Party Point – September 2012

John Clark writes…

First published: September 2012 – Gazette & Herald

A week is a long time in politics. A week in genetics is a lifetime. In the last week there have been three events that could produce a massive change in the GM story.

Up until now we have been told that only a very small amount of DNA was used to pass on the genes to the next generation. So much so that the unused DNA was known as ‘Junk DNA’. Genetic Modification of plants and animals has been taking place on the assumption that only 2% of the DNA was important. The GM industry has always said that when they genetically modified a plant or animal they were only making ‘one change’. Some of us didn’t believe them. It is confirmed that they were probably making more than one change at once.

The latest work on the ‘Encode Project’ has shown that nearer to 20% of DNA is involved in the transfer of genetic material. Added to this about 80% of the DNA has a biochemical function. This appears to mean that a fingernail knows to produce more fingernail and the liver to produce chemicals used in the liver.

The second ’sound bite’ is the news from Australia. Australians are doing field scale trials on GM wheat. A New Zealand lecturer has issued a warning that the wheat could cause liver damage. Presumably a side effect caused at the same time as the desired ‘one change’ of the modification.

Now the biggest and potential longest lasting event in the news is that the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority are launching a consultation on GM babies. This could lead to the Law being changed. The proposed change would involve a baby having DNA coming from three parents. This technique is designed to prevent certain diseases being passed from one generation to the next.

Lisa Jardine, Chair of the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority, claims “The science has been shown to be safe”. She says that it will be two or three generations before we know what we have done. She also says “we shouldn’t be discussing the science”. Why not? These statements are opposed to each other. It is clearly admirable to avoid diseases handed down from one generation to the next. What is not acceptable is the pretence that the science is nothing to do with us. As in all decisions a balance has to be drawn between the advantages and disadvantages. As we clearly don’t know the long term consequences, to say the science is safe is simply wishful thinking. At present it appears that the benefits do not outweigh the risks. Risks to unborn children and their children as well.

There have been massive changes to human knowledge of DNA in the last 10 years. We may well have moved up from the bottom rung to the second rung of the knowledge ladder. Our view is changing rapidly. When we are further up the ladder (not necessarily at the top) the consequences of our actions will be better understood. Then we can move to GM humans – but not before.

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