Monday, July 23, 2012

Genetic Modification for Dummies..

Dear Friends,
My mail regarding a letter to the Health Ministry, on GMO/LMOs has elicited a lot of response asking me to explain in simple terms the dangers involved. Well, to the best of my abilities, here is the attempted simplification.
We are all aware of the dangers of nuclear energy. This energy is dangerous because it involves changes with the basic building blocks of matter. Similarly genetic engineering is dangerous because it deals with the basic building block of life forms.
In this age we are in a hurry to commercialise things, and also to go in for large scale production. We are also in an age that seeks to merge science with commerce. Whereas to the lay person this appears sane and practical, to those studying these aspects closely the dangers are very apparent. When profits come into the picture safety is thrown to the winds and reckless manipulation becomes rampant.
We live in the age of science. However there are many things that have become a stumbling block in the path of our scientific quest. Science has no room for personal prejudice or errors but today these very defects dominate the scientific arena. Researchers are motivated to find the "proper" answer induced by the funds of corporates who sponsor the research. It also does not help when corporate CEOs sit on the boards of scientific organisations. Or when the defaulters themselves are asked to probe into allegations against them.
We see all these coming into play in the field of genetic engineering also, just as what has happened in the case of pesticides, medicine and environment pollution to name a few areas.
The genetic engineers started looking into the functioning of genes to know more about life. After the DNA was identified came the urge to manipulate things. Gene manipulation was seen as the panacea for all ills, whether it was a case of curing and preventing diseases, creating new organisms or modifying existing ones. The newspapers were suddenly full of possibilities for this sector and it did not take long for the industry to jump into the bandwagon.
In the process the warnings of the genetic engineers about the dangers of gene manipulation were pushed into the background. The genetic engineers are basically concerned about the following;
1. Not enough is known about the role of genes in shaping life. The gorilla is 99%
    similar to human beings in genetic structure and yet so vastly different !!
2. Genes do not work in a predictable manner. They are fluid, that is they can work
    in any direction and hence are unpredictable.
3. Only 5% of the DNA is mapped, the rest 95% is considered to be "junk". Nature
    has no place for such junk. Except for fat, no junk is ever stored.
4. Genetic engineering has exposed many myths, for example the virus theory of
    disease, as viruses have been discovered to be carriers of genetic material, and
    are ordinarily essential for maintaining life. Such findings have far reaching
    consequences and will not be addressed in a hurry due to resistance by the
    industry that has grown up based upon these myths.
5. Genes are not static entities but are constantly adapting to changed circumstances
    within the body and also actively interacting with the external environment.
6. No two DNA are similar, as we have noticed through DNA testing of individuals, and
    therefore the question is, "Whose DNA has been mapped?"
7. Genetic manipulation can "jump species", that is, changes to one species can
    unpredictably affect other species.
8. Exposure to genetically modified organisms cause reactions, both immediate as
    well as long term. Some immediate reactions have been observed. No one has yet
   studied the long term aspects.
9. Genetic modifications are irreversible and uncontrollable. Unlike nuclear
    reactors we cannot build a shield around living organisms.
10.Costs involved are horrendous. It costs approx Rs. 90 crores to map a genome.
11.Genetic engineering as a tool in the hands of any political entity would make
     Nazi experiments look like a sick joke.
12.There are obvious ethical implications of playing with life forms.
All the above warnings are tremendously important but have been ill addressed. All the warnings have been found to be correct, based on subsequent happenings and yet facts are being suppressed from the general public.
It is not enough, as is being suggested by the Indian government, that GM produce based products carry an appropriate label. GM contamination is not limited to consumption but starts from the experiment itself, down to production and handling of the produce. The Govt of India is also not concerned about genetically engineered drugs, pesticides and genetically modified viruses, all of which are even more dangerous. This sort of a lax attitude cannot be condoned.
Today there is an article in the papers which has criticised the UK's decision to secretly grow GM trees. The papers have cited how this would have already threatened the ecological balance of the region. This itself shows the highly sensitive nature of the issue. It is not enough to condemn the Indian government alone,  we all should raise our voice against the commercialisation of the genetic knowledge without first addressing the basic issues and putting in place adequate safeguards, which according to genetic engineers is next to impossible.
We do not know the extent of contamination that has already occurred, almost all trials are being carried out in secret, and under very lax conditions. In India, GM plants have been consumed, and even sold in the market by farmers who were ill informed. Similarly in many parts of the world, farmers have come to grievous harm as they were not properly trained to handle GM produce. Drug trials have resulted in catastrophes, and the unsuspecting people who have been affected were not informed about the dangers involved. Billions of infants have been vaccinated with genetically modified viruses.  Farms where GM food has been produced have affected neighboring farms growing normal food. Countries have imported GM food, or processed food not fully knowing about the contents. The situation is alarming but dissenting voices are very few as public education on the matter is non existent.
We are rushing in where angels fear to tread. The pity is, not the fools, but the most "intelligent" brains of the world are involved in this utterly foolish endeavour.

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