An “Acceptable” GMO?

Soybean Field

For many opponents of genetically modified foods, the idea of fiddling with an organism’s genome doesn’t quite sit well in their stomachs. The type of genetic tweaking that renders soybean plants resistant to the herbicide Roundup strikes some not only as unnatural but something that borders on playing God. Similarly, another common objection to genetic engineering is that the transfer of genetic material/DNA genes violates a so-called “species barrier.” Such is the case for Bt corn, which harbors the bacterial gene for Bt toxin, a compound that is poisonous to insect pests. This argument, however, disregards the fact that Nature ignores this barrier all the time. In the wild, DNA is often transferred between species through processes collectively known as horizontal gene transfer. So, not even Nature plays by antiGMO rules.

But what if an already existing gene variant with a desired trait from one organism is genetically engineered into another organism of the same species? Would this make GMOs a little bit more palatable to their detractors?

Soy is one of the most important crops grown in the US and it is nearly ubiquitous in the market. It’s in our food, drinks, biodiesel fuel, even cosmetics. If you rummage through my mom’s kitchen you’ll find soy sauce in the pantry, tofu in the fridge, and edamame in the freezer. Back in the day, she kept soybeans on hand to press her own soy milk.

Soybean cyst nematode and egg SEM
“Low-temperature scanning electron micrograph of soybean cyst nematode and its egg. Magnified 1,000 times.”

Latte drinkers, vegetarians, and us Asians aren’t the only ones who love soy, however. Lurking underground are parasitic worms known as soybean cyst nematodes (SCN), which find the roots of the soybean plant irresistible. These agricultural pests invade the roots of the soy plant where they do a bit of their own agriculturing. These nematodes can create a steady supply of food for themselves by coaxing the root cells that they feed on to divide. Whereas males leave the comforts of their “root homes” in order to find mates, females remain there where they continue to feed and swell in size until eventually their bodies burst through the root. Once mated and having laid her eggs, the female dies and her cuticle hardens, forming characteristic cysts on the roots of the soybean plant. The damage to soy crops comes in at $500 million to $1 billion annually in the US alone.

Segment of soybean root infected with soybean cyst nematode. Signs of infection are brown-white females or cysts with egg masses that are attached to root surfaces.
“Segment of soybean root infected with soybean cyst nematode. Signs of infection are brown-white females or cysts with egg masses that are attached to root surfaces.”

Soybean plants aren’t entirely defenseless, however, as there are soybean plant strains, such as the Forrest cultivar, that are resistant to nematode attack. In this cultivar, the feeding cells that the nematodes “cultivate” in the soybean plant roots die off and the worms starve before they can reproduce. (Conversely, there are also soybean cyst nematodes that are resistant to resistant soybean plants. It just wouldn’t be Nature without the wrinkles, now would it?)

While exactly how the feeding cells in the Forrest cultivar degenerate in response to soybean cyst nematode is unknown, a team of scientists led by Shiming Liu (Southern Illinois University) and Pramod Kandoth (University of Missouri) has recently identifiedmutations in the serine hydroxymethyltransferase (SHMT) gene that are responsible for nematode resistance. Serine hydroxymethyltransferase is an enzyme involved in the shuttling of one-carbon units between molecules–folate in particular–until the carbon is ultimately freed up for the cell to use in important processes such as DNA and protein synthesis. For instance, one of the important functions of serine hydroxymethyltransferase is to convert serine into glycine, both of which are amino acids found in proteins.

One of the reactions that serine hydroxymethyl transferase catalyzes is the conversion of the amino acid serine to glycine.
One of the reactions that serine hydroxymethyl transferase catalyzes is the conversion of the amino acid serine to glycine.

Since the mutations cause changes near the active site of the SHMT protein, or the “business end” where the shuttling of carbons occurs, it’s possible that the mutations affect the activity of the SHMT protein. To test this model, Liu and Kandoth compared the ability of the normal and mutant forms of SHMT to make glycine by expressing these genes in an E. coli bacteria strain that can’t make its own glycine.  This particular strain of bacteria dies when glycine is removed from its diet, but was able to survive when Liu and Kandoth engineered the strain to express the normal form of SHMT. This indicated that expressing the normal SHMT protein restored the bacteria’s ability to make glycine. However, the bacteria didn’t survive as well when the mutant form of SHMT protein was expressed which suggested to the scientists that the mutant protein was less efficient in making glycine.

