in regulating GE. We have extremely little effective control. Some impression of how badly we are doing can be gained from the 1997 Winter Lectures of the largest university in the country. The annual public Winter Lectures are one of this university's main public faces. All six 1997 lecturers were proponents of GE who certainly don't refer to Professor Kendall or any other jeremiahs. No flops were mentioned. Euphoria & hype reigned.

 

Some of these local experts said they want public discussion, with full information; one of them even claimed this is already happening. The university's gender ('Equal Opportunity') police inserted a woman discussant for the final lecture - but no biologist or ethicist suspected of opposing GE.

 

"We have the technology" intoned these top-ranking biological scientists several of whom had previously invited & publicised, while protecting from discussion, Richard 'Selfish Gene' Dawkins3. In dismissing metaphysics Dawkins ascribes the coherence of evolution, and even properties such as intentionality, to mere molecules (viz. DNA), while denying morality and asserting that there is no plan or sense in evolution. If all is senseless, then nothing can be wrong4. This is the star biologist who serves to justify, by the novel trick of reducing it to meaninglessness, the breathtaking hubris of genetic engineering.

 

The Doubts

Many scientific and moral leaders have5 queried GE. The very bases in science & ideology upon which GE technology is founded - neo-Darwinism3 and the 'master molecule' idol status6 for DNA - are coming under strenuous criticism from scientific thinkers. Genes are not passive toy modules which can be blithely slotted into very different organisms free from unintended effects. Rogue diseases are a genuine concern arising from detailed, sceptical appraisal of some GE projects7. But global ecological damage is the gravest threat.

 

A simple example may suffice to wake up at least some. The first field-trial proposed in the USA for a GE'd organism was cunningly chosen in that it entailed no added gene at all, but merely a protected from frost damage by replacing a natural bacterium on their leaves with a GE'd version differing only in lacking a cell-surface protein which catalyses the formation of ice from supercooled water. Since the GE'd mutant differed only in not making this surface protein, it might well proliferate faster than the wild type. This 'ice-minus' microbe looked innocent enough to most.

 

However, bacterial spores are known to get lofted into the stratosphere. The energy balance of our planet depends to a considerable extent on cirrus clouds in the stratosphere. Cirrus clouds are not fog (droplets of liquid) but ice particles. The rate of formation of this ice from water vapour is partly dependent on a variety of catalytic processes, some involving various solid particles which provide what is called nucleation. If spores of this bacterium are among those stratospheric nucleating particles, the supplanting in nature of the wild type by the GE'd ice-minus version might decrease the albedo (reflectivity) of the whole planet! This could further accelerate global warming just when it is already raising sea-level etc.

 

Most of the ghastly biohazards are not readily imagined by those untrained in biochemistry, but their context can be sketched. Evolution is thought to have occurred lately in the main by transposons, groups of genes leaping across by various mechanisms into phylogenetically remote organisms. Examples include the haemoglobin found surprisingly in root nodules of some leguminous plants. A more important example is the recent evolution of the eye. It is unlikely that a given type of eye evolved independently in many lines of descent - far more likely that transposons 'infected' other lines in a main mechanism of the saltations which punctuate evolution. Something approaching a glimpse of this recent mechanism in action has been achieved in Ronson's study 8 of Rhizobium bacteria in very poor soils of Central Otago, New Zealand. Several native Rhizobium species unable to fix nitrogen, and lacking several other assimilative abilities, appear to have acquired all these characteristics by a 10% addition to their genome, transferred from inoculant rhizobia inhabiting root nodules on a plot of foreign Lotus within only several years after introduction. How this half-million base-pairs of DNA got transposed is unknown and evidently difficult to study. Our understanding of these natural mechanisms is in its infancy.

