Abuses of biotechnology

Sailendra Nath Ghosh


Despite the massive evidence that harmony with nature gives plenitude and permanence, the practitioners of ‘‘nature conquering science’’ is now embarking on an yet more dangerous course—namely, ‘‘transgenic genetic engineering’’. Bioscience—whose purpose was to understand the interlinkages between and among plant and animal species and to find therefrom the clues to least expensive agri-and other cultures and cures for diseases—has long been hijacked by commercial interests to enthrone biotechnology, in which the emphasis is on mass production rather than production by the masses. Hybridisation, tissue culture, even cloning to a limited extent of endangered species to repair the damage of near-extinction already done to bioresources, was permissible. But what is now being attempted in the wake of the failure of ‘‘green revolution’’ is a hydra-headed disaster, a biological holocaust, more insidious than nuclear holocaust because it is silent and in the initial stages imperceptible.


The ‘‘bright’’ idea is to transfer genes to unrelated species that never interbreed in nature, such as inserting toad genes into potatoes or genes of some bacteria into crop plants. Scientists have taken the gene in a firefly that emits light and inserted it into the genetic code of tobacco plant. Anti-freeze gene from the ‘‘flounder fish’’ has been inserted into genetic code of tomato plant to protect the plant from cold spells. Insecticide producing gene from bacteria and viruses are being inserted into plants. Attempts are being made to create novel life forms that have not existed before.


In the state of Karnataka, the U S company Monsanto in the name of fighting Bollworm pest in cotton took a gene from a soil bacterium called Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) and inserted it into the cotton plant. The purpose was to convert the cotton plant into a constantly insecticide producing plant from within its cells. No thought was given to the fact that although it would thwart the existing strains of bollworm pests, it would poison all other insects, bees and birds. Simultaneously, it will be paving the way for far greater mischief. A plant which releases poison throughout its growing life provides the greatest possible advantage for pests to develop resistance to it. Inevitably, cotton will be vulnerable again and new strains of Bt-tolerant super-pests will attack other corps like potato and maize as well, creating an agricultural crisis all around.


In some Western countries pest-resistant corn and tobacco seeds are already in use. Pest-resistant is a sweet word but at its core is the bitter truth that every plant from these seeds keep producing insecticides from each of its cells. What havoc it is  surreptitiously causing to the health of consumers of corn or tobacco are not knowable. In India also, we do not as yet know what will happen to those cattle of Karnataka which will be fed on oilcake from the Bt-gene-implanted cotton seed or on the fodder from Bt-crop. A study in the U S A  has shown that soybeans containing a gene from a Brazil nut could now create on a wide scale, allergic reaction to people who were inherently allergic to the nuts. The arena of allergens is thus spreading far and wide. Only faint murmurs are being expressed now. Tomorrow will see storms of protests in the face of full-blown health hazards.


Unconcerned about such Frankensteinine outcomes, some giant chemical companies of the West together with ambitious scientists eager to play God (or to substitute Nature) are setting up yet another trap. To increase their share of the growing global market for herbicides, they are creating transgenic crops that tolerate their own company’s herbicides. The purpose is to convince the farmers that they can spray herbicides in any quantities to kill the weeds without the risk of harming their crops. The resulting increase in the use of herbicides will inevitably lead to the weeds developing immunity and giving rise to super-weeds. This will introduce a new cycle of greater use of herbicides to control the more resistant strains, causing far greater harm to the environment and all species of life.


Since transfer of gene to unrelated species is a new and extremely complicated subject, it is necessary to explain some of its unusual features and far-reaching implications, in a little detail, even at the cost of some digression. A very special kind of genetic engineering is needed to break down the natural defence mechanism against intrusions by any other species. New type of vectors (‘‘carriers’’) able to implant the gene by crossing species barriers need to be created, for these do not exist in nature. This process is called horizontal transfer of gene, unlike vertical transfer which takes place from the parent to the offspring. Horizontal transfers are possible, only through the agents of infection. Hence, pathogens (bacteria, viruses) which carry infections across the species become the basic building blocks for such creation.


