Viral Gene in Genetically Engineered Foods Could Promote Disease

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February 05, 2013 | 247,568 views

Story at-a-glance

  • The European Food Safety Authority has discovered a hidden viral gene in 54 of 84 commercially approved genetically engineered crops—a finding that highlights deep flaws in the regulatory process
  • Plant pathologists speak out about the potential dangers of the viral gene fragment in GE plants, stating it may confer “significant potential for harm,” and call for a total recall of affected crops
  • Plants expressing the viral gene fragment exhibit gene expression abnormalities, which indicate that the protein produced by gene functions as a toxin. The known targets of its activity are also found in human cells, so there is potential for this plant toxin to also have toxic effects on humans
  • At present, the only way to avoid GE foods is to eliminate processed foods from your grocery list, and buy primarily whole foods grown according to organic standards. The need for labeling of GE foods is also becoming more apparent in order to allow for health monitoring

By Dr. Mercola

I’ve previously warned of the potential dangers of genetically engineered (GE) foods for many years now, pointing out that such crops might have wholly unforeseen consequences.

In recent years, such suspicions have increasingly proven correct, and now researchers have released yet another bombshell.

Genetic manipulation of crops, and more recently food animals, is a dangerous game that has repeatedly revealed that assumptions about how genetic alterations work and the effects it has on animals and humans who consume such foods, are deeply flawed and incomplete.

At present, the only way to avoid GE foods is to ditch processed foods from your grocery list, and revert back to whole foods grown according to organic standards.

Regulators Discover a Hidden Viral Gene in Commercial GMO Crops

The European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) recently published a paper titled, "Possible Consequences of the overlap between the CaMV 35S promoter regions in the plant transformation vectors used in the viral gene VI in transgenic plants,"1 which has many questioning the safety of GE crops that have already been on the market for two decades.

One way to achieve a genetic modification in a plant is to piggyback a chosen gene on a plant virus, such as the Cauliflower Mosaic virus. Here, they discovered that the most commonly used genetic regulatory sequence (i.e. that which drives the gene expression within the plant), called CaMV 35S promoter, also encodes a gene fragment of the virus, in addition to the desired genetic trait being inserted.

The viral gene fragment in question is called Gene VI, and this encoding may have human health ramifications. According to EFSA,2 they’ve known all along that certain GE crops contained Gene VI, which belongs to the Cauliflower Mosaic virus.

This virus can infect a variety of different plants. It’s not a virus that can directly infect animals or humans. However, while the agency claims the virus poses no direct threat to animal or human health for this reason, others vehemently disagree.

According to an article in Independent Science News,3 written by plant pathology researchers Jonathan Latham and Allison Wilson:4

“In general, viral genes expressed in plants raise both agronomic and human health concerns (reviewed in Latham and Wilson 2008.)5 This is because many viral genes function to disable their host in order to facilitate pathogen invasion. Often, this is achieved by incapacitating specific anti-pathogen defenses.

Incorporating such genes could clearly lead to undesirable and unexpected outcomes in agriculture. Furthermore, viruses that infect plants are often not that different from viruses that infect humans.

For example, sometimes the genes of human and plant viruses are interchangeable, while on other occasions inserting plant viral fragments as transgenes has caused the genetically altered plant to become susceptible to an animal virus...

Thus, in various ways, inserting viral genes accidentally into crop plants and the food supply confers a significant potential for harm.”

Hazard to Public Health has Not Been Ruled Out

GE crops affected include Roundup Ready soybeans, MON810 maize, and NK603 maize, the latter of which was recently linked to massive tumor growth and organ damage in rats in a French lifetime feeding study. All in all, 54 out of 84 approved GE crops contain the toxic gene.

According to the featured article, the EFSA researchers admit the Gene VI fragments "might result in unintended phenotypic changes,"6 as similar fragments of this gene have previously been demonstrated to have independent activity.

“In other words, the EFSA researchers were unable to rule out a hazard to public health or the environment,” Latham and Wilson write.7

“...In the course of analysis to identify potential allergens in GMO crops, the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) has belatedly discovered that the most common genetic regulatory sequence in commercial GMOs also encodes a significant fragment of a viral gene (Podevin and du Jardin 2012).

This finding has serious ramifications for crop biotechnology and its regulation, but possibly even greater ones for consumers and farmers. This is because there are clear indications that this viral gene (called Gene VI) might not be safe for human consumption. It also may disturb the normal functioning of crops, including their natural pest resistance.”

Total Recall is 'the Only Reasonable Course of Action'

Latham and Wilson go on to discuss how a regulatory agency could go about announcing such a monumental screw-up. After all, GE crops have been approved and deemed “safe” for some 20 years, and EFSA admits it has known about Gene VI for some time.

One option would be to recall all affected GE crops, which could effectively spell the end to crop biotechnology as a whole. We know this is not going to happen in the US as biotech, Monsanto specifically, has leveraged the revolving door between industry and the federal regulatory agencies that are responsible for this type of monitoring. The classic case of the fox guarding the henhouse and federal agencies are simply not going to act because of this.

Another possibility would be to do a retrospective risk assessment of the CaMV promoter and its Gene VI sequences, “and hope to give it a clean bill of health.” A third option would be to evaluate the seriousness of the hazard by monitoring reports of harm. Unfortunately, this option has been and still is impossible to pursue, as not a single country has carried out any type of GE monitoring. In the US, we still don’t even have GE labeling, so reporting adverse health effects is a logistical impossibility.

