Plants, Animals & Transgenics: A Tomato By Any Other Name

PRODUCERS: Barrett Golding

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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New & Noteworthy, 2007
by Jennifer Jongsma

From crops that are genetically modified crops to pigs that become organ donors, the applications of biotechnology seem to be limitless and also surrounded by limitless controversy.

Perhaps one of the easiest places to find biotechnology is on your dinner plate. In 2006, a total of 252 million acres of transgenic crops were planted in 22 countries, so there is a good chance that more than one made its way into your meals. U.S. farmers grew more than half of these crops, followed by Argentina, Brazil, Canada, India, and China. Most transgenic plants have been engineered for a single trait designed to make production easier, perhaps to tolerate an herbicide or to resist insects. Some researchers are now developing transgenic varieties that might improve human health. Examples include boosting nutritional content in "golden rice," which has a golden tint because it contains beta carotene (which humans need to produce vitamin A). Other projects reduce undesirable compounds such as trans fats in soybean and canola oils. Most people in the United States have no idea whether they are eating transgenic crops. But in Europe, the law requires labeling.

Scientists also are using genetic technology to turn plants directly into drug production factories. To date, they have engineered numerous edible plants, including potatoes, tomatoes, corn, soybeans, and lettuce, to express a variety of vaccines, including vaccines for hepatitis B, cholera, Norwalk virus, and the toxins produced by E. coli. Edible vaccines show much promise in addressing the problems of traditional vaccines: they can be readily consumed with limited or no processing; they offer an alternative to needle-based vaccination programs, which can be difficult to implement in developing countries; and they avoid cold-storage problems because plants can be dried or already have low moisture content (specifically the seeds). Small biotechnology companies supported by international aid organizations and some national governments are doing most of the research in this area, but they are under-funded. In their work, they must take many factors into consideration: What type of plant will provide the ideal vaccine delivery? Can the proper dose be achieved by simply eating the plant? Are there any potential allergens in the plant? In addition, the regulation of edible vaccines is uncertain: Will they be regulated as food, drugs, or agricultural products?

Animal biotechnology typically takes two forms: animals for more nutritious meat or milk, and those that produce medically useful proteins in their blood or milk. Just as no transgenic animals for food are on the market, researchers have yet to get federal approval for clinical applications such as vaccines and, potentially, viable organs for transplantation. Researchers at UC Davis have developed transgenic goats that produce an antibacterial enzyme from human breast milk in their own milk. The enzyme protects against intestinal bacteria and one day the enhanced milk might protect infants and children against diarrheal illnesses, which kill more than 2 million children worldwide each year.

Although some researchers hope that biotech foods may ease global hunger and disease, there is continuing controversy over their impact on and potential harm to the environment and human health. Critics worry that crops genetically altered to produce drugs or other pharmaceutical compounds could get accidentally mixed in with the human food supply or animal feed, causing a potential threat to public health. According to many opponents, problems of cross-pollination and unknown effects on insects, soil microbes, and other native organisms are enough to warrant national and global rules regulating this type of biotechnology. For more information on food in the age of biotechnology, also tune into Designing the Garden: Food in the Age of Biotechnology.

Original Program Description, 1998

Imagine a grocery store in which every item on every shelf has been genetically altered to grow bigger, last longer, and taste better. If the new branch of American agribusiness has its way, that will be the future of your typical supermarket. Only, the "bigger, longer, better" parts are still an open question.

For years, humans have used soils and sex to manipulate the traits of plants and animals. Now, gene splicers are able to use traits, not just from related species, but from any species. The result is a new biological category: transgenics, organisms with genes from other species. Already, scientists have tried using flounder DNA to make tomatoes frost tolerant, found a chicken gene that helps potatoes resist disease, and grown tobacco with hamster and human DNA. The science is full of promise and new products. But is it safe? Is it ethical? Or even desirable? The companies investing millions in genetically engineered products promise better taste, larger farm yields, and more nutrition. Critics, though, charge that the evidence points in the opposite direction.

In this program we'll travel to both coasts and to the heartland to talk to those who work in and those who worry about biotechnology. In Virginia, we go down on the pharm - the "ph" is for the pharmaceuticals grown in transgenic animals' milk. On a very different New Mexico farm, an organic grower raises concerns about genetically engineered crops released into the environment. We hear junior high kids describe the feel of kiwi DNA ("gooey," "slimy") they extracted in a 4-H biotech workshop. And we follow the "Endless Summer" experimental tomato through the laboratories of an Oakland company.

Is biotechnology an extension or an abomination of nature? Maybe, like most new technologies, it is a bit of both. It's something to think about, next time you're in the grocery store.