Thursday, 19 May 2016

Mutagenic breeding: why irradiating seeds is better than GMOs

Amidst the controversy surrounding genetically engineered (GE) organisms - also known as genetically modified organisms (GMO) - it's easy to forget that the first attempts at directly manipulating the DNA of plants didn't start recently, but rather over eighty years ago, in 1930s.

Through the discovery of DNA and the finding that changes ('mutations') to the DNA of an organism would result in different properties being expressed (or lead to diseases/cancer), it was postulated that by exposing plant seeds to mutagens, one could create many mutations and thus speed up natural evolution considerably. The name for this is mutagenic, or mutation breeding (MB) [1].

Since its introduction in the 1930s, mutagenic breeding has taken off in a massive way, leading to the introduction of no fewer than 3,200 different new species. Used mutagens include x-rays and gamma rays, as well as chemical mutagens such as ethyl methanesulfonate (EMS), an alkylating agent. These mutagens will randomly introduce mutations in the DNA, the results of which are then verified as the plant grows.

Unlike with GEs, there is no laboratorium-based validation for MB organisms. While desired mutations may appear, the mutation-induced DNA damage may have caused unwanted, but invisible, changes elsewhere. This is very much unlike with GEs, where the change is always localised, known and any possible effects including regressions are studied.

The ironic thing is that MBOs are being sold freely, without labelling or investigations into their safety for human consumption, while GEs have been thus examined, found to be safe, yet still face mandatory labelling.

How can one be against GEs while blissfully consuming MBOs as if they're any less riskier than the former? This should be the question being asked by anti-GE activists around the world. Either we label/ban MBOs as well, or we freely allow GEs as well. There's only one line to be drawn here.



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