The biotechnology industry wants you to think that the science they use is reliable and that they are not just tinkering around with DNA and genes. In business, image is everything.
There’s a lot of money riding on genetically modified crops and animals. Although the term “genetic engineering” has a solid ring to it, the science is not nearly as precise as the phrase suggests – – not as in building a bridge, or an electronic circuit, for example.
The Human Genome Project was meant to usher in a brave new millennium of genetic technology. Politicians and journalists gushed over the results of the Project, calling it the “book of life.” In the year 2000, President Clinton waxed eloquent calling it the “language in which God created life.”
The Human Genome Project was meant to validate a theory proposed by James Watson and Francis Crick in 1953. The theory is appealing because it is simple, elegant, and easily summarized.
It goes like this: The molecular agent of inheritance is DNA (Deoxyribonucleic Acid). DNA is made up of four subunits which can be strung together like letters of the alphabet to spell out genes. Those segments of genes give rise to each of our inherited traits.
However, the Human Genome Project didn’t prove this theory. The traditional theory “collapsed under the weight of the facts,” says Barry Commoner, senior scientist at the Center for the Biology of Natural Systems at the City University of New York.
“The most dramatic achievement of the $3-billion Human Genome Project to date is the refutation of its own scientific rational,” Commoner continues. The Project provided more doubts about the traditional theory than answers.
For one thing, the number of genes found in human DNA is significantly lower than the number needed to build all the various proteins in humans. There should have been about 100,000 genes but the Project found only about 30,000.
The news was a bit of a let down for the human race, which prides itself as being on top of the heap. Compared with a mustard-like weed that has 26,000 genes, humans seem to be disappointingly low in the gene count.
Although we could use more humility, the point is that DNA theory does not provide enough genes to build the number of proteins required in humans.
Not only are we short on genes, there is a surprising similarity in our DNA and chimpanzees. Surprising because we are more unlike our primate cousins than our shared 99 per cent DNA suggests. Not just the superficial difference of size and appearance, but great differences in the brains, liver and blood of the two primates.
“The human brain is a very, very complicated organ and this study validates that,” says Dr. Elaine Muchmore, a genetics researcher with San Diego Healthcare System and a UCSD professor of medicine. Humans have much more complicated brains than chimps, which suggests that something other than DNA is causing those differences.
Nor does DNA theory explain how two protein cells can be the same genetically, but act very differently when folded other than normal. That’s what happens in mad cow disease and its human equivalent. The infectious agent, called a prion, is a refolded protein. Once in the brain of its victim, it refolds normal brain protein with fatal results.
Mad cow disease is an apparent violation of the traditional theory. DNA is supposed to determine protein configuration, not other protein.
“DNA did not create life; life created DNA,” says Commoner. DNA is a notebook used by cells to store information. He contends that cells, protein and enzymes use DNA as a kind of scratchpad. In a recent survey, 95 per cent of Canadians want labeling of genetically modified foods. They are rightfully suspicious of the biotechnology industry which says that its methods are “specific, precise, and predictable.” That’s highly unlikely.
Biologist David Suzuki warns that we are becoming unwilling guinea pigs in an experiment never before conducted. We are consuming GM foods in which genes have been transferred from one species to another. The long term effects of these foods is unknown. “Any politician that tells you these products are safe, and that it’s known through scientific testing is either very, very stupid, or they are lying”, he says.