Stories tagged genetic engineering

Oct
07
2010

In the movie Jurassic Park, a tale of genetic engineering gone bad, scientists arrive on an island to find that an all-female population of resurrected dinosaurs may have found a way to breed. The following conversation ensues:

Henry Wu: You’re implying that a group composed entirely of female animals will… breed?

Dr. Ian Malcom: No, I’m simply saying that life, uh… finds a way.Atlantic salmon
Atlantic salmonCourtesy Dan Taylor

As we find out later in the movie, the dinosaurs have indeed been breeding.

Salmon farmers tell us that a proposed population of genetically modified "super salmon" will be composed entirely of sterile females, making it impossible for them to mate, should they escape to the wild. Some consumers are fighting FDA approval of the fish as food and say consumers should be alerted to the fact that they are purchasing the genetically engineered fish (by way of labeling.)

Advocates of the super salmon claim the meat from the new super salmon is indistinguishable from that of their natural cousins. However, critics fear that the new “frankinfish” may pose danger to both consumers and to the environment.

Super salmon are Atlantic salmon that have had a gene (DNA) for a growth hormone normally made by Chinook salmon inserted into their genetic map. In addition, scientists have put some DNA from another ocean fish, called a pout, in front of the growth hormone gene to keep the fish’s body pumping out growth hormone all of the time.

They don’t get bigger than natural salmon, but they grow much faster. This creates a potential threat to wild salmon, should the modified salmon escape from fish farms. (They would potentially out-compete and out-breed their natural counterparts in the wild.)

Despite claims that super salmon will all be sterile females, one article I read mentioned that "a small percentage might be able to breed. They would be bred in confined pools where the potential for escape would be low.” Another stated that the FDA says that up to 5% of the eggs may be fertile.

Genetic engineering has resulted in many products that make people’s lives better, but we have to be aware of the danger it poses. Microbes, plants and animals can swap DNA and genetically modified organisms are already finding ways to invade the natural world.

Life finds a way, whether we want it to or not. It is not something to be taken lightly.

Like the Spiderman of silkworms: I guess.
Like the Spiderman of silkworms: I guess.Courtesy Tom or Jerry
Is this maybe a cool thing? Spider silk from genetically engineered silk worms. Or, at least, hybrid spider/silk worm silk.

Why do we want silk worms that produce spider silk, when they're already so good at pooping out their own worm silk, you ask? Because spider silk is awesome. It's super strong (as strong or stronger than most of our best artificial materials), and spiders manage to manufacture it at low temperatures, low pressures, and with water as a solvent (and it would be great if we could make strong materials that way). However, unlike wormy little silk worms (caterpillars, anyway), spiders don't play nice—you can have lots of silk worms together, and they'll all be happy to spin little silk cocoons, but if you put a lot of spiders together, they'll be most happy killing each other. Also, they are creepy.

Genetic engineers had managed to insert genes for the production of spider silk protein into goats, who expressed them by producing the material in their milk, but I don't believe it had all the qualities of true spider silk, and I don't imagine that's an ideal way to produce it.

But now scientists at the University of Notre Dame, the University of Wyoming, and Kraig Biocraft Laboratories, Inc. have succeeded in transplanting spider silk genes into silk worms. The silk they produce isn't quite as strong as spider silk, but researchers believe that they may eventually be able to get genetically modified worms to produce silk even stronger than native spider silk.

Interesting, interesting.

Sep
16
2010

An Atlantic salmon: slightly GMOed (by me).
An Atlantic salmon: slightly GMOed (by me).Courtesy Hans-Petter Fjeld
Buckle up, Buzzketeers, because school is in session.

Did I just mix metaphors? No! You wear seatbelts in my school, because they help prevent you from exploding.

But you will probably explode anyway, because you are going to get taught. By JGordon. About the future.