“Unsurprisingly, EFSA chose option two,” Latham and Wilson write. “However, their investigation resulted only in the vague and unreassuring conclusion that Gene VI 'might result in unintended phenotypic changes'... This means literally, that changes of an unknown number, nature, or magnitude may (or may not) occur. It falls well short of the solid scientific reassurance of public safety needed to explain why EFSA has not ordered a recall.”

I recommend reading the featured article8 in its entirety, as the researchers go into some detail about the known functions of Gene VI, and why it might indeed have repercussions for human health. These concerns include but are not limited to:

  • Gene VI is an inhibitor of RNA silencing, which leads to aberrant gene expression in GE plants, with unknown consequences
  • As a unique transactivator of gene expression, Gene VI could presumably result in the production of a variety of random proteins within cells. Such proteins could include allergens and toxins, in addition to harmless proteins. The end result would differ for each crop species
  • Gene VI has two mechanisms by which it interferes with plant anti-pathogen defenses — one of which was unknown to EFSA researchers at the time their findings went to press. According to Latham and Wilson, “the discovery of an entirely new function for gene VI while EFSA’s paper was in press, also makes clear that a full appraisal of all the likely effects of Gene VI is not currently achievable”
  • Plants expressing Gene VI exhibit gene expression abnormalities, which indicate that the protein produced by Gene VI functions as a toxin. The known targets of Gene VI activity are also found in human cells, so there is potential for this plant toxin to also have toxic effects on humans

According to Latham and Wilson, the retroactive risk assessment performed by EFSA clearly shows CaMV 35S promoter-containing GE crops have the potential to harm human health. Therefore, the only course of action left is to order a total recall — option number one, as discussed above.

“This recall should also include GMOs containing the FMV promoter and its own overlapping Gene VI,” they write.

Never Assume Anything — Especially When Tinkering with Genes!

The authors of the featured story make a really important point in their article — one that you’d be well advised to remember when it comes to discussions about safety:

“No-one knows, for example, what quantity, location or timing of protein production would be of significance for risk assessment, and so answers necessary to perform science-based risk assessment are unlikely to emerge soon.”

If you don’t even know what might be of significance, then how can you possibly assess risks? And if you cannot assess risk, how can you proclaim something is safe? They continue:

“It is perhaps the most basic assumption in all of risk assessment that the developer of a new product provides regulators with accurate information about what is being assessed. Perhaps the next most basic assumption is that regulators independently verify this information. We now know, however, that for over 20 years neither of those simple expectations have been met.

Major public universities, biotech multinationals, and government regulators everywhere, seemingly did not appreciate the relatively simple possibility that the DNA constructs they were responsible for encoded a viral gene.

This lapse occurred despite the fact that Gene VI was not truly hidden; the relevant information on the existence of Gene VI has been freely available in the scientific literature since well before the first biotech approval... We ourselves have offered specific warnings that viral sequences could contain unsuspected genes...9 The inability of risk assessment processes to incorporate longstanding and repeated scientific findings is every bit as worrisome as the failure to intellectually anticipate the possibility of overlapping genes when manipulating viral sequences.

...Even now that EFSA’s own researchers have belatedly considered the risk issues, no one can say whether the public has been harmed, though harm appears a clear scientific possibility. Considered from the perspective of professional and scientific risk assessment, this situation represents a complete and catastrophic system failure.”

Monsanto Company Joins WBCS

Ironically, while their GE products are increasingly being revealed as far from suitable for human consumption, Monsanto joined the World Business Council for Sustainable Development (WBCSD).10, 11 According to their January 22, press release:

“Monsanto, a leading global provider of technology-based solutions and agricultural products that aim to improve farm productivity and food quality, joins WBCSD and is offering the WBCSD's Business Ecosystems Training (BET) course globally for employees. The BET course will enhance employees' awareness and understanding of the links between ecosystems and business.

'...In joining the WBCSD, Monsanto is taking an important step along a continuum towards developing a more sustainable agriculture system – one that improves our daily lives, respects our global environment and recognizes the importance of the world's small-holder farmers,' said Peter Bakker, President, WBCSD. 'We must find new ways to protect soils, enhance ecosystems and optimize land use in ways that are environmentally sound...'"

I can’t think of a company less suited for the job... As pointed out by Latham and Allison:

“A further key point relates to the biotech industry and their campaign to secure public approval and a permissive regulatory environment. This has led them to repeatedly claim, firstly, that GMO technology is precise and predictable; and secondly, that their own competence and self-interest would prevent them from ever bringing potentially harmful products to the market; and thirdly, to assert that only well studied and fully understood transgenes are commercialized.

It is hard to imagine a finding more damaging to these claims than the revelations surrounding Gene VI.

Biotechnology, it is often forgotten, is not just a technology. It is an experiment in the proposition that human institutions can perform adequate risk assessments on novel living organisms. Rather than treat that question as primarily a daunting scientific one, we should for now consider that the primary obstacle will be overcoming the much more mundane trap of human complacency and incompetence. We are not there yet, and therefore this incident will serve to reinforce the demands for GMO labeling in places where it is absent.”

[+]Sources and References [-]Sources and References

  • 1 GM Crops & Food October/November/December 2012: 3(4): 296-300
  • 2 FAQ on inserted fragment of viral gene in GM plants
  • 3 Independent Science News January 21, 2013
  • 4 Jonathan Latham, Alison Wilson Academic Search
  • 5 MOLECULAR PLANT PATHOLOGY (2007) 8( 6 ) , 000–000 (PDF)
  • 6 See ref 1
  • 7 See ref 2
  • 8 See ref 3
  • 9 See ref 7
  • 10
  • 11 Press Release January 22, 2013