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This GMO Scientist Plays God with Your Corn

No matter what side of the line you stand on, GMOs are deeply rooted in the average American diet. To put a human face on genetic modification, we tracked down a biotechnologist who is currently working for an undisclosed biotech firm and spoke to him...

by Hillary Eaton
Jun 26 2014, 3:46pm

Ask the average Westerner if they want lab-coated scientists fucking with the genes of their salad greens, and most will probably tell you no.But, in the United States alone, over 69 million hectares of land are used for genetically modified crops. That means that many if not most of America's agricultural staples—corn, soy, canola, and up to 70 percent of the processed foods they end up in—are now genetically modified. Genetically modified organisms (GMOs) are deeply rooted in the average American diet, no matter what side of the line you stand on.

To put a human face on genetic modification, we tracked down a biotechnologist (whom we shall call Jay) currently working for an undisclosed biotech firm. We chatted about his experience with genetically modifying crops—from mastering tissue cultures to altering plant genes with bacteria—and the potential upside of GM food.

MUNCHIES: How did you end up in plant science and biotechnology? Jay: When I was at North Carolina State, I met a Chinese guy who taught a class on medicinal plants that I ended up taking. We got to be friends and I volunteered to work in his labs and he taught me tissue culture, when you use sterile media with nutrients and plant hormones to grow plants in vitro in a growth chamber in clear, solid media. I thought it was awesome. Then I worked for him culturing tobacco for a while, before going to work for a contract period in a transformation lab for three months under an acquaintance of his who was using tissue culture.

At the time, I was 21 and starting to get into the lab, and the last thing I was thinking about was what some people were thinking about GM technology and these kind of things. I didn't think anything about it.

tissue cultures in a lab- photo by global crop diversity trust

GM crop tissue cultures. Photo by Global Crop Diversity Trust.

So, what does "transformation" or "genetic modification" mean? In the United States, it normally refers to a gene from a foreign source—a gene from another plant—that through traditional pollination and nature taking its course would never cross with each other. We're taking, for instance, genes that are found in other species of plants, and we are taking them out and cloning them into vectors that can be delivered through different means. And then we get into all the types of ways that we can deliver foreign DNA to a plant or an animal or a fungus. There are lots of ways to go about it. Some of them are considered GM here and some of them are not considered GM.

What do you typically modify? I work primarily on corn. Industry standard crops range from sorghum, rice, canola, sugarcane, sugar beet, cotton, and soy beans. Some of this is also going into feed for animals.

I utilize a naturally occurring, slow-born bacteria that, in the history of evolution, gained the ability to transfer genes into plants. If you've ever seen a tree that has a big nodule on it, that's something called crown gall. The bacteria that we use to transfer genes into plants is the same bacteria that infects that tree. Essentially, there are are tumor-inducing genes. That nodule is actually a foreign DNA being transferred into that tree.

This ability for the plant to receive the type of technology that we give it is not something we created. We just discovered the science. It wasn't created by us; it's just utilized by us.

I don't think people understand that some of the compounds we use on a daily basis, either in the form of popping a pill or looking at some of the enzymes we use to treat our waste water system, are cultured and engineered to do certain tasks, just as a genetically modified crop is.

drought tolerant transgenetic corn being developed- photo International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center

A nursery of drought-tolerant transgenetic corn. Photo via International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center.

What do you typically modify for or against? Well, if you've heard of Roundup, it's a glyphosate compound made by Monsanto. They're kind of the big engine behind a lot of this—the GM stuff, a lot of the corporate biotech research. So, they made a dream product. They engineered genes that can break down herbicides, and thus the plant has tolerance to that herbicide. You'll find that a lot of these companies are also chemical companies. They'll develop the plant and then the herbicide that can kill everything but the package of crop that comes with it.

Besides herbicides, we modify to make disease resistance, insect resistance, drought tolerance, enhancement of different things, and nutritional composition. And, in the history of agriculture, through traditional breeding and things like that, people have always been doing that, trying to grow crops that are better and more resistant. It's nothing new. It's just that we do it faster now.

In order to have an informed opinion on GMOs, what do you think people need to consider? People have to understand the idea that humans have always had to overcome either inconveniences or inefficiencies, and the fact that we can't support what we are growing because of the population. So, it all comes down to people understanding all of those things—and the science, economics, agendas of people, as well as businesses and research organizations, and scientists who have their own egos. There's so much to consider, and it's so not black and white.

Research field

A research field of GM corn. Photo by Lindsay Eyink.

How necessary is genetic modification? Well, think about what happens when the price of food starts going up, and the price of water, because we have to water the food and the animals that eat the food. Shit's going to get really crazy. It hasn't happened yet here, but if you look at countries in Africa, you can't tell me that they aren't needing food and water. We don't have to worry about that so much, so of course we are going to say that this technology's not needed. We don't feel anything or reap any rewards—just lower food prices.

Got it. Thanks for talking to me.