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Next Generation of GMOs Escapes Regulation

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Next Generation of GMOs Escapes Regulation

Twenty years ago, proponents of genetic engineering promised that GMO foods would increase yields, reduce pesticides, produce nutritious foods and help feed the world. Today, those promises have fallen far short as the majority of GMO crops are engineered to withstand sprays of Roundup herbicide, which is increasingly documented as a risk to human health.


Now, new genetic engineering technologies such as synthetic biology and gene editing are being hailed with the same promises of revolutionizing food production, medicine, fuels, textiles and other areas.

But a closer look at this next generation or "GMOs 2.0" technologies reveals possibly even greater risks than existing GMO technology with possible human health risks and negative impacts on farming communities worldwide, among other unintended consequences. And while products developed using current genetic engineering methods are regulated by the U.S. government, GMOs 2.0 products are entering the market with few or no regulations.

Synthetic Biology: Extreme Genetic Engineering

While traditional genetic engineering involves inserting genes from one species into another, GMOs 2.0 technologies like synthetic biology aim to create life from scratch with computer-synthesized DNA.

"Genetic engineering has moved on from the first generation GMO crops," said Jim Thomas, program director at the ETC Group, a non-profit advocacy group that tracks the new GMO technologies. "There are different ways to genetically engineer an organism by creating synthetic DNA or editing DNA."

The ETC Group describes synthetic biology or "extreme genetic engineering" as "the design and construction of new biological parts, devices and systems that do not exist in the natural world and also the redesigning of existing biological systems to perform specific tasks."

"Synthetic biology is about synthesizing genetic sequences, designing them increasingly from scratch as if they were parts to put together in a particular way to get a predicted outcome," Thomas said.

The synthetic biology process involves altering the DNA of microorganisms such as algae, bacteria and yeast so they produce compounds like flavors and fragrances that previously have been extracted from plants. Scientists and software engineers are altering the DNA of existing microorganisms and designing new ones.

Synthetic biology companies are producing a wide range of compounds for food, pharmaceutical, fuel and industrial use. Evolva has created a synthetic biology form of vanillin, an alternative to natural vanilla extract. Perfect Day has engineered yeast cells to produce proteins similar to those found in cow's milk with the aim of producing vegan milk. Impossible Foods engineered heme, a molecule that makes meat sizzle and look pink for the company's meatless Impossible Burger. According to the ETC Group, there are some 350 synthetic biology products on the market or in development.

The claimed benefits of synthetic biology products such as flavors and fragrances are that they can be produced in greater and more consistent quantities and at lower prices than crop-based plant materials that are subject to climate conditions, crop failures and transportation logistics.

CRISPR Gene Editing

Another GMOs 2.0 technology is a gene editing method called CRISPR. This enables scientists to edit parts of the genome by removing, adding or altering sections of the DNA. The aim is to activate or deactivate genes to produce a desired effect. Proponents say CRISPR has the potential to treat illnesses that have a genetic basis such as cancer, sickle cell anemia, hepatitis B or high cholesterol.

GMO seed companies are using CRISPR to develop new plant varieties. Cibus used the technique to develop an herbicide tolerant canola. Pioneer Hi-Bred is developing waxy corn hybrids with high starch content for food and non-food uses. Monsanto recently announced it was licensing the CRISPR technology to develop new seed varieties.

Proponents say CRISPR is "the simplest, most versatile and precise method of genetic manipulation."

"It's a lot more precise in that it targets a specific gene in the genome where it exists while genetic engineering involves inserting a gene at random in the genome, which could disrupt the functioning of other genes," said Jim Orf, professor emeritus, plant breeding and genetics at the University of Minnesota.

But Thomas said scientists are seeing unintended effects using CRISPR. In fact he said "some scientists are intentionally not using CRISPR because of off-target effects." Orf also admitted that the technology is not "100 percent foolproof." Dr. J. Keith Joung of Massachusetts General Hospital said there is growing evidence that CRISPR might alter regions of the genome other than the intended ones.

Technology Risks

Causing unintended consequences is one of the problems with current genetic engineering methods, and these could be even worse with GMOs 2.0 technologies, particularly synthetic biology.

"You're not just adding one gene with all the implications of that. Here you are dealing with stretches of DNA that are invented on a computer. The level of novelty and the depth of intervention are much more significant."

Synthetic biology techniques could create secondary metabolites or molecules or different levels of compounds that could have negative impacts.

An underlying problem with the techniques is that they are based on an outdated premise of how biology and nature function.

"One of the dangers with synthetic biology is that it pretends that life is a linear, predictable system that you can engineer as if you can re-engineer a car or computer and that DNA is just a code," Thomas said, "But all those metaphors are falling apart in the biological sciences."

There are also social concerns. Companies like Evolva that make synthetic biology flavors like vanillin are hurting the market for natural vanilla produced by farming communities in Madagascar.

"These companies are trying to disrupt those markets and take that value," Thomas said. "If you can produce vanillin, then you will start affecting the supply chains and livelihoods of vanilla farmers."

Natural and Non-GMO Claims

Another problem is that some synthetic biology and gene editing companies are claiming that their products are natural or even non-GMO. Cibus calls its gene-edited canola "non-transgenic." Synthetic biology companies say that even though the production organism they create is a GMO, they claim the final ingredient is non-GMO.

