Sunday, May 27, 2018

Genetic Modification Fears

In 1962 the popular Book-of-the-Month Club selection Fail Safe authored by Eugene Burdick and Harvey Wheeler hit the shelves during the uncertain days of the Cuban Missile Crisis. As a public school teacher I remember many civil defense drills such as moving my students from the classroom to the hallway and directing them to sit quietly on the floor in front of their lockers. Many other defense activities prevailed for Baby Boomers of that time as well as pre-Baby Boomers. “Fail-safe” was a popular expression. In those Strategic Air Command (SAC) days there were strong fears that things would become worse, for example, if an aircraft accidentally strayed into enemy territory during their defensive protocols. Their “fail-safe” strategies insured that inadvertent errors would not result in even worse disasters.

The expression “fail-safe” may be appropriately resurrected and applied to the current gene editing issue. Currently the gene editing industry is burgeoning and holds great promise for the benefit of humanity. In this context, “holds promise” is a loaded term with many caveats. Our current scientific challenge is to balance optimistic promise and pessimistic fears. The pressure to plunge ahead with aggressive research is balanced by equally intense pressure to exercise prudent caution. Research scientists and safety regulators are located on both sides of the balance point. Understandably, their levels of concern differ in strength.       

Some are excited about the potential for conquering diseases, eradication of disease-causing insects, design of hardier, novel, or more productive crops, or the promise of clean energy alternatives. Many commentators have pronounced CRISPR/Cas9, the most recent genetic editing technology, a world changer and the greatest potential biotechnology discovery of the current century. We may only imagine where patients  or parents of children with previously incurable genetic diseases stand on the optimism/pessimism spectrum with respect to the potential for disease cures.

CRISPR/Cas9 is a world changer. Its technology extends directly to the DNA of living things—deleting, disrupting, or correcting disease-causing mutations and inserting new genes in their place. The structural and functional characteristics of one’s most personal biological entities are deliberately altered. The genome is changed by altering the molecular structure of DNA in various ways—deleting, altering, and replacing. 

We use an inadequate, trivial analogy as an illustration: When we take our automobile to the service center, the attendant may lubricate moving parts, change the formula of the automobile’s fuel, or tighten a few loose connections. The working parts are not different, but their functions have improved. In more serious vehicular problems, entirely new parts may be installed by the automotive technician. The physical structure and functional characteristics of basic automotive entities are altered by installing new parts. Replacement of a motor is an extreme example. We may term this process a partial rebuilding of the automobile’s working parts.

When parts of a living entity are rebuilt by editing the organism’s DNA we are dealing with a phenomenon far more exciting, awesome, and fearsome. We may be discovering some of the original design features emplaced by the Creator. In our 2nd Law of Thermodynamics universe governed by a Law of Decay overlay we understand the realities of our imperfect universe where living things have suffered numerous damaging mutations in their genomes. Newly discovered medical technologies such as CRISPR/Cas9 may enable modern bioscientists to come closer to genetic integrity in our less than perfect human genetic existence.     

The CRISPR/Cas9 technology as a gene editing system has become especially well known since 2013. The CRISPR acronym was proposed in 2002. Originally it described a bacterial immune system against virus attacks. At present, more advanced gene editing technology is moving forward rapidly.            

Let us return to our initial theme: “Gene Modification Fears.” Should humans tamper with DNA? God created and designed humanity and the DNA which produces each of our human phenotypes (physical manifestations). Should we develop systems such as CRISPR/Cas9 capable of modifying the DNA with which we are created? In developing and applying new technologies bioscientists must balance negative outcomes with positive ones. The “fail-safe” concept must accompany all of our engineering efforts. Will we exercise control in CRISPR applications to quickly block potential harmful uses of the technology? Could CRISPR inadvertently alter regions of the human genome other than the intended ones? 

