Plants, Animals and Transgenics: A Tomato by Any Other Name

From crops engineered with new genes to pigs grown up to be organ donors, the applications of biotechnology seem to be limitless and also surrounded by limitless controversy.

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Transcript Text: 

The DNA Files: Unraveling the Mysteries of Genetics

“Plants, Animals and Transgenics: A Tomato By Any Other Name”

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JOHN HOCKENBERRY: This is the DNA Files. I’m John Hockenberry.


Biotechnology can lead to bigger crop harvests and better medicine. Biotechnology can lead to beastly unanticipated consequences.

Gary Comstock: For me this represents the two different routes we can go in biotechnology. We might be opening a Pandora’s box of evil, eggplants that eat Chicago unleashed on the world. Or, a cornucopia of blessings; fruit and vegetables in abundance for the world’s children.

JOHN HOCKENBERRY: Whatever happens long before it happens to humans, it will likely happen in the laboratory, on the farm or in the environment. For the next hour The DNA Files examines genetic engineering, the experimental products and ethical problems in plants, animals and transgenics - a tomato by any other name. But first...

The beleaguered laboratory mouse is as much a fixture of science as the microscope and the white lab coat. But why mice and not bunnies, kitties, or voles? The answer is a matter of historical accident, and the unlikely contributions of a retired school teacher, some eccentric British hobbyists, and humanity's oldest animal retainer, the house mouse. John Rieger has the improbable story.

LEE SILVER: There are many many poems and stories about mice. It’s the Three Blind Mice, Three Blind Mice, with the butcher's wife cutting off their tail...

JOHN RIEGER: Princeton Biology professor Lee Silver is what you might call a "mouse person".

LEE SILVER: There are definitely mouse people. B 10 and B 6 and Balb C and C3H. We know these mice by their names.

ERIC JUKES: Of course, the pink eyed white. That's the mouse everybody thinks of. You say I've got pet mice, they always say, "Oh, white mice?"

JOHN RIEGER: Eric Jukes is also a mouse person. He's the Secretary of the London and Southern Counties Mouse and Rat Club, as he has been for nearly forty years.

ERIC JUKES: I'm fond of the Pearl and the Silver Grey. They're...they’re extremely attractive but...but not very fashionable. I have no idea why.

JOHN RIEGER: Mr. Jukes is a hobbyist, who breeds and shows "fancy mice", mice that win competitions. Professor Silver is a geneticist, who works with specially bred laboratory mice. The humble little house mouse, from which all these elite specimens derive, is found in more places in the world than any other single species except us. That's because they go where we go, sharing our dwellings and stealing our grain.

ERIC JUKES: (Scoop in barrel of oats) Oats. (More scooping sounds) I must admit I've been quite unsuccessful with um trying to breed Reds or Fawns, because whenever I have them I seem to overfeed them, and they just seem to blow up like tennis balls, and they won't breed when they get too fat.

JOHN RIEGER: But nature's most successful little freeloader is now paying us back, because of an astonishing coincidence discovered by geneticists.

LEE SILVER: What has come out of molecular genetics is the astounding fact that every single mouse gene is also present in humans, not in exactly the same form, but in a similar way. And nearly every single human gene is also present in mice. And so what's happened over the last twenty years is the mouse has become an even more important experimental system than it was previously.

JOHN RIEGER: How did the humble house mouse arrive at this scientific pinnacle?

(Erik Jukes can be heard feeding his mice some more)

In the nineteenth century, mouse fanciers just like Eric Jukes thrived in England, breeding mice with names like "white English sable", "creamy buff", or the "waltzing mouse" with its peculiar gate caused by an inner ear defect. Many were from Asia where mouse breeding had flourished for centuries. The Americans also took to mice, says Lee Silver, among them a spinster lady named Miss Abbey Lathrope.

LEE SILVER: She had retired from teaching, she got a fancy for mice, and it's just coincidence that she happened to be the closest mouse breeder and seller to Harvard University.

JOHN RIEGER: At Harvard the great geneticist William Castle was looking for an animal in which to test the newly rediscovered theories of Gregor Mendel. Mendel's laws, the foundation of modern genetics, were based on the observation of a individual traits like flower color in pea plants. Individual traits are hard to see in wild animals.

LEE SILVER: I mean all squirrels basically look the same.

JOHN RIEGER: But Miss Lathrope's fancy mice, some 11,000 of them, had distinctive individual traits. William Castle brought the fancy mouse into his laboratory in 1902. Many of the strains so important to mouse geneticists today are entirely derived from Miss Lathrope's animals.

LEE SILVER: Abbey Lathrope really is the grandmother of mouse genetics.

JOHN RIEGER: The laboratory mouse was arguably the first clone. After hundreds of generations of inbreeding, a Balb C or a C3H mouse is genetically identical to its parents, just like a clone a completely uniform experimental subject. Today gene splicing lets scientists create custom mice with traits that don’t occur in nature, like cystic fibrosis, a human disease that scientists can now study in mice. And for the “mouse people”, the future is bright. Lee Silver.

LEE SILVER: Oh, the future of the laboratory mouse is very very vast. The National Institutes of Health, the main funder of biomedical research in this country, held a meeting attended by the director of the entire NIH where he made it clear that the mouse was going to serve as the major model for understanding human diseases. And, he made it very clear that they were going to put more money into the system than we have even now.

JOHN RIEGER: Erik Jukes.

ERIC JUKES: I think there are times when I somehow float above it and say, "Yes is a rather strange hobby, isn't it. (laughter) Um...

JOHN RIEGER: For the DNA Files, I'm John Rieger.

[Sounds of a Supermarket]

JOHN HOCKENBERRY: Imagine a grocery store in which all of the foods on every shelf have been bread. Their genes altered to grow bigger, last longer and taste better. It shouldn't be hard to picture. What I've described is your typical American supermarket.

MARTINA MCGLOUGHLIN: I mean, the first individual on the banks of the Tigres who decided one day to, instead of eating all the grains that they had collected, to save the big ones from the high producing plant and put it back in the ground the next year, was genetic engineering, in fact.

ALAN BENNETT: Plant breeding, cross breeding has been going on for about ten thousand years. Initially this was done without a scientific basis but never-the-less, led to tremendous increases in productivity of crops.