But the natural pathogens, by themselves, are neither suitable nor effective for this purpose. These pathogens need to be purged of their directly disease-producing abilities, for no firm can do business for long if its technique makes the crop-plant palpably diseased. The natural pathogens cannot also be effective because they lack the mechanism, to super-impose their gene by overwhelming the plant's native gene. Hence, pests of several most infectious pathogens are joined together—that is, pests of viruses, plasmids and mobile genetic material are combined—to make artificial vectors designed to overcome species barrier. The gene of interest is spliced into these vectors. To make the point clearer, combination of parts of different pathogens with strong genetic signals, called ‘‘enhancer’’; is needed to boost the expression of the foreign gene to well above the normal level. Bacteria and viruses can supply pests with such strong signals. The deployment of foreign-gene-impregnated enhancer is accompanied with yet another diabolical process. ‘Marker genes’-some kind of a tag—are introduced along with gene(s) of interest in order to identify, and select, those cells in the plant that have successfully integrated the foreign gene into their genome. Here again, the most commonly used ‘‘marker genes’’ are antibiotic-resistant genes originally isolated from bacterial plasmids and transposons. These ‘marker genes’ often remain in the genetically engineered organism.


This manner of infusion of transgenic gene is likely to produce the following adverse consequences.


— 1. Because the gene products introduced into our food crops are from bacteria and viruses and non-food species, the new genes are apt to produce new toxins in foods.


— 2. Since no gene functions in isolation, the new toxins and allergens and the changes in the concentration of existing toxins will spread and keep going up the food chain. At the same time, the ‘‘purified Bt-toxins’’ in transgenic crops, far from becoming non-degradable by soil microbes, become killers of soil organisms. These are also likely to accelerate antibiotic resistance in varied groups of ‘‘pests’’.


— 3. Once released, the genes cannot be recalled and have the potential to multiply and recombine with other infecting viruses (as distinct from crippled or deactivated viruses), uncontrollably for successive rounds of horizontal transfers.


— 4. The very cellular mechanisms that enable the foreign genes to force-integrate into the genome can also mobilise these genes to jump out. For example, the enzyme integrase, which catalyses the integration of viral DNA into the genome, also fnction as a disintegrase, catalysing the reverse reaction. The integrases being present in all genomes, the foreign genes can re-insert into another site in the organisms by secondary, tertiary and quarternary horizontal transfers.


— 5. Since the transgenic crop plants are being engineered to be resistant to broad-spectrum pesticides, there will be a tendency to use more of these pesticides to kill the non-crop plants indiscriminately, which in turn will destroy the insects, birds and other animals that depend on the plants for food and shelter.This will also harm soil micro-organisms which have vital roles in nutrient recycling. Thus, it will, on the one hand, greatly damage the species diversity now obtaining in Nature and on the other, give rise to super infectious viruses, super-pests and super-weeds, tearing apart the web of life and shutting out the scope of redemption.


Each of the five dangers constitutes a threat to the survival of life. The extreme nature of the threats would be apparent when the implications of points three and four become clearer. For this, some observed phenomena need to be particularly noted. One, plants engineered with genes from viruses to resist virus attack end up by serving just the opposite purpose. The plants show increased propensity to generate new, often super-infectious viruses by recombining with infective agents. Two, foreign genes introduced into plants behave differently from the plant's own genes. Reportedly, the foreign genes are up to 30 times more likely to escape than the plant's own genes. With this rate of jumping out and invading other, hardly any organism will remain free from toxins. Three, recent researches have shown that the indiscriminate use of antibiotics to trace genetic change, actually facilitate the spread of diseases. The  antibiotics are like a type of sex hormone, enhancing reproduction. It has also been reported that the presence of antibiotics increases the frequency of horizontal transfer, ten to thousand-fold.


Apart from transgenic engineering, biotechnology’s another pet project is ‘‘terminator technology’’. It has been given an innocuous looking name ‘‘Control of Plant Gene Expression’’.


Earlier, scientists, in the name of developing seeds with disease-resistnat, drought-resistant, high-yielding, early maturing and such other traits, had succeeded in evolving seeds whose germinated products could not reproduce.