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Intervention by Denise Caruso Read Intervention by Denise Caruso, Executive Director of the Hybrid Vigor Silver Award Winner, 2007 Independent Publisher Book Awards; Best Business Books 2007, Strategy+Business Magazine

NEW IDEAS ABOUT GENES?
AGAIN, I SAY: SPEAK TO ME OF RISK

by Denise Caruso ~ November 13, 2008.
Permalink | Filed under: Hybrid Vigor, 21st Century Risk, Policy and Decisions, 'Intervention', Planetary Life.

It is not always happy-making to be ahead of one’s time.

On Tuesday, the New York Times published package of articles that explored new genetic research and new ideas of what a gene is.

Much of the package was based on the findings of the ENCODE study, which was sponsored by the National Human Genome Research Institute.

The upshot of ENCODE, which was published about a year and a half ago, in June 2007, was pretty straightforward: the human genome is not a “tidy collection of independent genes,” after all, with each sequence of DNA linked to a single protein, which in turn is linked to a single function, like the production of an enzyme.

Instead, genes appear to operate in a complex network, and interact and overlap with one another and with other components in ways will challenge scientists ‘’to rethink some long-held views about what genes are and what they do.'’

The lead story in the package notes this perspective, writing that scientists “no longer conceive of a typical gene as a single chunk of DNA encoding a single protein,” and quoting one of them as saying, simply, “It cannot work that way.”

YES! I was so excited that this issue was finally going to get some attention. Not only was one of the central themes of my book, Intervention, but I too wrote a column about ENCODE for the New York Times — called “A Challenge to Gene Theory, A Tougher Look at Biotech” — right after the results were published, in July 2007.

In it, I asked what (to me) is the most obvious and important question, but it was addressed nowhere in the NYT package:

If so much of what we know about genes is wrong, how does this change the decisions made about the safety of the thousands of biotech products already on the market, from pharmaceuticals to living transgenic organisms, that were based on these very faulty — in fact, almost completely backwards — scientific assumptions?

Fact is, all of the proposed benefit of genetic engineering (including its “no-risk” profile) comes from this assumption: that DNA will produce the same protein in whatever genome it’s planted, and that’s all it will do — that the host organism will be essentially unchanged except for expressing that one additional trait.

The FDA’s consumer magazine published an article on plant breeding in 2003 that made the same declaration. The benefit of genetic engineering, it said, is that it is “more precise and predictable … a single gene may be added” to a plant to give it a single specific characteristic without transferring the undesirable traits.

All things considered, revisiting the question of risk is an absolutely logical, rational, fair — and, I might add, pretty important — line of inquiry. Thus I remain completely baffled about why even the smartest journalists in the mainstream media are completely ignoring it.

I understand that these products are having no gross effects. People aren’t dropping in the streets with big oozy pustules, whole farm fields are not being laid to waste, and so forth. If they were that obvious, we’d have figured out a connection.

But physiological effects can be invisible, subtle, and even cumulative. And because there is no required tracking or monitoring of biotech drugs or organisms once they’ve been sold, we will have no way of knowing what these effects might be until it’s too late.

Also, it must be stressed, ENCODE’s findings are not new information.

Molecular biologists and geneticists did and do know that the “one gene, one protein” theory hasn’t held water for several decades.

Just for starters, they know that there are some 20,000 protein coding sequences in the human genome, while there are probably hundreds of thousands of proteins (some even say millions). They know they are nowhere near knowing how the mechanisms work that trigger their production.

Epigenetics, which studies changes in the appearance of an organisms or in gene expression that are caused by mechanisms other than changes in the underlying DNA sequence, is just one of many areas of study in molecular biology that demonstrates a long-standing rejection of this simplistic notion of the gene.

For their part, organismal biologists — those who study whole organisms, like fish and insects and mammals, not just their DNA — as well as population geneticists and evolutionary biologists and behavioral geneticists, have never hewed to the “über DNA” perspective. For them, it has never held explanatory power outside the lab, in the real world that they live in and study.

As one molecular biologist I know once said to me, “This perspective changes the nature of the questions we ask.”

Oh, how I wish that were true!

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