More importantly, soybean plants that were susceptible to SCN infection became resistant when Liu and Kandoth transferred the mutated Forrest SHMT gene into the susceptible plants. This demonstrated that the mutated Forrest SHMT was responsible for soybean cyst nematode resistance. The scientists speculate that the decreased activity of the mutated SHMT protein in the feeding cells of the soybean plant root reduces either their “nutritiousness” or their ability to divide. As a result the nematodes that infect the Forrest cultivar starve.

So, this brings me back to my original question of what, if anything, would constitute an “acceptable” GMO to opponents of genetic engineering? Would detracters object to a scenario where an already existing mutation* that confers resistance to an agricultural pest is engineered into other soybean plants. Directly transferring the existent Forrest SHMT variant would be more efficient over traditional methods of breeding, since only the Forrest SHMT gene would be introduced into another soybean plant without carrying over any unwanted traits or genes. There are, after all, many different cultivars of soybean plants used for different applications that may benefit from nematode resistance.

*I’ll avoid saying “naturally-occurring” since the Forrest cultivar was developed by a USDA breeding program.

Reference
Liu, S., Kandoth, P., Warren, S., Yeckel, G., Heinz, R., Alden, J., Yang, C., Jamai, A., El-Mellouki, T., Juvale, P., Hill, J., Baum, T., Cianzio, S., Whitham, S., Korkin, D., Mitchum, M., & Meksem, K. (2012). A soybean cyst nematode resistance gene points to a new mechanism of plant resistance to pathogens Nature, 492 (7428), 256-260 DOI: 10.1038/nature11651

Voters also have a right to know the science behind GMOs

On November 6th, California voters will decide if foods containing genetically modified organisms (GMO) will require labeling. Prop37 argues that consumers have a right to know so that they can make informed choices regarding the foods they buy. One of the issues that scientists have with this initiative is that Prop37, as well as media coverage of GMOs, contain misleading language that distorts the science behind how GMOs are made and how safe they are for consumption. This raises, then, the question of how useful would labeling of GMO foods be if there is general public misconception of the topic.

Katie PhD explains “what exactly IS a genetically modified plant” on her blog.

Many scientists and science communicators are seizing this opportunity to educate the public about GMOs. Some are taking the opportunity to explain to the public what a GMO actually is while others are providing insight concerning the safety of GMO foods. Others are exposing flaws in a recent study that claims GMO maize causes cancer (More related links can be found in Keith Kloors’ article in Slate).


Unsurprisingly, those entering the fray can also expect to have their credibility questioned. The food industry corporations, having spent a considerable amount of money in an effort to defeat Prop37, have provided the anti-GMO/pro-labeling crowd with a convenient way to dismiss or discredit scientists defending GMOs: they are all corporate shills (or worse). This, of course, is absurd. Could industry money be swaying scientist’s stance on GMOs? Maybe. But if scientists are that easily corruptible by money, why aren’t more scientists anti-climate change? Absent polling data, it’s unclear to me where scientists fall on the issue of GMO labeling (although, you can help by filling out this survey being conducted by @Katie_PhD). Anecdotally, in my interactions with other scientists, the stances on GMO labeling are not monolithic. Some are pro, some are anti, while others are ambivalent.

The issue for most scientists, I think, is not so much the labeling requirement itself, but the distortion of information being used to justify it and how that ultimately undermines science. The difficulty of course is that scientists are trying to engage the public dispassionately about a topic the public takes very personally. In my view, I don’t think GMO foods require labeling, but I certainly respect the public’s right to vote on this issue. However, by Prop37’s logic, if the consumer has a right to know if their foods contain to GMOs so that they can make informed decisions, then the public has the right to information so they can make an informed vote. Scientists are just making sure that they are getting accurate information.

Related Reading:

How California’s GMO Labeling Law Could Limit Your Food Choices and Hurt the Poor

The transfer of genes between unrelated organisms happens. All. The. Time.