MARGARET MELLON: By contrast, biotechnology has no natural restrictions. It's a completely artificial technology, that allows scientists to look for the genes that determine traits and to move those genes at will. So, if you want to improve a corn plant, you can now look to a camel, to a human, to a butterfly.

JOHN HOCKENBERRY: Welcome to the DNA Files. I’m John Hockenberry. This show is about plants, animals and transgenics, that’s an organism whose set of genes in its genome has bits of DNA from other species. To some that's scary; to others, it's a job. We'll travel America talking to those who worry about and those who work with biotechnology. It’s billed as the high tech trade of the future, but its roots are in the past, when the tools of biology weren’t test tube and gene guns, but soil and sex.

ALAN BENNETT: Traditional breeding, you introduce very large segments of DNA, very large pieces of the genome and within that piece it has your trait but it also has a lot of other things as well. So in that sense, the genetic engineering process can be much more specific.

MARGARET MELLON: It is more precise in the sense that folks do know which trait that you're moving into a plant. But knowing what you're putting in is not the same as knowing how that plant is going to interact with other plants in the environment, or how that gene is gonna interact with other genes in the genome.

JOHN FAGAN: We can cut and splice genes with the same precision that you can sit down to your word processor and cut and splice sentences. It’s letter by letter precision. But, it's only when you put that back into a living organism, where it re programs that organism; it's only then that that gene actually does some good. And it just so happens that that process of
putting the gene back into the organism is not only imprecise, it's totally uncontrolled. We don't even know how it happens.

[Sound of laboratory hums, machines]

BARBARA SOOTS: We are going to do some DNA extractions this morning, pulling from E. coli and wheat germ as well as from sheep thymus.

JOHN HOCKENBERRY: At colleges, even high schools, legions of students are learning biotechnology basics. The University of California in Davis, hosts an annual workshop put on by CEPRAP, the Center for Engineering Plants for Resistance Against Pathogens.

NINA BLOOM: First we’re going to be cutting small pieces of thymus up and grinding it in a mortar and pestle until it’s the consistency of pudding.

JOHN HOCKENBERRY: The instructors are Nina Bloom and CEPRAP Education Coordinator Barbara Soots.

BARBARA SOOTS: You can extract DNA very simply with just the stuff that you have in your kitchen cabinet. It's just a matter of taking something like an onion and mashing it up and mixing it with a detergent - break open the cells and some salt solution and a little bit of ethanol or isopropyl alcohol and precipitating the DNA out into solution. And you have DNA.

BARBARA SOOTS: Even if these kids don't go on to, you know, do anything in the bio technology industry, they're voting citizens and these issues are coming up on a daily basis and so they need to be informed so that they can make intelligent decisions. In terms of what we’re giving them regarding bioethics, we try with each experiment to explain why the experiment is being done, and the applications in the real world.

BARBARA SOOTS: I mean what's an early form of biotechnology?

STUDENT1: Brewing.

BARBARA SOOTS: Yeah, that's probably one of the earliest, actually. Brewing things like, you know, beer and wine is certainly a form of bio technology, making bread. You're using an organism to create something beneficial. Modern biotechnology, however has not been around for a very long time. It has both a lot of potential and it has a lot of controversy associated with it. So as we go through all of these experiments, you should be learning not only what you're doing and how the mechanics of the experiment work, but also what the consequences of making these kind of modified genetic organisms are.

STUDENT2: People are going to think, well, if we transform a certain plant that it could grow into something like, some crazy creature or something like that. But it's more about, you know, bettering products so that we can have, like, more of a profit from it, or the food will last longer or we can use less money on pesticides.

STUDENT4: It's really, really a green revolution. But at this moment I don't dare to say is that it's going to be beneficial for the whole human being or not because we don't have a time to know if it's good or bad. So, that’s why I guess why people in Europe and Japan they don't really like it. Like, you know, we create something which is not exist before, playing the role of the gods, something like that. I feel scared, too, to tell you the truth. Yeah. That's why I, you know, I'd kinda like to know more about it, you know. I'd do it very very carefully. [laugher]

[Stereo lab sounds continue]

MARTINA MCGLOUGHLIN: I think what you're going to see in plants in the future is as pharmaceutical factories.

JOHN HOCKENBERRY: One of the speakers at the workshop is Martina McGloughlin. She’s head of UC Davis's biotechnology program, and she's kind of a one woman chamber of commerce for biotech research.

MARTINA MCGLOUGHLIN: For example, a group in England has engineered a recombinant antibody against mouth plaque. Another group in Cornell has engineered in components of E. coli. that causes, basically, the toxic part of it. They've modified this so that it just gets an immune response. Now, right now they're producing it in potato, and so in clinical trials people are chewing potatoes. [laughter] But they're creating -- it's effectively an oral vaccine. So you can imagine the power of this. If you put it in bananas, now you've an effective way to deliver this vaccine to developing countries, you know, where it is so difficult to go out there and vaccinate children, now you just feed them bananas. The vast majority, at this point in time, of the transgenic plants that have been commercialized have been engineered for agronomic traits, that is traits that are transparent to the consumer. When you go to your store, you don't see these traits because what they're doing is helping the producers. Traits for insect resistance, for disease resistance and for herbicide tolerance. And that's because that's where the big money is at this point in time. But you're going to find that as mankind as a whole becomes more aware of the need for nutritious food, you're going to find modifications in the quality of the food, crops that we produce, not just in the quantity that we produce. So that you have increased antioxidants, improved vitamin content that is just beginning to come on line.

JOHN HOCKENBERRY: Among common foods, the tomato is 17th in nutritional content; but it’s the number one source of nutrients in the American diet. That's because we eat so many; eight million tons a year in ketchup, salsa, pasta and pizza. Biotech companies would love a slice of that market. So they try to build a better tomato, by adding traits from other organisms. Cell biologist Allison Morgan is Research Manger for DNA Plant Technology in Oakland.

ALLISON MORGAN: To introduce the genes into the plants, we use a disease causing
bacterium. What it does, during the infection process, is to pass some of its own DNA into the plant itself. What we do is we take out all the disease forming parts, and we introduce the gene that we want to be in the plant into that piece of DNA. And then the bacteria will take that piece of DNA with our genes in, and shove it into the plant for us.