Here’s your background reading: a GMO is a genetically modified organism—a living thing whose genetic material has been altered through genetic engineering. Humans have been genetically modifying plants and animals for thousands of years (by selectively breeding them for desired characteristics), but it’s only been in the last few decades that we’ve gotten really fancy and fast about it.

While in the past, or what I like to call “the boring old days,” it took generations to breed crops that produced high yields, grew faster, or needed less water, we can now do that sort of thing in an afternoon. (Well, not really an afternoon, but these aren’t the boring old days, so we should feel free to use hyperbolic language.) We can insert genes from one plant into another, bestowing resistance to pests or poisons, or increasing the nutrition of a food crop.

Pretty cool, right? Maybe. GMOs tend to make people uncomfortable. Emotionally. They get freaked out at the thought of eating something that they imagine was created like the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. Most people prefer to eat stuff that was created the old fashion way: through SEX.

Once they’re in your tummy, GMOs are probably pretty much the same as any other food, really. However, there may be other reasons to approach them cautiously. Most organisms make a place for themselves in their environment, and their environment makes a place around them, and things tend to work pretty well together. But GMOs are brand new organisms, and it can be very difficult to tell how they’ll fit into the rest of the natural world. Will they out-compete “natural” organisms, and cause them to go extinct? Will they interbreed with them, and introduce new weaknesses to previously strong species? The repercussions of such events could be… well, very bad.

On the other hand, GMOs could provide food—better, more nutritious, easier to grow food—for people and places that really need it. And with global population expected to increase by a few billion people before it stabilizes, we’re going to need a lot of food.

Just like everything else, this stuff is complicated. Really complicated. But the issue isn’t waiting for us to get comfortable with it before it pushes ahead. Hence, our main event: GMO salmon.

You might not have devoted much mental space as of yet to mutant ninja salmon, but you will. See, transgenic salmon (i.e., salmon with genes from other animals) may be the first GMO animal on your dinner plate. Or whatever plate you use for whenever you eat salmon. If you even use a plate, you animal.

What’s the point of the GMO salmon? In the right conditions, they grow much faster than their normal counterparts, and they require about 10% less food to reach the same weight as normal salmon. The company responsible for them, AquaBounty, has been working on the project for more than 20 years. Inserted into a commonly farmed species, the Atlantic salmon, the final, successful combination of genes comes from Chinook salmon (a closely related, but much larger species) and the ocean pout (a slightly eel-like fish that can tolerate very cold water). While Atlantic salmon typically only grow during the summer, the new variation produces growth hormones year round, so they can grow to marketable size in about 60% of the time it would normally take, assuming they’re kept in water that’s at the right temperature, and given plenty of food year round.

While some people object to GMO foods on the grounds that the long-term effects from eating them are unknown, probably the more salient argument is the effect they might have on the natural world. A larger, faster growing species could put tremendous pressure on already stressed, wild Atlantic salmon. AquaBounty counters that in normal ocean temperatures, the GMO salmon would grow no faster than wild salmon. Also, all of the GMO salmon are female, and 95 to 99% of them are sterile (they can’t reproduce). And none of that should matter, because the salmon will be raised in tanks, away from the ocean.

Even if they are successfully isolated from wild salmon, opponents point out, that doesn’t mean they are isolated from the environment. See, salmon eat other fish, and it takes about 2 pounds of other fish to make one pound of salmon (according to this article on the GMO salmon). Large amounts of the kinds of fish people don’t eat are caught and processed to feed farm-raised salmon. If cheaper, fast-growing salmon cause the demand for salmon to rise, more food stock fish will have to be caught to supply the farms, putting pressure on these other species.

