What are Cisgenics/Intragenics/SynBio?
1.Is genetic engineering just like breeding?
2.Are some scientists just taking the cis out of genetic engineering?
3.Do-It-Yourself genetic engineering
NOTE: Prof. Heinemann has that rare ability of communicating science to a non-specialist audience with clarity, and even wit (items 1 and 2). His incisive analysis of the misleading language in vogue among biotechnologists intent on reducing regulation of GMOs is very timely.
EXTRACT: Currently, there is a campaign... to redefine aspects of genetic engineering which, in my opinion as a geneticist and genetic engineer, could undermine regulators while patronising and further alienating the public, and has no clear rationale for improving risk assessment. (item 2)
1.Is genetic engineering just like breeding?
Prof. Jack Heinemann*
Sciblogs, Feb 15 2010
[EXTRACT ONLY] Dr. Nina Federoff, the science advisor to the US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, voiced more blatantly in New Zealand what many other advocates of large-scale plantings of genetically engineered (GE/GM) plants sought to imply for years:
"There's almost no food that isn't genetically modified. Genetic modification is the basis of all evolution."
This stance is grossly misleading. Genetic engineering/modification, as defined in the international agreements governing it, was not even in existence before discoveries of the 1970s. Her misuse of language is an attempt to wave away people's (and by this I also mean scientists') concerns that the safety testing of this technology could be better, should be better, and must be more transparent and independent of the vested interests driving it (Editors, 2009, Pollack, 2009).
What Federoff didn't mention was that GE plants are protected by an intellectual property (IP) instrument called a patent (Figure). This is unprecedented in the history of agriculture and is fundamentally different to plant variety protection (PVP), particularly as described by the UPOV convention of 1978 (Heinemann, 2007), a convention subscribed to by most of the world (Heinemann, 2009). Throughout a large chunk of the 20th Century, breeders (and farmers) could innovate under the protection of PVP, which helped to foster the plant diversity behind the Green Revolution (IAASTD 2008).
PVPs are different from patents because PVPs allow farmers and public researchers to continue to improve on varieties. They can save and reuse the seeds to breed to their conditions. It is seed savings coupled with local and regional exchanges that promote rapid dissemination of the most productive plants, which must be adapted to local conditions to flourish: to feed us, to build wealth and health, and to limit the impact of agriculture's ecological footprint.
Patents stop that.
That is why in the United States, which once had one of the largest seed savings and exchange communities, saving and sharing seeds in the major crops is now illegal (Mascarenhas and Busch, 2006, NDSU, 2007). Too much of a chance that some seed will have a transgene, and a transgene will have a patent.
Full article: http://sciblogs.co.nz/guestwork/2010/02/15/is-genetic-engineering-just-like-breeding/
2.Are some scientists just taking the cis out of genetic engineering? Pt I
Prof. Jack Heinemann*
Sciblogs, Feb 11 2010
[EXTRACT ONLY] Part 1: While appearing to take concerns seriously, the promotion of cisgenics and intragenics by New Zealand science companies risks further public alienation.
The debate on the safety and appropriateness of using genetically engineered/modified (GE) plants and animals for food or animal feed is frequently manipulated through semantics. Language and not substance has been used to overstate hazards and also to obscure the search for them.
Currently, there is a campaign in New Zealand to redefine aspects of genetic engineering which, in my opinion as a geneticist and genetic engineer, could undermine regulators while patronising and further alienating the public, and has no clear rationale for improving risk assessment.
The new language in vogue among technologists could result in less regulation over the use of genetically modified organisms (GMOs). The terms cisgenics and intragenics are proposed to replace the term transgenics for describing some GE products. The "cis" and "intra" are meant to convey that the origins of the building blocks of genes that are being manipulated are from the same "species", perhaps even the same genome into which they will be again inserted. Transgenics is a term they reserve for products using genes from different species. Since advocates of such language have come to personal conclusions that there is no particular hazard arising from using the techniques of modern biotechnology to insert and delete genes, they perceive that the use of genes from closely related organisms would eliminate most of the risks special to GMOs.