 

One tawdry old argument we have heard since 1974 and can expect to hear again in all its flagrant deceit is the claim that gene transfers occur naturally so GE is only hastening them. This line of talk is a smoke-screen designed to obscure the fact that GE usually performs artificial transfers which are not believed to occur in nature. If we change the rates, or even worse the specificities, with which genes can jump around, we may wreak biological havoc on a global scale. Go back to Ovid's Metamorphoses to glimpse what might go wrong.

 

Among the biological materials used for GE are small pieces of DNA called plasmids, depicted by all the Winter Lecture experts as simple predictable carriers of engineered-in genes. Yet a main expert on such things, Prof. Abigail Salyers, has issued (with colleagues) some startling warnings, e.g. in the prestigious Microbiological Reviews (Dec. 1995)9:

 

"According to conventional wisdom, a plasmid used to introduce a gene into a genetically engineered microorganism can be rendered nontransmissible… [on the contrary] there is no such thing as a "safe" plasmid… conjugative transposons, as modern sphinxes, are challenging us with a riddle we may have to answer in order to survive: what can be done to slow or stop the transfer of antibiotic resistance genes…?"

 

But the gene jockeys claim they can, godlike, foresee the evolutionary results of their artificial transposings of human genes into sheep, bovine genes into tomatoes, etc. This is extreme, deluded arrogance; for the theologically inclined, I commend one chapter: Genesis:3.

 

The Commerce

Doubts have been swept aside by the thrust of transnational corporations funding university and 'crown' GE labs, as well as small groups of academics starting GE firms (a far cheaper image to erect than that of a nuclear reactor manufacturer).

 

A further subtle commercial lure is the relative difficulty of tracing the offender when the 'one in a million' mishap occurs. The Swedes in April 1986 only briefly thought the unusual radioactivity in one of their nuclear stations was from another of their own - it was traced to Chernobyl within days; but if an epidemic of this or that disease breaks out amongst cows or humans near the city of Hamilton, the fact that the nearby government research station at Ruakura has been largely given over to GE for foreign purchasers will not suffice to sheet home any blame. Any ensuing inquiry would elicit much closing of ranks as most of the scientists able to understand such arcane matters covered up for each other. Ronald Reagan's favourite criterion - deniability - is all too easily arranged in the GE business.

 

How Much Harm; How Often?

In appraising dangerous technologies, it is best to estimate the hazard - the scale of harm in the event of a major mishap - as a separate question, and then analyse if possible the risk - the probability that the major mishap will occur. Much confusion between these two aspects of danger has been created by language-tampering, even in such formal arenas as the Journal of Risk Analysis.

 

The hazards of GE rival even nuclear war. Biology is so much more complex than technology that we should not pretend we can imagine all the horror scenarios, but it is suspected that some artificial genetic manipulations create the potential to derange the biosphere for longer than any civilisation could survive. If only enthusiasts are consulted in appraisal of GE proposals, such scenarios will not be thought of.

 

The nuclear parallel is again cogent. Not until the 'Rasmussen/Levine' report 10 of 1974 were sceptical analysts such as Kendall and Lovins asked for their opinions (and then they were ignored 11).

 

Attempts to predict the chances of technological disasters have an interesting if sordid history. NASA rocket experts developed in the 1960s the pioneer version of risk assessment. Their mathematical models ('fault trees') predicted the failure rate of a particular rocket stage to be 10-4 per demand i.e. one failure (on average) per 10,000 launches. After two failures in the first 100 tests, NASA abandoned the attempt to predict absolute failure rates of complex systems such as rocket engines, and relegated fault-tree analysis to the more modest role of comparisons between similar designs. Its creators having thus abandoned it, the nuclear reactor enthusiasts then misused this discredited method to produce the 'one in a million' slogans of the AEC 'Rasmussen/Levine' report. Next, the LPG industry took over these discredited 'one in a million' mottos, and this type of confusing pseudo-scientific PR remains a lucrative trade right down to the present day, notably in the hands of consultants such as Science Applications Inc. and Arthur D Little Corp. But, a decade ago, the leading Australasian experts in applied mathematics testified on oath in New Zealand that no useful accuracy was available by these obfuscatory formulae.