ALLISON MORGAN: This lab is one of our molecular biology labs. One of our products that's actually on the market now, and we can see it in the greenhouse in a minute, is the ripening controlled tomato called 'Endless Summer'. What we found was a big loss in the tomato industry was loss due to, you know, early ripening, loss during transit when you couldn't stop things ripening after harvest and so on. So, what we did was we introduced a gene into the tomato which stops ripening. The tomatoes go to a certain stage, the green stage, just about to turn red, and then they stop. They stop there. The tomatoes are firmer, they can ship better, there is not so much wastage. And when they get further towards the point of sale, we can ripen them up by supplying ethylene gas, and ethylene is a natural plant hormone. It is what actually is causing the tomato to ripen anyway, but we have just blocked the effect. Tomatoes that are commercially produced now are usually picked at a very green stage and they are transported that way, and then they are gassed at the end. Now our tomatoes have been on the vine longer, they have accumulated more flavor, sweetness and so on. They won't get mushy, they won't get nasty.

[Sound of walking from hall through outside door; traffic in background]

ALLISON MORGAN: We're out on the roof now. DNAP is in the middle of Oakland, and there's not much land available around here for growing plants, so we build greenhouses out on the roof of the building.

[Sound of walking on gravel roof into greenhouse]

ALLISON MORGAN: Here are four tomato plants growing, and this one here is the "Endless Summer" tomato that I told you about. And you can see that you know, this is about the...the reddest it is, a kind of a pale orange green color. And these small ones here will get to that stage and then stop. And I'd like to be able to help the growers reduce the amount of sprays, reduce their costs. But you know from a sort of selfish point of view, I also see that I'm helping my family, I'm helping the community. Look even further down - you're helping the countries that can't feed themselves. You know we can increase yields, we can give this technology to the third world and improve their life.

PEGGY LEMEAUX: We can now introduce, into plants, the machinery to, for example, make biodegradable plastics or industrial oils, or alternatives to gas.

JOHN HOCKENBERRY: The high yields of the California countryside may not feed the world, but they sure put a dent in America’s appetite.

PEGGY LEMEAUX: People want cheap food.

JOHN HOCKENBERRY: University of California, Berkeley plant biologist, Peggy Lemaux is an extension specialist. She talks to agricultural producers about the future of their products.

PEGGY LEMEAUX: We got cheap food because we use pesticides and because we have high
production agriculture. And, in fact, if we today decided that we were no longer going to use pesticides, the price of food would go way up. What I'd like to see, is that we can produce food in a more environmentally friendly way. So if you don't have to use as much pesticide or as much herbicide, and we'll never replace those altogether, but if we can reduce the amount that we use by seventy five percent, then, not only will we not have all the pesticides and herbicides as residues in the ground, but also all of the energy that it takes to produce the herbicides and the pesticides will not be needed.

[Sound of wind, birds, water sprinkler, then the cackling of hens]

HOWARD SHAPIRO: We believe that it's possible to produce most of the food for the world, if not all of it, through sustainable, systematic organic models.

JOHN HOCKENBERRY: Howard Shapiro cannot reduce pesticide use on his plants. That’s because he doesn’t use any. He's an organic farmer.

HOWARD SHAPIRO: These are guineas, a guinea hen. They love grasshoppers for breakfast lunch and dinner. And we don't have grasshoppers. They are part of the fabric here. We're at the Seeds of Change Research Farm in Northern New Mexico. Just across those trees is the Rio Grande. This is a little water area where the Tehua people have cultivated for over 3,000 years.

JOHN HOCKENBERRY: Big agricultural companies market a few highly engineered seeds intended for large farms and dependent on pesticides. Seeds of Change has a huge selection of organic seeds, with a wide range of traits. Some are hardy in extreme climates. Others just taste good. Shapiro, the Director of Agriculture, says creating new transgenic products is fine as long as we preserve existing plants. Even obscure varieties like wild corn in Oaxaca, Mexico. That’s what saved us in the past.

HOWARD SHAPIRO: In the early 70's there was a corn blight that swept the South. And the solution to it was to breed in the wild corn, the early, early ancestor, Teocinte from Oaxaca. The Oaxacan farmers always grew it around the edge of their fields to add a little extra vigor to their corn. American botanists and geneticists went down there, bred it into the North American corns. And it gave it vigor to defeat that particular blight. Now without that teocinte, if for some reason we had lost that Teocinte, we had lost those 8,500 varieties of corn in the Oaxaca valley, somehow we lost the 8 10,000 varieties of potatos they talk about in the Andes, all of a sudden we could find ourselves with our backs up against the walls by not having a way to breed our way out of disease and pestilence. We can't always apply chemicals to save the day. The insects, the weeds, they evolve much quicker than the plant that we're trying to grow for food culture.

JOHN HOCKENBERRY: Shapiro wonders if genetic engineering can harm, instead of help agriculture. For instance, government and private scientists are developing technologies to regulate use of new plants varieties. One proposed method is making plants that produce only sterile seeds.

HOWARD SHAPIRO: What if you did something that outcrossed in the Andes and made all the quinoa sterile; and a food that has sustained a people for 10,000 years has disappeared? You make them paupers. What happens if that happened to corn in the Oaxaca valley. So, it's incomprehensible that we're willing to risk, that the scientists are so sure of themselves that this won't happen. It's illogical. So, no, I'm not against biotechnology. I just haven't seen a good application yet.

MARGARET MELLON: The fact is they don't quite have it down yet. And, of course, we put very few resources into trying to figure out what the downside of this novel and powerful technology might be. Almost all of our scientific resources are devoted to making new plants, putting in new genes, looking for new products to make folks money.

JOHN HOCKENBERRY: Three decades ago, a group of scientists got together to ask questions about scientific research that other researchers seemed to be asking. They formed the Union of Concerned Scientists. Margaret Mellon directs their Agriculture and Biotechnology program. She co-wrote the book The Ecological Risks of Engineered Crops.

MARGARET MELLON: They're basically moving a pesticide into plants; letting
crops like cotton, corn, potatos produce their own pesticide, rather than adding it from the outside. But by allowing tens of millions of acres of corn and cotton to be produced with this pesticide in each one of these plants, you're gonna very quickly lead to a situation where the targeted pests are gonna be resistant. And let's talk of herbicide tolerance. That means the ability to withstand a poison, an herbicide. If we put that trait into a crop, you have to ask, well, wait a minute, will that trait perhaps, is it going to move to nearby weeds? The pollen can leave the crop, be blown by the wind into nearby fields, and transfer that trait of herbicide tolerance to the weeds. So now you've got “super weeds”. There are a variety of risks, some environmental, and some health-based that we incur with genetically engineered crops.