A salmon farm: Nets keep the salmon in and the predators out, but disease, parasites, and pollution move through freely. But salmon farms reduce stress on wild salmon populations. It's complicated...
A salmon farm: Nets keep the salmon in and the predators out, but disease, parasites, and pollution move through freely. But salmon farms reduce stress on wild salmon populations. It's complicated...Courtesy Dark jedi requiem
Then again, if the GMO salmon can be raised successfully and profitably in inland tanks, it could remove other negative environmental impacts. Aquaculture fish farms are typically in larger bodies of water, with the fish contained inside a ring of nets. The high concentration of fish in one area leads to more diseases and parasites, which can spread to nearby wild fish. Salmon farms also produce lots of waste, and it’s all concentrated in one spot. Supposedly, a farm of 200,000 salmon produces more fecal waste than a city of 60,000 people. (That’s what they say—it sounds like a load of crap to me, though.)

It’s a tricky subject, and anyone who says otherwise is being tricky (ironically). Nonetheless, it seems likely that the Food and Drug Administration will soon declare this particular GMO as officially safe to eat, and GMO salmon fillets could make their way to the supermarket in the next couple years. Even if the FDA didn’t approve the fish, however, that would only mean that it couldn’t be sold in the US—the operation could continue to produce fish for international markets.

GMO salmon are just the tip of the GMO animal iceberg (if you’ll forgive the iceberg analogy—I don’t mean to imply that they are going to sink us.) The next GMO in line for FDA approval, probably, is the so-called “enviropig,” a GMO pig with a greater capability to digest phosphorus. This should reduce feed costs, and significantly lower the phosphorus content of the manure produced by the pigs. That’s important because phosphorus from manure often leaches into bodies of water, fertilizing microorganisms, which, in turn, reproduce in massive numbers and suffocate other aquatic life.

As the human population grows and needs more food, genetically engineered plants and animals are going to become increasingly common. They might make the process of feeding and clothing ourselves easier and more sustainable. Or they might royally screw things up. Or both. So start thinking about these things, and start thinking about them carefully.

Er… so what do you think about GMOs? Are they a good idea? Are they a good idea for certain applications? Are they a bad idea? Why? Scroll down to the comments section, and let’s have it!

Feb
01
2010

Yes, of course I'm in a tobacco field: You guys figured out what?! But how? Of course... with a virus! I'll meet you at the tobaccoratory!
Yes, of course I'm in a tobacco field: You guys figured out what?! But how? Of course... with a virus! I'll meet you at the tobaccoratory!Courtesy Lauras512
Yeah, I’ll tell you what it can’t do: it can’t get that stink out of my freakin’ mittens.

But, besides that, tobacco is an interesting plant, and useful for a lot more than giving us cancer and temporary good feelings. Currently, some scientists are thinking that tobacco might be able to give us electricity-producing solar panels too.

It all started one sunny afternoon, when two scientists were lying in an open patch in a tobacco field, holding hands and watching the occasional cloud drift by.

“Isn’t tobacco great?” asked the first scientist.

“Yes,” sighed the second. She had just woven a bracelet from tobacco leaves, and was feeling like there couldn’t be a better plant in the world.

“But, really,” the first continued. “It’s really great.”

“Yes…” said the second, wondering where her colleague was going with the thought.

“Like, it sits here all day, just being tobacco…” started the first scientist.

“Which is great,” interrupted the second scientist.

“Which is great,” agreed the first scientist. Then she went on. “And it’s so good at sitting here, absorbing the sun… I wonder… I wonder…”

“Wonder what?” asked the second scientist, propping herself up on one elbow to look at the other scientist.

“Well, I wonder if we couldn’t use tobacco’s sunlight-gathering abilities to make, you know, solar cells. For electricity.”

The first scientist let herself sink back on to the ground, brushing dirt from the arm of her white lab coat. “You’re drunk,” she said.

“No! Well… maybe a little,” admitted the first scientist. “But I think it could work. Tobacco has evolved to have its chromophores—its sunlight-gathering molecules…”

“I know what a chromophore is,” said the second scientist.

“To have its chromophores very efficiently spaced out in its cells,” the first scientist went on. “If we could just figure out a way to make tobacco produce more chromophores, we could extract them from the plant, and coat solar cells with them. It could be a cheap, environmentally friendly way to make solar panels!”