Dr. Francis S. Collins discovered the genetic basis of many human diseases. Collins currently directs the National Institutes of Health (NIH) in Bethesda MD. In 2003 he was a pioneer in the initial sequencing of the full human genome. Collins carefully balances philosophical and theological questions against pure health improvement issues. He has discussed these sensitive issues frequently from scientific as well as  theological perspectives. He experienced the profound wonder of catching the first glimpse of our own complete human genetic instruction book. He has offered many opinions concerning gene editing issues, particularly involving germline research activity. Collins has said, “The strong arguments against engaging in this activity remain…..These include the serious and unquantifiable safety issues, ethical issues presented by altering the germline in a way that affects the next generation without their consent, and a current lack of compelling medical applications justifying the use of CRISPR/Cas9 in embryos.” Collins models wise caution in this complex issue. May our omniscient Creator give us wisdom as we apply advanced genetic technologies in our day.   



Saturday, May 19, 2018

GMOs-->Genetic Editing

Genetically modified organisms (GMOs) elicit profound fear in many areas of the world. Foods produced by genetic modification are shunned and outlawed in many countries, even though there have been no documented cases of nutritional harm from human consumption of genetically modified foods or food products. Many optimistic promises of GMOs have been substantially fulfilled. As with any revolutionary technology there are a few legitimate questions. Many scientists are distressed by the slow pace of legal resolution of concerns about GMOs. Some relate to ethical dimensions of human induced horizontal gene transfer (HGT). In nature HGT has occurred as the transfer of DNA genetic material from one species to another, mostly in primitive life forms. Artificial HGT has been accomplished by scientists in the last few decades using novel biotechnology. This is the basis of the GMO phenomenon.    

A different procedure on the genetic editing front raises hopes for success of bio-engineering to an ever higher level. A few years ago new technologies were developed which may be described as a form of genetic modification, lately becoming known as genetic editing. Following is a quote by Jacob Bunge and Amy Marcus from the Wall Street Journal of 4/16/18. The article, “Battle Grows Over Gene-edited Food,” expresses both the hopes and fears inherent in the newest biotechnology techniques: “The new gene-editing technologies enable scientists to achieve some of the same effects by altering the plant’s own DNA, without inserting new genes. With Crispr-Cas9 the most widely used system, scientists can program genetic guides to target a location along the plant’s DNA, where the Cas9 protein cuts the DNA. The cells change the DNA sequence as the cut is repaired. Scientists are using Crispr to make drought resistant corn, reduced-gluten wheat, and tomatoes with easy to remove stems.”

Curious people marvel about processes at the sub-microscopic level where these wonders occur. There are about one trillion cells in our bodies. Each cell contains a nucleus containing 46 chromosomes, each one containing DNA macro-molecules with billions of atoms. Electron microscopes enable us to “see” molecular structure.

Several years ago bio-scientists began applying knowledge they had acquired from observing the manner in which bacteria resist viruses that attacked them. They used the same strategy in more advanced plants and animals to genetically edit the organisms’ genomes in order to give them new traits. Antonio Regaldo, senior editor of MIT Technology Review writes, “Bacteria collect and store snippets of DNA from viruses that have invaded them, splicing the segments out through their own genome in a pattern called Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats - the language that gives CRISPR its acronym.” The bacteria use the virus’s DNA to create cutting enzymes called nucleases which splice the DNA at the desired place. Scientists in the last few years have shown that this natural bacterial immune process can be repurposed to work in humans in order to target and delete specific genes including those which cause deleterious inherited diseases or aging.

Bio-scientists could delete, add, modify, insert, or replace a gene at the position where the “nuclear scissors” snipped out the unwanted gene from the original DNA sequence. Supporters of the CRISPR process claim it is more “natural” than the process used by GMOs which incorporate genetic material from a different species.

Our knowledge and application of CRISPR technology is still preliminary but potential for the well-being of humanity in the future is high indeed. Many benefits from GMOs and gene editing already astound us. The technology of gene editing is moving very quickly. In 10, 50, or 100 years if Christ has not returned, we predict the world will be very different. Will most diseases be conquered? Could reduced suffering, enhanced diet, and extended patterns of aging cause man to draw closer to God? Or instead, will humanity feel an increased sense of self-empowerment?