JOHN HOCKENBERRY: Let's look at a real case of a genetically engineered product. It proves, for some, how well the regulation and safety procedures work. For others, it proves how they’ll never work. It starts with a bean and a nut, at Pioneer Hi Bred in Iowa.

TONY CAVILIERI: Pioneer is the largest seed company in the world. It was founded here in Iowa in the 20's by Henry Wallace, who was later the Vice President of the United Sates, and who was interested in plant breeding.

JOHN HOCKENBERRY: Tony Cavilieri is Pioneer's Vice President of trait and technology development. That means he develops genetically engineered products, and makes sure they're marketable.

TONY CAVILIERI: The work we do is regulated by the FDA, by the USDA, and, in the case of some of the herbicide traits, by the EPA as well. So, it's not like you kind of get something and, you know, it springs on the market somewhere.

ROD TOWNSEND: I'll tell you the story about the Brazil nut protein.

JOHN HOCKENBERRY: Soybeans are a major food source for livestock. But feed from soy is low in an essential amino acid that animals need. So, ranchers buy supplements. If a gene could be inserted into soybeans that would make more of the missing amino acid, ranchers would pay a premium for the seeds. That gene was found in the Brazil nut.

ROD TOWNSEND: And we, very quickly, moved to introduce the gene into soybeans.

JOHN HOCKENBERRY: Rod Townsend is Pioneer’s head of regulatory affairs.

ROD TOWNSEND: We then started looking at the potential commercial development of this product, and became aware of individuals who had allergic reactions to Brazil nuts. And we then contracted with Dr. Steve Taylor at the University of Nebraska, who's an internationally recognized authority on food allergens.

STEVE TAYLOR: What you do in biotechnology, essentially, is introduce new novel proteins into foods. And whenever you put a new protein into a food, there's some prospect that you might put a new allergen into the food as well.

JOHN HOCKENBERRY: Food scientist Steve Taylor, directs the Food Allergy Research and Resource Program in Lincoln, Nebraska.

STEVE TAYLOR: And we happened to have in our freezer blood serum from four patients with Brazil nut allergy. Well, that gave us the capability to do what Pioneer needed to have done, which was to test the allergenicity of their transgenic soybean. Unfortunately for them, we found out that this protein that they had transferred into the soybeans was actually the major allergen from Brazil nuts. Well, when Pioneer discovered this, to their chagrin, they made, again, the most appropriate decision. They decided to abandon all interest in this project; because obviously, having something that looked like a soybean, that had a Brazil nut allergen in it, would be a problematic situation for people with Brazil nut allergy. So, even though the soybeans we're intended for chicken feed, you couldn't completely exclude the possibility that some of these soybeans would have ended up in the human food supply.

[Sound of machine humming]

JOHN FAGAN: We tested, for instance, five different brands of baby food, or of baby formula. Of those five, only one of them did not show genetically engineered ingredients. Three of them had significantly high levels, and one had a little bit. So it's out there, even in the stuff you're feeding to your newborn babies, you know, it's out there.

JOHN HOCKENBERRY: That’s John Fagan, Chief Scientific Officer for Genetic ID, in Fairfield, Iowa.

JOHN FAGAN: Most of the genes that are being put into these things are not from another food, like that Brazil nut protein, but they’re from some virus or some bacterium that is from the soil, never part of our food supply.

JOHN HOCKENBERRY: Fagan was a well known National Cancer Institute researcher who became even more well known when he returned a $600,000 grant because he felt biomedical research had become overly enamored with genetic engineering. This led him to study bioengineering in foods, and to start the company Genetic ID.

JOHN FAGAN: So, normally what happens is we take four pounds of soybeans, and we pour then into one of these big containers.

[Sound of pouring beans into metal bowl]

JOHN HOCKENBERRY: Food companies from all over the world send products to Genetic ID. This is one of the few labs in the world that can reliably test foods for the presence of genetically manipulated organisms.

JOHN FAGAN: We put them into one of these grinders, and convert the soybeans into flour.

[Sound of blender changing speeds]

JOHN FAGAN: We know what sequences Pioneer Hi bred has put in, or what sequences Monsanto has inserted into the genome of the soybean, or the corn, or whatever that way, and we can then scan for those.

JOHN HOCKENBERRY: It takes a little detective work. They look through patent records to find the DNA sequences approved for new engineered foods. They test for any transgenic product now on the market.

JOHN FAGAN: We can tell the producer of this product, or the exporter that yes, this is genetically engineered or not. We can tell them the percentage of genetically engineered ingredients present in the product. And this is very useful information for people exporting to Europe, or to Japan, or for the natural products industry here in the U.S.

[Sound of crinkling plastic bag of chips]

JOHN FAGAN: Here are some name brand products, taco chips, and this company is now putting on their labels "Pure Food. No Genetically Engineered Ingredients," right on the label here in the U.S. They recognize that their consumers don't have complete confidence in this technology and they want a choice. And now, the European Union has a law that requires genetically engineered foods to be labeled. And as a result, there's a huge market for non genetically engineered soybeans and corn. And this all ties in to my concerns about genetic engineering in the agricultural sector. In the medical area, it may well make sense. You have somebody who is dying of cancer, the only thing that is gonna keep them alive after they been hit with chemotherapy are genetically engineered cytocines. Great, they should use those. But a technology that may be useful for drugs is not necessarily useful for food production. You're taking genes from organisms that would never share information in real life; and which are tremendously distant evolutionarily (sic), and putting them together. You can't expect there to not be unexpected side effects. Name me one technology that hasn't had side effects. There isn't one; and there will be with this. And we're fooling with food. We need to think more carefully about this.

[theme music]

JOHN HOCKENBERRY: You’re listening to The DNA Files. Coming up - super pigs, chocolate cows and three billion beads. In a moment when the DNA Files continues with “Plants, Animals and Transgenics: A Tomato by Any Other Name.”

[The DNA Files theme music]

JOHN HOCKENBERRY: This is The DNA Files. I’m John Hockenberry.