“But how are we going to entice tobacco to produce more chromophores? By asking politely?” pointed out the second scientist.

“Yeah…” The first scientist frowned. “Yeah, I suppose you’re right. Never mind.”

In the warm air of the sunny tobacco patch, the suggestion was soon forgotten, and the first scientist drifted off to sleep. The second scientist played with the new tobacco bracelet on her wrist, and wrinkled her nose as a gentle gust of wind blew dust through the surrounding plants. She sneezed.

“Wait a second!” The second scientist shook the first scientist awake, looking excited. “What if we infected the tobacco with a virus?”

“What?” asked the first scientist sleepily, having all but forgotten about the idea.

“We could engineer a tobacco virus that would cause the plants to make more chromophores!” She gestured at the field around them. “We could just spray it on the field, like… like… like a giant sneeze!”

The first scientist jerked upright and gripped the second scientist’s shoulders tightly, her expression so intense it was frightening. The green of the tobacco all around them reflected in her eyes, giving her a Bruce Banner-ish, pre-hulk out look. The second scientist shivered.

“You,” whispered the first scientist, “are… a… genius!”

And that’s pretty much how it all went down.

This sort of thing takes time, though, so we shouldn’t expect the big tobacco/solar power juggernaut to get off the couch any time soon. Tobacco’s natural chromophore arrangement makes chains of molecules that could be ideal for absorbing light on solar panels, but they haven’t been made to produce electric current just yet. Once that gets figured out, however, it could lead to cheaper solar cells, with some biodegradable components. (On the other hand, they would likely have a shorter lifespan than other types of solar panels, but, hey, who doesn’t like throwing stuff away now and again?)

Dec
11
2009

You will never have to buy these again
You will never have to buy these againCourtesy very little dave
One hates to be outdone. I mean, all of a sudden I’m given to understand that not only am I the resident poop expert (and how do you think that feels) but that I’ve been shirking my duties in covering the scatological sciences, and that fecal subject matter is slipping right between my fingers! It’s humiliating on several levels.

Thank goodness for the internet, eh? Because look what just fell in my lap: an eleventh-hour entry for most bizarre poop story of the year. A couple of 20-something designers with years of experience in the arts and a couple crazy weeks of education in synthetic biology were the talk of the town at this year’s International Genetically Engineered Machine Jambori. Why? Because of their briefcase full of human feces.

It wasn’t real human feces, of course—they’re artists, not miracle workers. But it represented a coming revolution in pooping. The wax poop models, you see, were all the colors of the rainbow (over a predictably colored base). The team of undergraduates they collaborated with have been working on genetically engineering strains of the E. choli bacteria that will change color in the presence of certain compounds. Currently, the new strain (now called, har har, E. chromi) will turn orange, red, brown, purple or yellow in the presence of arsenic, the exact color depending on the amount of arsenic. (“Brown”?)

Aside from brightening up the gloomy bowel movements of people suffering from arsenic poisoning, the team of scientists and artists has proposed that the technology could be used in the future for diagnosing diseases. Just swallow a little capsule, say, and the bacteria inside could tell you if you have cancer. It would be like reading tea leaves, kind of, but in a bigger cup, and without the leaves. (Imagining finding out from your Technicolor poops that you have cancer.)

Sadly, this application is a long way off. Aside from color-coding the bacteria to different diseases, it would have to be engineered so that our immune systems couldn’t destroy it before it changes color. One wonders, too if creating a strain of E. choli that is invisible to our immune systems might have a new set of issues to overcome.

I hope that they realize the recreational potential of any drugs to come out of the project.

An advisory panel to the FDA is recommending approval of the first US drug made with help from genetically engineered animals. GTC Biotherapeutics makes Atryn, an anti-clotting therapy, using a herd of 200 goats bred to express a human protein in their milk. The drug is meant to help people with hereditary antithrombin deficiency, a genetic disorder that causes blood clotting. Patients and their families want the drug approved and say studies show it's safe and effective. But other folks argue that there hasn't been enough safety testing around the use of transgenic animals. The final FDA decision is expected February 7.