Our scientific knowledge has multiplied beyond belief since the days when our grandparents and great-grandparents were young people and adults. We contemplate whether righteousness has increased or diminished. Should the vast knowledge proliferation heighten or reduce personal and collective worship of the Creator of All Things? Our answer should be driven by thoughtful introspection.      

Saturday, May 12, 2018

Genetic Modifications

In the lifetimes of some readers of this blog, the most fundamental knowledge of genetics has been revealed. Even in the 1940s and 1950s geneticists were uncertain which cell features were responsible for heredity and how heritable traits were passed to the next generation. For instance, bioscientists were unsure whether cellular protein or DNA controlled heredity. In the early 1950s scientists confirmed that DNA was the responsible agent. The existence of DNA had been known for several decades but little was known about its workings or function. Scientists discovered that DNA is “species specific” in 1950. In 1953 bioscientists discovered the beauty and complexity of the molecular structure of DNA. Determination of its incredible wonder-inspiring functionality was not far behind. In the 1960s they determined the code for DNA’s production of proteins—building blocks of life itself.

A DNA molecule is composed of three billion base pairs (chemical substances) arranged according to a specific order in a long double helix spiral. There are four bases in the molecule. In humans this long molecule is composed of 46 chromosomes, each with multiple regions containing thousands of genes, units of nucleotides, at a specific location. Each gene carries information for the eventual production of a particular physical characteristic. 

Genetics is the study of how multiple traits of living things are inherited and passed along to the next generation. This definition belies the complexity of the knowledge of genetics. Most people would claim at least a modicum of genetic knowledge. The subject evokes strong responses in the current cultural climate, especially as it relates to one’s personal existence. When the topic of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) is raised we encounter strongly diverse reactions along all positions on the approval/disapproval spectrum.

First, we describe one of the most important applications of the GMO world. Since the mid 90s, we have been blessed by the widespread development of GMOs. This discovery is revolutionary, replacing some traditional agricultural practices. It involves transferring a gene from one species to a different species. For example, soil bacteria such as bacillus thuringiensis (bT) possesses DNA which produces a toxin fatal to harmful insects such as corn borers. Before discovery of GMO technology, this bacterial toxin was used to produce large quantities of commercial chemical insecticides. Many crop species have now been genetically engineered to produce their own intrinsic toxic resistance to insect pests; the pests die when they ingest any part of a genetically engineered plant. The new crops have incorporated a gene of bT into their own genome. Consumers benefit from increased crop productivity and reduced costs. There are many other GMOs, lately described under the umbrella term “bio-engineered.”             

Many related issues exist such as the ethical consequences of tampering with naturally occurring genomes. Some authors describe the practice as “genetic tinkering,” a characterization which may impart a negative spin to the GMO phenomenon. Do we “play God” in a morally unacceptable manner? Are we creating, or do we have the potential to create “Frankenstein monsters?” Surely these questions provoke the most fearful human responses only if we permit them to rule our thinking. 

Our position is in accord with God’s instructions to humanity in Genesis 1:28 “…Fill the earth and subdue it.” This verse and verses 29-30 have many applications for man’s prudent management of living things.

Humans have produced genetic modifications in plants and animals for thousands of years. They began in force at the inception of humanity’s agricultural revolution about 10,000 years ago. These genetic modifications were manifest in domestication of plants and animals. Some modifications are startling, increasing desirability and productivity in multiple ways. Over many years people selected the most desirable crops and animals for propagation. Unwittingly, they practiced a form of genetic modification. In the past few decades agriculturalists have enjoyed increasingly novel technological potential, doubtless a divine gift for which we give thanks to God. Our prayer is that humanity would not use this technological potential for evil or harm.

