When it come to genetic engineering, it?s the Battle of the Bugs. Scientists are producing GM plants that are resistant to certain types of insects?but then they turn out to be even more vulnerable to other insects. Scientists decide to engineer the insects themselves and produce a sterile boll weevil that eventually destroys its own species, but other scientists are afraid this sterility will somehow spread. We?re tinkering with nature, but do we know what we?re doing?
GM varieties of corn and cotton have already been produced that are resistant to insects. This is done by adding a gene for the bacterial toxin Bt. But Bt doesn?t bother sap-sucking insects, which are the kind that destroy potato plants, so scientists went back to their labs and engineered a potato plant that is resistant to these bugs.
There?s only one problem: the modified potato plants are even more affected by other kinds of insects. Monstanto added lectin proteins to their GM potato plants, since it?s an ingredient the sap-suckers don?t like. But plants with more lectins have lower levels of bitter-tasting glycoalkaloids, so the plants are suddenly more tasty to other insects. This drop in glycoalkaloids seems to an inevitable part of the genetically engineering process.
It?s the Battle of the Bugs over potato plants, but it?s the battle of the genetic engineers, when it comes to cotton. At a secret location in Arizona, genetically modified pink bollworms have been released to see how they behave in the wild.
They?re the first GM insects to be released anywhere, and they will live under netting, so they can?t get out into the wild (although we?ve noticed that the ?netting? on our windows doesn?t keep all the bugs out of our house).
If the experiment is a success, the insects will be further modified and released into the wild, where they will produce no offspring that survive. This means that they will eventually be the means of destroying their own species?and this is where the conflict begins.
A mutant insect that brings about its own demise would be bad for Monsanto, because they?ve invested heavily in producing GM plants that resist insects. If bugs can be engineered to commit what amounts to mass suicide, no one will need to buy any more high-priced GM seeds from Monsanto. Monsanto's GM cotton is resistant to the same bollworm that the other scientists are releasing in a GM version.
Other opponents of the GM bugs worry about the insects passing their mutations on to bacteria in the soil, causing the mutation to take unpredictable paths. There?s no way to predict the consequences of what could happen, except by reading science fiction novels.
As Angelika Hilbeck, an ecologist at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich, says, "We need to learn a lot more about the unintended side effects of the various transformation techniques." Is GM food safe to eat? Find out from ?Eating in the Dark: America?s Experiment with Genetically-Engineered Food? by Kathleen Hart,click here. Listen to Hart on Dreamland June 29.
To learn about GM potato plant problems,click here.
To learn about GM worms, click here.
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