Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Frankenfood or Monster Myth?

Mary Shelly was wedded to Percy Shelley, one of the
great poets of the early 19th century. But she was fair
writer on her own. Note the bolts on the monster’s
neck. These were added by make-up artist Jack P.
Pierce. He said they were electrodes, not bolts, even
though Mary Shelly never actually wrote that
the good doctor used electrodes on the body.
Can you think of anything scarier for Halloween than an irresponsible scientist letting his creation loose on the world? Now imagine that his creation is something that violates our human sense of decency and reverence for the dead. Well, that’s the story behind Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein.

The movies and stories about Frankenstein’s monster usually highlight the way in which the monster was created and his ugliness and hatred, but that isn’t what the book is about. It’s a story of responsibility in science and toward others.

The Age of Enlightenment had just ended when Frankenstein was written, and the Romantic period was in full bloom. A switch from science to emotion meant that the facts and discoveries about the world now needed to be examined, not just accepted. Here was where Mary found her message – a person must be responsible for the things he/she creates – be it physical things, knowledge, or opinion.

Electrical impulses make muscles move. Adding salt to
freshly skinned frog legs is a lot like hitting the with a
mild jolt of electricity. This is like Galvani demonstrated
with the corpse of the murderer and the image Mary
Shelly evoked in her novella.
The science of the monster’s reanimation was not the focus, but Mary had good knowledge of the latest science of the day, and this is what informed her making of the monster.

Just before 1800, Luigi Galvani had published on the ability of electricity to excite the muscles of dead animals – the innate electrical force of living tissue came to be known as “galvanism.” In 1803, Galvani applied an electrical charge to the corpse of executed murderer Thomas Forster, and the body jolted and moved – a good visual for Mary.

One indication that a story is a classic is whether its themes are applicable to different eras. Frankenstein may be even more applicable to our times than it was to Mary’s. Current debates boil over the uses and limitations of science.

The issue most often compared to Frankenstein’s monster is genetically modified organisms (GMOs). Have you heard of the term, “Frankenfoods?” This is the name that opponents of GMOs and particularly GM foods use to taint the agricultural biotechnology industry.

The fears are that by tampering with nature and introducing genes into organisms, we are creating monsters that might have unexpected effects on us. It’s a good marketing campaign idea, and it has taken off.

Europe and Russia have banned all GM foods, out of fears that they may contain toxins or mutagens that would harm the consumers. One fear is that DNA from the genetically modified organisms would be transferred to the eater and combine with their own DNA. That is a scary idea.

The problem is, you take up DNA from the food you eat every day, although not whole genes as the fearmongers warn. Digestion breaks down DNA, so we take up mostly nucleotides and short stretches of nucleic acid. No recorded evidence exists of uptake of an entire gene.

Dr. Frankenstein used all natural body parts, no artificial
sweeteners, additives or preservatives, and good old-
fashioned electricity. If he was sold in the market, the
monster could be labeled as organic! No genetic
modification here.
Websites and books talk about the dangers of GM foods, but it hasn’t shown up in the scientific literature. Most of the papers that have announced negative ramifications have later been retracted. I’ll give a typical example.

In 2012, a researcher named Seralini from the U. of Caen announced that an herbicide used with GM foods (glyphosate in Roundup) caused tumors. He didn’t just publish it - he had a press conference with the concurrent release of his book on the subject and videos in three different languages. It turns out that he also had a company that was preparing to market a product as a “protectant” against glyphosate. The study was subsequently retracted, but a modified version with a conclusion that “more study is needed” was re-published in a lesser journal, but without peer-review.

Other studies on the dangers of GM foods have been correlative, meaning that when you see “A”, you often see “B.” But that doesn’t mean that A causes B, or that B causes A. Remember this, correlation does not imply causation. This is also seen when assessing the rise in gluten allergy. Gluten allergy goes up at the same time more GM wheat is being used. GM wheat must cause gluten allergy. Nope. Several recent studies (like here and here) show that GM has no more endogenous allergens than wild type wheat.

The truth - we need more studies. There are real issues to be dealt with, like does introduction of a particular gene cause plant toxins to be increased – this could be bad for us. The idea is the same as in Mary Shelly book – we must be responsible for those things we make. No GMO or GM food should go to market without extensive testing.

The testing to date shows that there are no health risks associated with GM foods. Longitudinal studies from 2014, 2013, and 2012 of live stock feeds showed that animals fed GM crops over five generations showed no ill health effects and their meat was exactly like that of animals fed conventional feed. By the middle of 2013, over 600 studies showing that GM foods carried no health risks had been peer-reviewed and published.

Synthetic biology has arrived. Vanilla is a very expensive
crop to produce. But a gene has been constructed and
vanillin is now produced in yeast. They ferment sugar and
produce vanillin. This is more natural than artificial vanilla,
and contains many of the metabolites that make vanilla
taste like vanilla.
The problem with hidden agendas like Seralina's goes both ways; a 2014 editorial on the safety of GM foods was written by a Monsanto employee, the company that markets GM corn and soybeans. Society must be diligent and demand top-notch, transparent science. This was one of Shelly’s themes, Dr. Frankenstein conducted his work in private, with no comment from society about whether it should be done at all.

The next generation will have more issues to deal with, like synthetic biology (not merely taking a gene from one organism and putting it another, but constructing a gene or genes from scratch and then inserting them). We need a science literate population that can judge and reason for themselves. And that’s why we learn biology.

Contributed by Mark E. Lasbury, MS, MSEd, PhD
As Many Exceptions As Rules

Lupi R, Denery-Papini S, Rogniaux H, Lafiandra D, Rizzi C, De Carli M, Moneret-Vautrin DA, Masci S, & Larré C (2013). How much does transgenesis affect wheat allergenicity?: Assessment in two GM lines over-expressing endogenous genes. Journal of proteomics, 80, 281-91 PMID: 23403254
Herman RA, & Ladics GS (2011). Endogenous allergen upregulation: transgenic vs. traditionally bred crops. Food and chemical toxicology : an international journal published for the British Industrial Biological Research Association, 49 (10), 2667-9 PMID: 21784119

Van Eenennaam AL, & Young AE (2014). Prevalence and impacts of genetically engineered feedstuffs on livestock populations. Journal of animal science, 92 (10), 4255-78 PMID: 25184846

Snell C, Bernheim A, Bergé JB, Kuntz M, Pascal G, Paris A, & Ricroch AE (2012). Assessment of the health impact of GM plant diets in long-term and multigenerational animal feeding trials: a literature review. Food and chemical toxicology : an international journal published for the British Industrial Biological Research Association, 50 (3-4), 1134-48 PMID: 22155268

McCall WV, Andrade C, & Sienaert P (2014). Searching for the mechanism(s) of ECT's therapeutic effect. The journal of ECT, 30 (2), 87-9 PMID: 24755719

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