This perspective is described by some commentators using a book metaphor, where cis/intragenics is the recycling of words from the same book, and transgenics is the importation of words from a newspaper into a book (Hanley, 2008). This informational metaphor can be tested by anyone in their own home. Take your favourite book and excise any arbitrarily long string of letters (start and end within words or between them, as you like) and then reinsert them into the text at random anywhere in the book. Now source your letter string from a newspaper. Do the two products look any more similar, or inserts have less effect on the flow and grammar, depending on the source of the string (Table)?
Advocates of the new language include the Crown Research Institutes AgResearch and Plant and Food Research. These CRIs make GMOs with an intent to commercialise them, so reducing regulatory hurdles would clearly be in their commercial interests. Creating categories such as cisgenics would, they suggest, allow risk assessors and the public to relax about some products of genetic engineering because those products appear to be closer to plants and animals that humans have been breeding for thousands of years. As Dr. Tony Conner of Plant and Food Research has argued: “In some instances it is now unclear whether these new techniques result in [GMOs] as defined in legislation.”
However, there is no question that these techniques result in the creation of GMOs. The international consensus definitions of genetic engineering (a kind of “modern biotechnology”) makes no distinction between cis/intra/transgenics and for good reasons. Our regulators and others from countries that are parties to the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety are bound by the international definitions. A genetically engineered organism is, or is related by descent to, an organism that contains nucleic acids (e.g. DNA, RNA) that have been released from their natural physiological conditions into a test tube and then forced in some way back into a cell or virus. The point is that these genes are taken out of a cellular context and inserted back, not that they derive from a particular genome. It is this process and the products of which that define the risk issues that are to be assessed on a case-by-case basis. To not acknowledge this is to make a statement contrary to agreed case-by-case evaluation and to potentially miss important possible hazards.
Full article: http://sciblogs.co.nz/guestwork/2010/02/11/are-some-scientists-just-taking-the-cis-out-of-genetic-engineering-pt-i/
See also: Are some scientists just taking the cis out of genetic engineering? Pt II
3.Do-It-Yourself Genetic Engineering
New York Times, 10 Feb 2010
[EXTRACTS ONLY] Synthetic biologists want to break out of this cut-and-paste paradigm altogether. They want to write brand-new genetic code, pulling together specific genes or portions of genes plucked from a wide range of organisms - or even constructed from scratch in a lab - and methodically lacing them into a single set of genetic instructions.
Implant that new code into an organism, and you should be able to make its cells do and produce things that nothing in nature has ever done or produced before.
Synthetic biologists imagine nature as a manufacturing platform: all living things are just crates of genetic cogs; we should be able to spill all those cogs out on the floor and rig them into whatever new machinery we want. It's a jarring shift, making the ways humankind has changed, nature until now seem superficial.
Ideally you wouldn't even need to know anything about DNA to manipulate it.
The rise of synthetic biology only intensifies ethical and environmental concerns raised by earlier forms of genetic engineering, many of which remain unsettled. Given synthetic biology's open-source ethic, critics cite the possibility of bioterror: the malicious use of DNA sequences posted on the Internet to engineer a new virus or more devastating biological weapons. ETC Group, an international watchdog that has raised complicated questions about synthetic biology since its earliest days, also warns of the potential for "bio-error": what unintended and unimaginable consequences might result from deploying all these freely reproducing, totally novel organisms into the world? What if those living machines don't work exactly as planned?
"In a way, you don't have to have a working product to sell it," says Jim Thomas, a senior researcher at ETC Group. "You just have to have a product that seems to work long enough to get into the open market."
And, Thomas adds, as corporations continue to invest in organisms that turn biomass into fuel or plastics, otherwise unlucrative crops will suddenly be commoditized as feedstock for those synthetic organisms - requiring more land to be cultivated and potentially displacing food crops or people.
"This absolutely requires a public and political discussion," Thomas told me. "It's going to change the alignments between very large corporations. It's going to change the ownership and patenting of life forms. The field is growing at such a speed and industrial money is flowing into it at such a speed - and here you have very excited, smart, clever young people becoming wedded to these techniques. The worry is, there's not a lot of space left for reflection."