The United States, Canada, Brazil, and Argentina together raise 90% of genetically modified crops worldwide. In view of the proven benefits of GMOs this is a surprising statistic. European Union countries have mandated laws forbidding the sale and use of  almost all bio-engineered crops. There are many examples in which people in underdeveloped nations would strongly benefit from improved nutrition by using bio-engineered GMO foods. For example, golden rice is a GMO. Bio-engineering has produced rice which contains abundant Vitamin A beta carotene, proven to be helpful in populations with vitamin A deficiency (VAD). Hundreds of thousands of children die each year from VAD in underdeveloped countries, but staunch resistance continues.

Science journalist David H. Freeman states in an article in Scientific American that, “Not a single verified case of illness has ever been attributed to the genetic alterations.” On the other hand, there have been many opposing voices casting doubt on the safety of GMOs. The issue generates deep emotions and is intensely ideological. Many other issues are the source of similar emotional disagreements.

Pew Research claims 48% of the US population says the health effects of consuming GMOs are no different from other foods while 39% say GM foods are worse for one’s health. GM foods are better for our health say 10% of those polled. Pew also reports that 29% of people have heard “a lot,” 52% have heard “a little,” and 19% have heard “nothing” about the issue. Their reporting also finds that people with high science knowledge are more likely to favor the use of bio-engineered foods. Personal research on the pros and cons of this and many other controversial matters is a useful exercise. Many discover the importance of ideology which often supersedes factual truth.

In our search for appropriate scripture references on this topic, we encountered a verse by Solomon who had never experienced controversies related to GMOs: “How much better to get wisdom than gold, to choose understanding rather than silver! (Proverbs 16:16 NIV).



Monday, May 7, 2018

Spring Planting

Three weeks into the month of April our local area began to emerge from the throes of winter. Spring conditions have suddenly arrived to the delight of farmers. “Spring planting” is a term frequently heard in farming regions. Frost is now out of the ground and the soil will soon be warm enough to receive a new infusion of seed. In my youth I was privileged to observe farming operations firsthand thanks to the involvement of close family.  

Personal childhood recollections relate to my father’s active participation in  horticulture and agriculture. He constructed a greenhouse on our property during the 1930s. During World War II two events edged him out of the greenhouse business in central New York and into the state agency of a national agricultural seed company. A heavy snowfall did serious damage to our family-owned greenhouse. In addition, the government mandated that the greenhouse business was non-essential to the collective war effort.

I preferred to explore my grandfather’s farm buildings and fields located next door to my childhood home. In retrospect, when “Agent Dad” taught farmers about hybrid corn varieties and the value of synthetic chemical fertilizers, as a pre-teen I should have listened more carefully. My interests, instead, were along the lines of farm and field exploration and adventure together with fishing in the nearby river. He frequently spoke, for example, about such issues as “single cross” and “double cross” hybrids and the advantages of using synthetic nitrogen-based inorganic fertilizer. Dad was not college trained in contemporary 1940s agricultural technology. Rather, he was self-taught, surpassing the experience and knowledge he had acquired on his family’s farming operation in Northern New York during the 1910s and 1920s. Farmers of that day were not familiar with hybridization or synthetic inorganic fertilizers. As late as the 1940s when my father became an agent for a firm embracing the newest agricultural technology, some of his farmer clients remained dubious and doubtful.

Fast forward to the twenty-first century. Without hybridization and genetically modified plants, together with heavy reliance on synthetic fertilizers such as ammonium nitrate, our food supply would be woefully inadequate to satisfy the 7.6 billion earth residents of today. 

During the last few decades a large portion of our population has become enamored with organic foods and procedures. Several requirements prevail for foods or food production to be considered organic. Crops may not be raised with synthetic chemical fertilizers, hormones, or antibiotics. Animals must have access to free range conditions. There must be no irradiation of foods. Pest, weed, and disease control must be applied by biological means. They must not be genetically modified. In short, foods and food production methods must be “natural” according to strict regulations.     Organic farming and gardening are deeply ideological.