"They'll argue that the (GMO) production organism is a just a processing aid," Thomas said. "That's a bit like saying a cow is a processing aid for making milk."

The Non-GMO Project also disagrees.

"There is a growing attempt on the part of biotechnology companies to claim that new types of genetic engineering, such as gene editing and synthetic biology, are not actually genetic engineering," said Megan Westgate, executive director of The Non-GMO Project. "To bring clarity in the face of this misleading trend, the Non-GMO Project has explicitly included these technologies in our Standard and cannot be used in a Non-GMO Project Verified product."

On the organic side, the National Organic Standards Board has proposed redefining genetic engineering in the National Organic Program to include GMOs 2.0 technologies, but the new definition hasn't yet been formally adopted.

No Regulation

There is virtually no regulation of GMOs 2.0 techniques in the U.S. The U.S. Department of Agriculture doesn't consider gene-edited crops such as Cibus's canola and Pioneer's waxy corn as falling under the agency's regulations for genetically engineered crops.

But Orf said the U.S. Department of Agriculture is deciding how GMOs 2.0 crops should be regulated. "They're reviewing their process to see if these crops should be regulated on a case-by-case basis or in a general way. These are different technologies doing things in a different way than transgenics."

Synthetic biology manufacturers are claiming their products such as vanillin are the same as the natural compounds and consider them to be "generally recognized as safe" or GRAS.

"Some companies are going to the Food and Drug Administration and saying 'we would like this to be GRAS' and the FDA is doing that," Thomas said.

Can GMOs 2.0 products be tested to detect their presence as current GMOs are?

"At this point, they are not developed, but they are developable," Thomas said.

"The companies will say their products can't be tested because they are the same as natural compounds. But if you talk with testing labs, they say they could develop a test. It is inevitable that tests will be developed because you have certifiers like the Non-GMO Project saying you can't use synthetic biology products."

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Just in time for Halloween, scientists at Cornell University have published some frightening research, especially if you're an insect!

The ghoulishly named ogre-faced spider can "hear" with its legs and use that ability to catch insects flying behind it, the study published in Current Biology Thursday concluded.

"Spiders are sensitive to airborne sound," Cornell professor emeritus Dr. Charles Walcott, who was not involved with the study, told the Cornell Chronicle. "That's the big message really."

The net-casting, ogre-faced spider (Deinopis spinosa) has a unique hunting strategy, as study coauthor Cornell University postdoctoral researcher Jay Stafstrom explained in a video.

They hunt only at night using a special kind of web: an A-shaped frame made from non-sticky silk that supports a fuzzy rectangle that they hold with their front forelegs and use to trap prey.

They do this in two ways. In a maneuver called a "forward strike," they pounce down on prey moving beneath them on the ground. This is enabled by their large eyes — the biggest of any spider. These eyes give them 2,000 times the night vision that we have, Science explained.

But the spiders can also perform a move called the "backward strike," Stafstrom explained, in which they reach their legs behind them and catch insects flying through the air.

"So here comes a flying bug and somehow the spider gets information on the sound direction and its distance. The spiders time the 200-millisecond leap if the fly is within its capture zone – much like an over-the-shoulder catch. The spider gets its prey. They're accurate," coauthor Ronald Hoy, the D & D Joslovitz Merksamer Professor in the Department of Neurobiology and Behavior in the College of Arts and Sciences, told the Cornell Chronicle.

What the researchers wanted to understand was how the spiders could tell what was moving behind them when they have no ears.

It isn't a question of peripheral vision. In a 2016 study, the same team blindfolded the spiders and sent them out to hunt, Science explained. This prevented the spiders from making their forward strikes, but they were still able to catch prey using the backwards strike. The researchers thought the spiders were "hearing" their prey with the sensors on the tips of their legs. All spiders have these sensors, but scientists had previously thought they were only able to detect vibrations through surfaces, not sounds in the air.

To test how well the ogre-faced spiders could actually hear, the researchers conducted a two-part experiment.

First, they inserted electrodes into removed spider legs and into the brains of intact spiders. They put the spiders and the legs into a vibration-proof booth and played sounds from two meters (approximately 6.5 feet) away. The spiders and the legs responded to sounds from 100 hertz to 10,000 hertz.

Next, they played the five sounds that had triggered the biggest response to 25 spiders in the wild and 51 spiders in the lab. More than half the spiders did the "backward strike" move when they heard sounds that have a lower frequency similar to insect wing beats. When the higher frequency sounds were played, the spiders did not move. This suggests the higher frequencies may mimic the sounds of predators like birds.

University of Cincinnati spider behavioral ecologist George Uetz told Science that the results were a "surprise" that indicated science has much to learn about spiders as a whole. Because all spiders have these receptors on their legs, it is possible that all spiders can hear. This theory was first put forward by Walcott 60 years ago, but was dismissed at the time, according to the Cornell Chronicle. But studies of other spiders have turned up further evidence since. A 2016 study found that a kind of jumping spider can pick up sonic vibrations in the air.

"We don't know diddly about spiders," Uetz told Science. "They are much more complex than people ever thought they were."

Learning more provides scientists with an opportunity to study their sensory abilities in order to improve technology like bio-sensors, directional microphones and visual processing algorithms, Stafstrom told CNN.

Hoy agreed.

"The point is any understudied, underappreciated group has fascinating lives, even a yucky spider, and we can learn something from it," he told CNN.

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