Students at Rice University are attempting to brew beer that contains resveratrol, a chemical that lowers the risk of heart disease and cancer. They plan to genetically engineer yeast, which is used in fermentation, to produce the chemical.

No word on how one can sign up to be a test subject.

Oct
31
2008

Tuesday, October 31, 2028

Purple. Why is it always purple? Or blue. All the foods that taste terrible but are good for you, always seem to come from the long end of the visible spectrum. Eggplants. Prunes. Now this.

Well, no use whining. Remember what grandma always used to say. Eat your tomatoes, live forever. Or, at least until a truck hits you. She didn’t see that one coming. Literally.

I’d give ‘em to the trick-or-treaters, except they just throw them at my windows. Ungrateful brats. Don’t they know I’m trying to save their lives?

The HIV virus attacks white blood cells by latching onto a protein on their surface. People without that protein are immune from AIDS. Using that knowledge, scientists in Pennsylvania have figured out how to genetically manipulate mice so they, too, have the immunity.

The procedure has not yet been tested on humans. If it does work, it wouldn’t cure the disease, but it could let infected persons live healthier lives with the virus.

Oct
01
2007

Well... He's pretty funny and pathetic...: But don't you think he'd be a little funnier and sadder if we could see through him?  (Photo by jepoirrer on flickr.com)
Well... He's pretty funny and pathetic...: But don't you think he'd be a little funnier and sadder if we could see through him? (Photo by jepoirrer on flickr.com)
Japanese scientists have struck the final, hilarious, and kind of yucky blow in the age-old fight to put frogs “back in their place.”

“Everyone already knows that dressing frogs up in clothing is pretty funny,” stated lead researcher Masayuki Sumida, professor at the Institute for Amphibian Biology of state-run Hiroshima University, “But a while back we started to wonder, ‘what if we went just the opposite way?’ What if we could create a completely naked frog?

“That would really show them who’s the boss,” added Sumida.

The IAB team would soon find, however, that creating a “naked” frog is much more difficult than one might assume. As it happens, merely removing the clothing that one has already put on a frog does not result in a naked frog. Instead what you end up with is simply a “frog.”

Taking the next logical step, the team attempted anesthetizing a frog, and removing its skin. This, they hoped, would overcome the amphibian’s natural defenses against nakedness. This experiment produced a suitably naked, but unfortunately “dead” frog, and, as the point of the experiment was to humiliate the creature, Sumida felt that the team must take a new direction.

For some time very little progress was made, and the team feared that the project’s funding would soon fall through, for lack of results. One night, however, a plucky young member of the research team remembered that the Japanese brown frog, or rena japonica carried two separate chromosomal slots, which, if occupied by specific recessive genes, could cause the normally dark colored frog to be born pale. Acting on a hunch, the researcher bred groups of frogs carrying the recessive genes. When a frog was finally produced that carried both sets of recessive genes, the team had their break through. This frog’s skin was so pale that it could actually be seen through (check out the picture). What’s more, the tadpoles with these genes bore similarly transparent skin, and one could “see dramatic changes of organs when tadpoles mutate into frogs.”

Sumida’s team hopes to patent this process for making see-through frogs, claiming that the creatures would make unique and invaluable study aids, or, at the very least, good conversation pieces.

The offspring of the transparent frogs share their parents’ traits. However, as an unexpected bonus insult to the frogs, by the next generation genetics seems to catch up, and the grandchildren die shortly after birth.

So where does research go from here? “It might seem like there’s not a lot more we could do to these little guys,” says a team spokesperson. “But we like to think that as long as there are frogs still around, we’re going to try and do something weird to them. Our next project? I don’t want to get too into it, but I’ll say this: glow-in-the-dark.”