JOHN HOCKENBERRY: DNA contains information which cells use to make proteins. We can copy that information [echo]...copy that information. We can take bits out [echo]...take out, and insert them elsewhere [echo]...insert the bits elsewhere. All the words in this entire radio program contain but a minuscule fraction of the information inside a single DNA molecule.

DON BIETZ: The living cells of our body have about six foot of DNA that's packaged in a nucleus that you can't even see with the naked eye.

JOHN HOCKENBERRY: Don Bietz, a biochemist in Iowa State University's College of Agriculture, explains better than I.

DON BIETZ: That DNA is made up of three...about three billion nucleotides, or shall we say building blocks, and they are of four different kinds. And you can think of them as being like four different colors of beads on a necklace. And that order of nucleotides, or of these beads, determines the genetic characteristics of a plant, of an animal, of a virus, of a bacteria. Three billion nucleotides, and they've got to be in a special order. If one bead, or one nucleotide is changed, we can have a genetic disease.

DON BIETZ: Genes are specific regions that lead to the expression of a specific trait, let's say, 20,000 of these beads, that would correspond to a gene. In a multicellular organism, like a human, like a dairy cow, like a pig, a liver cell and a brain cell and a muscle cell all have the same DNA. But why are they different? It's because a different population of genes are being expressed. What's the biochemical process that controls that differentiation? Why do certain populations of genes become expressed? We don't really know. The majority of DNA is non functional. We don't know what the function is. I mean, we say in a human, for example, there's 100,000 genes. But that only constitutes 5% or less of the DNA. So what's the role of the other 95%? We don't know. We sometimes call it junk DNA.

[Sound of a corny video with BOY, GIRL and DOCTOR voices in it]

VID BOY: So what do you think about biotechnology now, Alex?

VID GIRL: Well, I can see that it's gonna be a really big part of our future. And it’ll be great to be part of that. And I like the idea of making a difference.

VID DOCTOR.: Well, you're right Alex, you can make a difference by choosing a career in biotechnology. It's a very challenging field, and the rewards are great. It's really a way to change things for the better.

JOHN HOCKENBERRY: At a prairie YMCA in Creston, Iowa, a group of junior high kids watch a video; it's part of a 4H Biotech Workshop.

[Sound of kids talking at once and overlapping]

4H BOY1: Deoxyribo...

4H BOY2: nucleic Acid.

4H GIRL1: All I can remember is nucleic acid.

4H BOY1: Deoxyribonucleic Acid.

4H BOY2: Yes. You got it.

4H ALL: (Kids talking fades out)

JOHN HOCKENBERRY: The kids take two days out of their summer to work with DNA.

[Various voices of junior high kids: "It's like cotton candy." "It's gooey." "Slimy."]

DAVE SIELSTAD: Actually, it has kind of the consistency of snot to kids that's pretty exciting.

JOHN HOCKENBERRY: Dave Sielstad is an educator with Iowa State's Extension Service.

DAVE SIELSTAD: My program is working with extension science engineering and technology, which is a branch of 4H. Historically, that's what we've been about, for years and years and years is helping young people especially to understand these new technologies, 'cause they're, in 5 or 10 years, gonna be the users of these technologies.

(VOX: Junior High Kids talking at once:)
4H GIRL1: It's DNA.
4H GIRL2: It's genes.
4H BOY1: It's the building blocks of life.
4H GIRL1: (singing a comic tune she just made up): It's the circle of life.
4H ALL: (Kids laughing fades out)

DAVE SIELSTAD: I just think that some of the food products that we're going to be producing in the next few years will be really exciting, like being able to make soybeans taste like bacon, producing a chocolate cow, or a cow that produces chocolate milk. Those are fun things to think about. And then we start thinking about, oh gee, well, I guess we probably have to make the milk brown to make it acceptable in the market.

DAVE SIELSTAD: That’s what’s kind of interesting about all of this stuff. What if we get cactus to put out ears of corn. You know, all of these are, like we talked about yesterday, even the chocolate cow.

4H GIRL1: Like the cow with two heads.

DAVE SIELSTAD: Yeah, the cow with two heads.

4H GIRL2: And the pig with three ears and two snouts.

DAVE SIELEE SILVELSTAD: What do you suppose that was caused by? What did we talk about yesterday?

4H BOY1: Mutations.

DAVE SIELSTAD: Mutations some kind of recombination of its DNA.

4H GIRL1: Or pollution.

DAVE SIELSTAD: ...that possibly added or subtracted something.

JOHN HOCKENBERRY: This reminds me of a poem; “The time has come the walrus said, to talk of many things. Of why the sea is boiling hot and whether pigs have wings. Pigs don’t have wings. But when people talk biotechnology, they get around to talking bioethics. To see what I mean, go to Iowa State University in Ames, show up at noon in the gym. Bring your basketball shoes.

[Sound of basketball game in indoor gym. Shuffling sneakers. Players talking and moving, saying things like "nice play." and "we got next"]

JOHN MAYFIELD: Honesty is fundamental to the whole process of science.

JOHN HOCKENBERRY: Molecular biologist John Mayfield.

JOHN MAYFIELD: It works by people trading information with each other, lots...large numbers of people. If you can't trust what other people are telling you, nothing happens.

JOHN HOCKENBERRY: Mayfield is one of several biologists and bioethicists that play hoops and do some mental gymnastics as well.

GARY COMSTOCK: Iowa State University is the home of the greatest noon time basketball game in the world. We may not fill it up like they do at Duke. But we can sure talk about distributive justice while we're feeding a guy going for the hoop.

JOHN HOCKENBERRY: And that's Gary Comstock with the fade away jumper, head of the BioEthics Program. He works with Life Science faculty to integrate ethics into their classes.

GARY COMSTOCK: This is Howard Tyler in Animal Sciences. He's the other forward on John’s team.

HOWARD TYLER: Almost anything we do in animal agriculture has upsides and downsides, and that's what we want to get the students to look at, is what are the advantages and disadvantages.

JOHN MAYFIELD: Yeah. I think it's the first time many students have thought about it.

HOWARD TYLER: Oftentimes it's the first time our faculty have thought of it as well.