 

Attempts at risk analysis for GE are, obviously, doomed to be even more misleading. The system of a living cell, even if no viruses or foreign plasmids (let alone prions) are tossed in, is incomparably more complex than a nuclear reactor. There is no prospect of imagining most of the ways it can go badly wrong after the abuse entailed in foreign genes inserted by glass needle, or by micro-shotgun, or by infective particle of whatever sort. Evidently, one cannot begin to estimate the risk of a mishap the qualitative form of which has not yet been imagined. We do not and cannot know how to put useful, justified numbers on the chances of severe GE mishaps.

 

You do not have to be a rocket or GE scientist to understand these general truths about biology. Many gene-splicings come to naught; some others may yield only the desired outcome; but the few major mishaps, as with nuclear power, dominate the assessment so as to rule out this approach to science and life.

 

The hazard certainly includes some mortality: at least 27 people were killed before 1992 by impurities in tryptophan (a natural amino acid, sold as a 'dietary supplement' to avoid medicine regulations) made by Showa Denko using a GE'd microbial culture12. By now, dozens have died from this poisoning and thousands remain crippled, and Showa Denko have paid out U$2billion to keep out of court13. This actual damage by GE is one basis of the campaign for labelling as such any GE'd foods, even including highly purified oils, sugars etc., which may be permitted.

 

Who should bear the burden of proof in such a context of ignorance? How long must objectors continue to be mocked & marginalised?

 

Vague Boundaries

As in nuclear science, so with genetic engineering: the tag 'nuclear' does not necessarily connote any serious degree of hazard, and some versions of GE may well be quite OK. You do therefore have to perform sceptical analyses of GE proposals if you want to assess their hazards.

 

Law

Parliaments have generally failed to enact legal regulation of GE, and New Zealand's has been slacker than most. In the late 1970s, the N.Z. Association of Scientists proposed a ban on GE pending a full public inquiry. This policy, which is still regarded as correct for today7, was taken up two decades ago by a few politicians. But the genetic engineers had one or two rabid advocates in Parliament and avoided hostile scrutiny.

 

Some regulations were drafted but were stuck on paper for years, recalling the 8 years of limbo between our Radiation Protection Act 1965 and the regulations required to give that act any real effect.

 

Having taught on Environmental hazards for many years in science & medical faculties, and having served as an adviser to successive Ministers of Health over a decade on the Toxic Substances Board, I know all too well how increasingly overloaded government staff, even when backed by statutory powers, get subverted by not only the specific claims but more importantly the whole value-system of the industries which they are supposed to regulate. The imbalance is particularly severe for such pathetic pretences as have been staged to regulate GE. But that seems to me all the more reason to insist on legal regulations and real enforcement. Now the Environmental Risk Management Authority, with three dozen staff, has begun operations under the Hazardous Substances and New Organisms Act, but turns out so far to be a rubber stamp.

 

Pseudo-regulatory Advice

An interesting example is the current attempt to genetically engineer human proteins in N.Z. sheep. A small Scottish company (Pharmaceutical Proteins Ltd - the 'Dolly' procreators & impresarios - financed by a large German multi-national) wanted to field-test in New Zealand ewes GE'd to make in their milk a human protein called by the unhelpful name alpha-1 antitrypsin (abbreviated AAT)14. The only reason stated for doing such experiments in N.Z. was this country's scrapie-free status. The Ministry for the Environment's Interim Assessment Group (IAG)15, although devoid of experts on prions (scrapie, BSE, etc.) and dominated by GE enthusiasts who appear to think that fears of GE are absurd, advised their Minister to refuse, which he did. Reasons, when reluctantly disclosed, turned out to be mere econobabble; prions were not mentioned. The IAG had previously approved a broadly similar proposal by Genzyme Corp. of Massachusetts for making in goats' milk at Lincoln University another human protein - CFTR - with no therapeutic use (which had however been termed "pharmaceutical" by the experimenting company); this experiment was a total flop but no details have been revealed.

