Traditionally held views about the function and behavior of genes have been called into question following the publication of a set of papers by the National Human Genome Research Institute, in Bethesda, Md. A four-year study, including the participation of 35 groups from 80 organizations around the world and designed to catalog the components of the human genome crucial for biological function, concluded that genes don't only act individually or in individualized groups, but rather in an interactive network.
Previously, scientists believed that one particular gene would influence one particular outcome, such as a taller plant or a redder tomato, for example. But the most recent results suggest that genes behave in an interdependent, systemically influential way, which calls into question certain assumptions in the biotech industry, particularly in relation to organic crops and cross-mutation of species, and has watchdog groups waving red flags.
Michael Hansen, senior scientist at Consumer's Union, a nonprofit consumer advocate group in Yonkers, N.Y., said the biological role of individual genes is analogous to the environmental role of individual species.
"If you pull a species out of one ecosystem and place it in another, under the right conditions, it can have a huge effect," Hansen said.
"This is a classic example of how little is known about this science, and how they are moving forward based on assumptions we now know to be false," said Craig Winters, president of The Campaign, a consumer advocate group lobbying for labeling of genetically engineered foods in the United States.
Winters referred to the genetic mutation of superweeds in Canadian canola fields a few years ago and how the biotech industry said that outcome would never occur.
Steven Sylvester, PhD, associate professor at the School of Molecular Biosciences, in Vancouver, Wash., said the worries are overexaggerated. "Nature's been transferring genes since the beginning," he said. "We know that viruses transfer genes between organisms—we see evidence of that in the human genome—and the process of natural selection determines the outcome. Remarkably, as scientists, we have put millions of genes into bacteria and haven't created any monsters yet."
But concerned parties say that the lack of an acute risk shouldn't rule out caution.
"Just because people aren't falling over and dying doesn't mean we should ignore the potential implications," said Hansen. "Look at pesticides that came out in the 1950s. They were considered safe in the '60s and '70s, and people were even ridiculed for voicing concern. But we now know from long-term studies that they disrupt hormones through the endocrine system and can lead to cancer and other conditions."
"The big fears now are that organic crops will be contaminated or mutated," Winters said, "and that the entire ecosystem could be affected by cross-mutations and devastating effects that we are not yet aware of."
Additionally, suggestive evidence exists that Bt crops (genetically engineered with Bacillus thuringiensis, a common bacteria that acts as a pesticide) could be allergenic or have adverse effects on the gut, according to Hansen.
Further complicating the issue, the U.S. Department of Agriculture has just released a series of proposed revisions to its policy on overseeing genetically modified crops. Generally, under the new proposal, crops familiar to the agency—particularly those with 20 years of field safety tests—would receive less oversight and more independence, while unfamiliar crops would be looked at with greater scrutiny.
Some say these changes give rise to concern. "We think that all crops should be required to go through safety assessments before being allowed out on the market," said Hansen. "So we don't think that the agency should be weakening any of their programs."
The longer-view concerns are rooted in the fears that genetic modifications may or may not have irreversible and tragic long-term results to the natural and organic food supply and even the entire ecosystem.
"It's like we are a bunch of kids mixing stuff together in the garage and all of a sudden we catch the house on fire," said Winters. "Well, in this case, the house is the planet.".