JOHN MAYFIELD: Most scientists working in the field don't have the same concerns that much of the public does. I mean particularly things about safety, scientists feel that what we're doing is very unlikely to be dangerous. We feel that most of these things are basically experiments that nature has probably tried already anyway.

HOWARD TYLER: But the biggest fundamental difference is the speed in which you can make the change. And that I think scares a lot of people.

GARY COMSTOCK: Molecular genetics has given us powerful tools to make sort of random associations of animals...

JOHN MAYFIELD: Yeah but we don't do it randomly, Gary.

GARY COMSTOCK: No, that's exactly what I was going to say. We don't do it randomly. And that...that's part of the horror of it, for me. We read, for example, of four mice produced at the University of Texas without heads. We read about mice that have had their genes for forelimb development knocked out. So you get mice without any appendages basically. Now, what could
be worse for a mouse than to have all of its mental faculties about it, but no way move around. So, I mean, I think John's right. That we don't do it at random. The purpose in general is to pursue the common welfare of humanity. But our power now to really deform, and make animals’ lives miserable has increased dramatically.

JOHN HOCKENBERRY: Transgenics is nothing new. They’re as old as the gods. The god Pan had goat horns and hooves. The Gorgons were snake haired, swine toothed, buzzard winged, and brass clawed. From the blood of the dying Gorgon, Medusa, sprang Pegusus, a winged horse. A king’s son, Bellerophon, rode Pegasus to slay the Chimera, a creature with a lion front, serpent behind, and goat in between. Perhaps that's what the artist who created the sculptures at Iowa State’s Molecular Biology building had in mind.

[Collage of voices:]

WOMAN1: Like a dog head and eagle feet...

MAN1:Animals, wild animals.

WOMAN1: ...and dragon claw and wings all mutated together.

MAN2: Rain coming out of the helmet.

WOMAN2: Fibers coming out of her head. But I just wondered why they made that face on the lady looking over all of it so scary (laughs).

WOMAN1: We’re frightened by the unknown.

WOMAN2: And, I really don’t like that doll with the red eyes. It looks like it’s going to shoot lasers at you. [laughing]

JOHN HOCKENBERRY: A few years back an Iowa State committee chose an artist to create work for the new Molecular Biology facility. Turns out the artist, Andrew Leicester, had some concerns about biotechnology, which he made obvious in most every corner of the building. Now, scientists coming to work walk over twisted DNA floor tiles and by gargoyles with titles like "Warning: BioHazard" and "Forbidden Fruit."

WOMAN3: But it seems sort of magical, and I don't think that's appropriate for a science building. Especially in a mid Western town where a lot of people probably think that this just sort of happens, and these people are in here sort of sticking things together with glue, like those animals on the wall.

JOHN HOCKENBERRY: The artist called this the G nome project: g, hyphen, n o m e. Meaning genome, an organisms’ set of genes, but also, gnome.

GARY COMSTOCK: Gnomes are little dwarf like creatures, that under the earth, that are kind of threatening because they have occult knowledge of the way the world is put together.

JOHN HOCKENBERRY: Our tour guide is once again, Gary Comstock. He stands below the kachina like sculptures that sit atop each corner of the building.

GARY COMSTOCK: So, here we are at the Molecular Biology building with the Gnome men on top. Those are 12-foot terra cotta figures, little men holding strands of DNA in their hands. They're wearing black and white checked shirts, which the artist says are the white suits of the scientists and the black suits of the businessmen.

JOHN HOCKENBERRY: The sculptures provoke the same kind of conversations the BioEthics Program tries to inject in college science courses.

GARY COMSTOCK: Discussions of these ethical issues had been going on in separate classes, independently of the science. And it wasn't really working. What was happening was that the undergraduate and graduate students would think, oh, here comes the ethicist to tell us how to behave. So, we thought, who better to lead discussions of these issues than the scientists themselves who are doing the gene splicing and teaching the graduate students. We want the students to be convinced that it's part of their job as a scientist to think about the moral status of
animals, the conflict between the need to grow food for a hungry world, and the need to preserve habitat for wildlife.

GARY COMSTOCK: Ah, here's the north entrance to the molecular biology building. This is actually my favorite part of the genome project. Right above the entrance there are two objects about three feet in length, extending out of the building, right at us. And they look like the rubber
gloves that are used in containment boxes. There's a terrific quote, that's sort of scrambled in ceramic tile around these arms. So if you look up at the first line, it says, E, b, e, i, o, b, n it's total gibberish; much as the genome is total gibberish on first encountering it. But if you unscramble it correctly, it says, "Human beings are not yet wise enough to direct the course of evolution."

JOHN HOCKENBERRY: Biotechnology, is it an extension or an abomination of nature? We bake bread. We brew beer. That’s biotechnology. So is spraying chemicals and splicing genes. To the typical American farmer it all comes pretty naturally.

GLEN KEPPY: The soil that we're standing on now is some of the best soil that...that mother nature put down, and that's why the Midwest is called the bread basket of the world. Because this soil is so good at producing corn, and soybeans, and alfalfa, it's also very good at producing buttonweeds and milkweeds. ...and grass and pigweeds... and smartweeds and black nightshade and Canadian thistles, you know, the list goes on and on.

JOHN HOCKENBERRY: Glen Keppy is a big guy. Big enough to play football. Defensive Tackle to be precise, for the Pittsburgh Steelers. But he quit, and came back to Iowa to work on his family's farm in Davenport, Iowa.

GLEN KEPPY: The sound that you hear is just that we have a slight breeze, and if you were here seeing it, it's like the corn plant is waving to you, with its thick leaves. It is pretty. I guess that's one thing about agriculture, whether it's putting a young seed in the ground and watching it grow, or whether it's a newborn pig that you're taking care of, it's just fun being next to nature. It’s a way of life; it's also a business opportunity. You have to use all of the latest technology that comes along.

JOHN HOCKENBERRY: Glen uses several bioengineered seeds. Some make better animal feed. Some allow him to spray less pesticides. Like, BT corn. It has a pesticide built in to kill the corn borer.

GLEN KEPPY: If a corn borer came into this field and he took one bite, that would be his first bite and his last bite. I think the things that I'm adapting and the technologies I'm using today are making for a safer environment. And the food safety issue is real. But if there's a tremendous
amount of research done by universities, and...and the people that are selling the product, I feel very confident with their results. If we do have special labeling that's required, I have no problem
putting exactly on the label what the consumer wants to hear. Now in the livestock, we do do that. We tatoo every pig and we can identify back to the producer that produced it.