 

Prevalent misinformation tending to favour the AAT project, due partly to an anonymous 'news' report16, requires correction in at least the following respects.

 

(a) AAT-deficiency is equated with congenital emphysema, an unjustified jump beyond the evidence. Most of those born AAT-deficient do not develop lung disorders. Reports on N.Z. TV and in newspapers, and the organiser of the Winter Lectures, have credited AAT as a treatment for emphysema ; the public would take this to mean the common smoking-induced illness, greatly exaggerating the claim of usefulness. The congenital version is very much rarer, if a proper diagnostic category at all.

 

(b) AAT is asserted to be in use now to treat congenital emphysema, whereas such crude preliminary trials as have been done prove very little. In fact there exists no use, let alone a market, for genuine human AAT which is routinely purified as a by-product and discarded in standard blood-bank fractionations of pooled human plasma.

 

(c) AAT is implied to be very valuable, which factoid is then used to justify attempted production by genetic engineering (U$100,000/y per ewe). All this "future earnings" stimulates a stock-market ramp before anything saleable has actually been produced.

 

The Minister 'for' the Environment, ex-Rhodes Scholar & lawyer Mr Simon Upton, solicited17 a modified application, which was approved on economic grounds13. According to the first Winter Lecturer, the part-human sheep are now on a farm "somewhere in the North Island".

 

All that was during the years when committees dominated by proponents of GE solemnly advised ministers in an extra-legal charade. Now the ERMA, which does wield legal powers, has issued permission for PPL to expand to 10,000 their GE flock, ignoring the proof that AAT is of no use and is in any case available (and genuine human!) from blood-bank fractionations.

 

This particular caper is only one of many similar. The standards of truthfulness in the GE trade are reminiscent of those prevailing in the computer trade, with which it has intimate links

 

Global Reach

Our little nation produced the scientist of this century, who led the world as none has done since. But today we are reduced to the status of 'the Liberia of genetic engineering' as transnational corporations conduct here some field tests which their home governments would probably not permit. Government, gutted & starved by the ideological hatred of public enterprise (Rogernomics, Ruthanasia, and now Jenocide - our versions of Thatcherism), is largely warped to the commercial service of foreign corporations, and is almost totally unable, so far, to regulate GE.

 

Wake Up!

It is now a quarter-century since genetic engineering was identified in the same league as nuclear weapons among major threats to the biosphere. During this period, market forces have prevailed instead of informed democracy.

 

Genetic engineering is by now more popular - more widely practised - than dangerous versions of nuclear science ever were. But it represents a profoundly wrong view of biology.

 

Misallocation of money, and more importantly of scientific talent6 seduced by GE, are among the reasons why the duty to care for natural ecosystems is so disgracefully neglected. Greedy nerds applying the hacker mentality to life itself is the ultimate decadent technomania. The prostitution of science is most complete and most dangerous in the selfish commercial gene. When will we muster the ethical power to wake up from this sleepwalking?

 

What should we advocate?

I suggest the key demand is for a full public inquiry, rather like the Royal Commission on Nuclear Power which proved so useful and fairly cheap. As the Royal Society of NZ fronts for the GE industry, touring Dr Richard Bellamy & Professor Sir John Scott to say there's little to worry about, it is surely obvious that the public will have severe difficulties in discerning right from wrong. Nothing will serve to clarify the issue for the purposes of democracy short of a Royal Commission equipped with its own expert staff.

 

The role of emotion is often misrepresented by enthusiasts for dangerous technologies. They decry as 'emotive' any argument or fact inconvenient to their cause, but their own enthusiasm does not count as undesirable emotion; indeed they pretend to be 'objective' - devoid of emotion - when in fact they're ruled by emotion, against reason.