Flashback to early and mid-20th century farming methods and the agricultural endeavors of my father. He followed the principles established by the famous agricultural innovator Norman Borlaug, considered the father of the “Green Revolution” of the 20th century. In earlier years primitive world agricultural practices had deterred crop production, especially in underdeveloped, high population countries. Residents of those countries faced widespread starvation. Billions of people in those countries were saved from nutritional disaster. Borlaug was the winner of a Nobel Prize for his innovative methods of developing high yielding hybrid plant varieties, use of synthetic fertilizers and chemical treatments for pests, weeds, and diseases, as well as modern mechanization and irrigation. He was recognized for likely saving the lives of one billion human beings. The organic movement arose in response to the Green Revolution. Both had beginnings in the 1940s.

Practices in modern agriculture continue the accomplishments of the Green Revolution. In terms of many contemporary residents during and after World War II my father was ahead of his time in utilizing hybrid crop varieties, chemical fertilizers, and modern technologies of pest, disease, and weed control and irrigation. He taught these lessons to the farmers in his agency region previously steeped in old-fashioned agricultural traditions. He would be among the first to endorse the concept that modern agricultural technologies were merely an extension of processes in the natural world in effect since plant and animal food crops have been present on our planet. These processes sustained the nutritional needs of divinely created humanity. After the Wisconsin Ice Age early humans selected the best plants over many generations— an example of early genetic modification. The value of nutrients in manure was also discovered thousands of years ago. These practices resulted in the appearance of healthy domesticated plants and animals we still enjoy today.

My father, Paul Virkler, was an energetic innovator in his life projects. One of his major ventures was the move from central New York to northern New Jersey in 1951 to take over the pastorate of a small church. This move coincided with my parents’ lifelong desire to serve God. The tiny church did not provide any salary, but God provided for the purchase of a 40-acre parcel of property. Twelve of those acres needed to be cleared of 25 years of shrubby growth and young trees. Paul was “up for the job.” Ultimately, those twelve acres were planted in hybrid sweet corn with one acre reserved for tomatoes, broccoli, cauliflower, beans, zucchini, cucumbers, and peppers. Lima beans were but one of our personal family favorite veggies along with our famous sweet corn.  

From 1952 to 1985 the family farm produced over three million ears of sweet corn. Virtually ALL of our produce was sold retail at the road in front of our property. Our clients were appreciative and curious concerning the farming expertise needed to bring the crop to maturity. Some customers wondered if our crops were organically raised. I responded that the same chemical nutrients utilized by plants in organic fields were present in the ammonium nitrate fertilizer applied several times to the sweet corn crop during its growth stage. Were these fertilizers “natural?” As a science teacher I could  honestly state that all chemical elements such as nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium occur as part of the created “natural” physical world. Most customers were pleased that Dad planted a rye cover crop each fall after the harvest to be plowed down the next spring—certainly the epitome of an “organic” process! The truth was that rigid application of formally defined organic methods would have precluded most of the profit from our family farming operation. As with any technology, we used research and sound advice provided by state and national agricultural organizations to insure the safety of our procedures.

Each year at the roadside stand, we distributed a new edition of our newsletter entitled “Kernels of Truth.” Along with questions posed by our customers in many previous years, we took the opportunity to give God the glory for the miracle of crop development. We combined many questions from customers to ask a rhetorical question: “What is the most important ingredient in growing corn?” Following is our 1984 newsletter reply:

Faith. Jesus Christ spoke of having faith as small as a grain of mustard seed in order to accomplish great things. To watch a tiny seed grow from insignificance to maturity and fruitfulness demands a considerable measure of faith. The same Jesus Christ spoke of an even more significant sphere in which we can exercise our faith when He said, “The true Bread is a Person—the One sent by God from heaven, and He gives life to the world…..I am the Bread of Life.” (John 6:33-35 Living Bible)