[Sound of hogs heard outside in background]

JOHN HOCKENBERRY: On the Keppy's tractor shed, a big round sign reads: "Hogs are Beautiful." The Keppys have raised pigs for half a century. Both Glen and his father were past presidents of the National Pork Producers Association. Keppy has advised presidents Clinton, Bush, Reagan and Carter on agricultural matters.

GLEN KEPPY: And some of the genetic advances that have taken place in the United States really are making the leanest animal we can find, the fastest growing animal we can find, and the pig that produces the meat with the best eating qualities, because we are trying to produce a product the consumers want. And they...they predict that someday, the pigs that are behind us here are gonna be producing blood that we will use in transfusions.

JULIAN COOPER: We’re standing where we do most of our work with the pigs. This is where we keep the animals whilst we're getting ready to do the experiments.

JOHN HOCKENBERRY: At PPL Therapeutics, in Blacksburg, Virginia, they spell pharm: p h a r m, as in the pharmaceuticals which they grow in pigs, sheep and cows.

JULIAN COOPER: We specialize in the production of therapeutic proteins in the milk of transgenic animals.

JOHN HOCKENBERRY: Julian Cooper is chief operating officer for PPL. One product they grow in sheep is fibrinogen, a blood-clotting agent.

JULIAN COOPER: You can envisage using it in something like a tissue glue. Spray it or smear it on a wound, and within seconds it knits together and stops the bleeding. Now fibrinogen cannot be made in any other system economically except transgenics.

JOHN HOCKENBERRY: PPL is the American arm of the Scottish company which cloned the first large animal.

JULIAN COOPER: Dolly the sheep, yes, a very world famous sheep. Far more famous than probably we'll ever be. She was the very first animal that was cloned from somatic cells, in other words, adult cells. The next sheep that we made, which was called Polly, was far more important to us.

JOHN HOCKENBERRY: Polly was the first clone from genetically altered cells and retained the genetic alterations through the cloning process.

JULIAN COOPER: Because you can make a transgenic animal from a cell that's been cultured in a laboratory, you're now able to take genes out of a cell, and replace them with other genes if necessary. Hence, we know that every animal we make is going to be transgenic, and have the alteration that we want.

JULIAN COOPER: The pigs -- we are looking at various therapeutic proteins in the milk of pigs. It may sound odd, but you can milk a pig. But we're also interested in the area of xenografts. When you have a transplant from another species, then it's called a xenograft. There's a large number of people in the world who are dying because the organs just aren't available. And the pig is the best supplier of xenografts in terms of size, immunology, etc. And yes, our animals are very valuable to us, and we treat them with the utmost care, and spend an enormous amount of money on veterinary surgeons to look after them.

[Sound of traffic, protesters in a demonstration]

JOHN HOCKENBERRY: In Switzerland 1/3 of the voters favored a referendum to ban all genetically engineered drugs and foods. Millions of people in Europe and Japan have signed petitions calling for mandatory labeling of genetically engineered products.

MAN1: And it seems like increasingly, consumers have no choice in what they actually purchase.

JOHN HOCKENBERRY: So, it’s no surprise to see protesters at the U.N. on a cold January day, with signs reading, "Stop the Genocide," and "Stop Biopeep." Maybe you read about Biopeep in the Associated Press reports about "biopeep." It appears scientists have engineered the genes of human addiction into chickens, so the meat is addictive.

WOMAN1: And here I am today to protest this very real genetic alteration. Putting addictive products in food; that will cause human beings to become addicted to and crave these products.

JOHN HOCKENBERRY: It sounds crazy, but go to and see for yourself: The two-headed chicken and what looked like Department of Defense memos. Does the military really want Biopeep as a cultural weapon to genetically targeting specific ethnic groups?

WOMAN2: They're figuring out, you know, the genes for happiness and the genes for left handedness. And I think that the people with money, not to mention the Defense Department, are going to start manipulating this to the advantage of corporate entities.

JOEY SKAGGS: It's frightening and sad and funny all at the same time.

JOHN HOCKENBERRY: And, it's a hoax.

JOEY SKAGGS: I use the media like a painter would use a canvas. I create fake realities, that are very elaborate. They're staged with actors and props and public relations and advertising techniques.

JOHN HOCKENBERRY: Joey Skaggs is a media artist. He releases so called media viruses. On Good Morning America, he talked about his Fat Squad commandos who, for three hundred dollars a day, follow you around and make you stick to your diet. On CNN he was an expert trial lawyer; on the BBC, he was the healer Baba Wa Simba.

JOEY SKAGGS: They are designed to make people, once I reveal that it’s a hoax, talk about the issues. I started the genetic hoax almost 2 years ago, and as I was working on it, Dolly the sheep came out. Then this guy comes along, his name is Dr. Richard Seed Dick Seed, and he's gonna
clone people. I go, 'oh no, it's a hoax. And that wasn't a hoax, although it should have been. So, I think the world was really primed for this hoax. It really touches on our deep fears. We have a lack of faith in the intentions of government, and scientists, and the military. Are we being exploited, or are we being saved? Where is this technology going? Who's making the money, and at what expense to us?

[Sound of old movie music. Voiced excerpts from the movie, “The Curse of Frankenstein”]

BERNARD ROLLIN: And it seems to me that there are three aspects of the Frankenstein story that exhaustively characterize everything that people in society worry about with regard to genetic engineering and cloning, by the way.

[Sound of scary Frankenstein movie music/sounds]

JOHN HOCKENBERRY: Bernie Rollins teaches philosophy and also physiology at Colorado State University. He literally wrote the book on the biotechnological treatment of animals. It's called "The Frankenstein Syndrome Ethical and Social Issues in the Genetic Engineering of Animals."

BERNARD ROLLIN: The first aspect of the Frankenstein story is the kind of instinctive reaction you get from people that genetic engineering is against god, it's against nature. There is certain knowledge that’s forbidden.

[Sound from movie with Transylvanian accent: "Henry, don’t say those things - don’t think them. It’s blasphemous and wicked. We are not meant to know those things.]