 

What To Do Instead of GE

We did not just campaign against nuclear power. People want to know what to do instead. The Campaign for Non-nuclear Futures took every opportunity to point out better technology & ideas.

 

Instead of GE, and agribusiness more generally, the only real hope for feeding the world is organic agriculture. If we can do it with apples, as is being achieved in NZ now, we can do it much more generally. The lower costs more than compensate for the cases of slightly lower yields; in general the yields of organic gardening are several times those achieved in agribusiness.

 

We are, obviously, a small minority. But please remember that a man I mentioned earlier was sent in as a government undercover agent to spy on a half-dozen apparent crazies in Munich, and this tiny minority certainly ended up changing history!

 

GE is now so widely deployed that it will take some time & effort to bring under control. But we have right on our side.

 

* * * * *

Dr Robert Mann was Senior Lecturer in Biochemistry and then the first (& last) Senior Lecturer in Environmental Studies, University of Auckland, New Zealand. In retirement he works mainly on solar-thermal and motorcycling inventions.

* * * * *

References

1 H W Kendall 'Nuclear Power - a review of its problems' 134-147 in A R Bellamy & L R B Mann (eds) 'Energy In New Zealand' University of Auckland Centre for Continuing Education 1974. I mention here with deep regret the recent death of Professor Kendall, founder of the Union of Concerned Scientists which has become a main critic of genetic engineering.

2 F Simring Science 192 940 (1976) (letter drawing the nuclear/GE analogy)

3 N D Broom Ecologist 28 (1) 23-28 (1998); much more detail in idem 'How Blind is the Watchmaker?' Aldershot: Ashgate 1998

4 (in this summary of Dawkins' amorality I allude to Charles Manson's immortal dictum "if all is one, then nothing is wrong")

5 see e.g. D T Suzuki, P Knudtson 'Genethics' Sydney: Allen & Unwin 1989; D Straton Ecologist 7 381-8 (1977); W R Wilson N.Z. Envir. 17 21-26 (1977); L Cavalieri 'The Double-Edged Helix' NY: Coumbia Univ Press 1977

6 R C Strohman 'The Coming Kuhnian revolution in biology' Nat. Biotech. 15, 194-200 (1997); D Nelkin, M S Lindee 'The DNA Mystique: the gene as a cultural icon' NY: Freeman 1995

7 Mae Wan Ho Ecologist 27 (4) 152-8 (1997)

8 J T Sullivan, C W Ronson et al. Appl.. & Envir. Microbiol. 62 2818-25 (1996) and Proc. Nat. Acad. Sc. U.S. 95 5145-9 (1998)

9 A Salyers et al. Microbiol. Rev. 59 579-90 (1995)

10 N Rasmussen, S Levine et al. Reactor Safety Study (WASH-1400); and public comments. Washington DC: Atomic Energy Commission 1974

11 N Rasmussen, S Levine et al. Reactor Safety Study (NUREG-075). Washington DC: Nuclear Regulatory Commission 1975

12 summarised, with refs., in the Australian House of Representatives report 'Genetic Manipulation' pp.203-6 (1992)

13 see http://www.nemsn.org/ems/home.html and http://www.natuurwetpartij.nl/genmanipkampanje/infogenmanip/algemeen/tryptofaan.html

14 This protein, more helpfully called an elastase inhibitor, is synthesised in the liver and secreted into the blood with congenitally varying efficiency. A review on AAT, R N Sifers Nat. Struct. Biol. 2 (5) 355-7 (1995), does not suggest that low lung AAT levels constitute any kind of emphysema.

15 IAG report to 30 June 1996; also Advisory Committee on Novel Genetic Techniques report to March 1996. Wellington: Ministry for the Environment (Aug. 1997)

16 Anon. 'A Biotech Bonanza On the Hoof?' Science 259 1698 (1993)

17 'Minister vetoes trials on genetically engineered sheep' The Dominion [Wellington] 26-8-95


"Genetically Engineered Food - Safety Problems"
Published by PSRAST

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