Achenbach: Welcome to Science Tuesday Mid-Afternoon: Should we be worried about synthetic organisms cooked up in …

Posted: January 27, 2015 at 5:41 pm

[Cross-posted from our new Energy and Environment blog.]

One of the strange things about being human beings is that we are highly conscious of our surroundings, yet are oblivious to the molecular machinations within our own bodies. Sure, we monitor ourselves were hungry, were tired, were squirrelly, weve got the sewing-machine leg, we shoulda tried the decaf. Those of us who focus on our breathing can find our psychic zone of serenity, where we can feel superior to other people who breathe less immaculately and more clumsily. But whatever: Were not aware of whats happening at the cellular level, down there where the ribosomes are taking information from DNA and manufacturing proteins that somehow serve specific functions simply through their three-dimensional structure.

We certainly dont pause to consider that, thanks to the trillions of bacteria we host, most of the genetic information in our bodies is not actually human. Were a composite organism. Life is basically the weirdest and most astonishing thing ever.

And now, increasingly, human beings are at the controls through genetic engineering and other advanced laboratory technologies. This is the age of synthetic life.

GMOs (genetically modified organisms) are a source of enduring controversy, and its not simply a matter of science. There are economic and political issues here, with huge corporations like Monsanto looming over a discussion that touches on ownership of novel species and the question of who, exactly, will benefit from these technologies.

But lets cut to a basic question: Are GMOs safe?

Nothing controversial there! Seriously, you can answer this question round or square depending on which experts and activists you contact. Generally, though, scientists hold that food containing GMOs are just as safe to consume as food that comes from crops modified through traditional breeding techniques. Just because it comes out of a lab doesnt make it dangerous. The American Association for the Advancement of Science opposed the 2012 Proposition 37 California referendum that would have required GMO labeling. The AAAS board of directors said this would unnecessarily alarm consumers.

But what about the environment? Do GMOs pose an ecological risk?

The answer to that is controversial, said David Guston, a professor of politics and global studies and co-director of the Consortium for Science, Policy and Outcomes at Arizona State University. He noted a much-publicized case where superweeds had developed a resistance to the herbicide Roundup as a result of heavy Roundup use on genetically modified, Roundup-resistant crops.

Any particular change is part of a larger system. You can say that the Roundup-resistant weeds, the superweeds, arent a direct effect of the genetic modification of the BT-resistant corn, but theyre a consequences of the agricultural practices that surround the Roundup-ready crop, Guston said. Some of this is foreseeable, and some of this is not foreseeable.

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Achenbach: Welcome to Science Tuesday Mid-Afternoon: Should we be worried about synthetic organisms cooked up in ...

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