BERNARD ROLLIN: If you press people, and you ask them, "Why is it intrinsically wrong?" they'll pretty quickly tell you it's because it leads to disastrous consequences. And that's the second category of concern: that by manipulating a technology whose implications we don't fully understand, we can create environmental consequences, unleashing new diseases, you know, the sort of thing that's the stuff of fiction. So I call that chapter "Rampaging Monsters."

[Sound from movie: music, screaming and groaning]

BERNARD ROLLIN: And the third category is what I call "the plight of the creature." One of the earliest animals to be developed was the "superpig." They inserted the human growth hormone gene into the pig. And the result was they did developed leaner, faster growing pigs, but they also developed pigs that crashed, that were sick as hell.

[Sound from movie man: ‘It’s alive. It’s alive. It’s alive”]

BERNARD ROLLIN: When you genetically engineer animals for commercial reasons, those animals should be no worse off in virtue of the genetic engineering than the parent stock would have been without it. And I'm gratified to find that virtually all the scientists that I talk to very heartily endorsed a principle like that, at least in the commercial area. Which shows you that people are basically decent and have good instincts about animals. Any animal project can be explained in ordinary terms, why we’re doing this, what we expect to get out of it, what we’re trying to understand.

[Sound from movie man: ‘We could save hundreds of lives.”]

BERNARD ROLLIN: I think if biotechnology is ever going to be accepted, people have to feel that they have a part in its acceptance and rejection, not that it's being done to them. If people are not consulted in making the decisions, they're gonna be perennially suspicious.

[Sound from movie man: ‘You’re crazy.” DR Frankenstein: “Crazy, am I? We'll see whether I'm crazy or not.”]

BERNARD ROLLIN: If you create a forum for regular people to express their concerns, and you have scientists present to explain the technology, or to say, "That's a legitimate concern. We don't know how to deal with it yet," people will feel ownership in that technology.

[Sound from movie man1: “Well, what you’re saying is nonsense. A revolt against nature.”]

movie man2: “Oh, come, Paul. What’s the matter with you? You haven’t shown any scruples up till now.”]

BERNARD ROLLIN: So, I think the problem really is that scientists are ideologically trained to communicate with one another. And they don't even know how to begin. They think somehow if they simplify, they're lying, or distorting, you see. So for the average scientists, they're thinking, "You really want to understand my work, go out and get a Ph.D. in molecular biology, then we can talk." But they can't afford that luxury in a democratic society.

DAVE SIELSTAD: We have all these things that we can do with DNA, who's gonna say what right to do and what's not right to do?

4H-GIRL1: Government?

DAVE SIELSTAD: Government and....?

4H GIRL1: Scientists.


4H BOY2: Public.

DAVE SIELSTAD: Public. Did you hear that? The public should be involved. And you. You guys know more now about biotechnology after these 2 days than most adults.

JOHN HOCKENBERRY: Back at the YMCA the 4H ers discuss things we’ll all need to talk about; progress, regulation, the environment and ethics.

4H GIRL1: I'm afraid they'll screw up and we'll all die from the chemicals.

4H BOY1: As long as it doesn't endanger anything, and it helps everybody.

4H GIRL1: As long as they take all the precautions, and make sure it's really, really safe, then I don't care.

4H BOY2: Yeah, if like, the rainforest, if that would help bring it back. As long as it didn't like...

4H GIRL1: Kill us.

4H BOY2: ...release any dangerous gases that the scientists wouldn't know about until they actually planted it out in the environment.

4H BOY1: And if they think they're gonna make lots of money, then they might not think ethically.

4H GIRL1: You experiment with the product for months and months.

4H BOY2: Years.
4H BOY1: Until you're sure it's not gonna backfire.

4H GIRL1: You can't do anything but your best, so you have to try it. If you think it will help humanity, you should try it.

[Sound of a supermarket]

JOHN HOCKENBERRY: Welcome back to the modern American supermarket, where the future is now.

STEVE TAYLOR: Probably almost every American has eaten transgenic soybeans already. And as far as I know we’re all doing just fine.

JOHN HOCKENBERRY: Will biotechnology let people live longer?

ALAN BENNETT: It will be providing pharmaceuticals, nutraceuticals and for many of the things which we now rely on petroleum for. So we can see the day when plants and the changing role of agriculture is to develop a whole new range of renewable resources, which are essential to maintain a population that's doubling over the next fifty years.

JOHN HOCKENBERRY: And when that longer living population doubles, will biotechnology fill all the stomachs?

JOHN FAGAN: You will hear from the promoters of this technology that in fact this is the technology to feed the world. But you look at any incidence of starving between Somalia and the Irish potato famine, and you'll find that 99% of those were not production problems. They were
socio political economic problems that created those situations. There is enough food in the world. We have the capacity to produce much more food in natural ways.

JOHN HOCKENBERRY: So, will biotechnology feed the world, or create "frankenfood"? It probably depends on how we choose to use it: scientifically, commercially and ethically. Which reminds me of a book called A Martian Wouldn’t Say That. It’s a collection of quotes from actual Hollywood memos. In one, an executive is working on a science fiction picture. He writes simply: "Please don't make the tomato too sad." I’ll second that. I’m John Hockenberry.

Credits for The DNA Files

The DNA Files is produced by SoundVision Productions, in Berkeley, California, and is made possible through the generous contributions of the National Science Foundation, the Department of Energy and the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation.

JOHN HOCKENBERRY: I’m John Hockenberry. Thanks for listening to The DNA Files.

For more information, and for an interactive look at some of the issues behind this program, go to our web site at For tapes and transcripts of this program and this series, contact VisABILITY at 303.823.8000. That’s 303.823.8000. To contact The DNA Files, send your email to The DNA Files’ Executive Producer is Bari Scott. The Project Director is Jude Thilman. Today's program, "Plants, Animals and Transgenics: A Tomato By Any Other Name", was produced by Barrett Golding and engineered by Barrett Golding and Robin Wise. Program editor was Sora Newman.


Managing Editors of The DNA Files are Loretta Williams and Catherine Stifter. Production manager is Catherine Gollery. Technical Director is Robin Wise. Adi Gevins is Director of Research and Creative Consultant. Sally Lehrman is Content Consultant. Original music composed and performed by Bill Frisell. Introductory Feature produced by John Rieger and edited by Gary Covino.


This has been a SoundVision production.

This program is distributed by NPR – National Public Radio.