Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Putting My Art where My Heart Is

I'm sure I'm not alone in the desire to keep busy AND help out causes near and dear to my heart in the process. As someone with some artistic skills, lending one's drawing hand to various projects, charities, or educational drives just seems a natural fit. (NEVER give away your art to pesky clients who are trying to bully it out of you . . . but by selectively helping out causes you identify with, for people you admire, you get warm fuzzies and--yes--exposure.)

So this week I wanted to share with you all a piece of art and an associated Kickstarter. This delightful yellow guy is Frank N. Foode, the mascot for Biofortified.org, a blog populated by agroscientists and genetic researchers who have spent their lives trying to make food more available, more resilient, and more nutritious. My Facebook pal Twylla Bugg, a Canadian podcaster ("Legion of Reason") and all-around nice gal, kindly introduced me to the blog authors when she found out they were looking for an artist. 

I like food. And I like science. So food science is a natural draw for me. 

There's a lot of anti-GMO rhetoric going around these days, especially on social media (where accuracy in science, or in history, or in grammar, or in ANYTHING really, takes a back seat to a pithy statement merged with an eye-catching photo). Those who know me know that I've become something of a skeptic these days, and that means that I don't take memes at face-value. Fact-checking can be tricky on the internet, which is fertilized about as heavily as the average organic megafarm, but you can indeed learn how to navigate the huge tracts of sensationalist crap and find the peer-reviewed papers and articles written by science experts rather than science-illiterate web journalists. 

What I've gleaned from my reading (and I'm pretty sure I've read more than the average layperson) is that genetic manipulation is really our future, and it should be. It's actually safer and more predictable than the ways we have been improving our crops over the past few millennia (cross breeding and mutagenesis), and by boosting and/or transferring the natural resistance some plants have evolved to ward off pests or fungus, GMOs can help reduce the amount of herbicide and pesticide that is used in agriculture today. 

Is that potato giving us the finger?
GMO is probably the most misunderstood science out there right now. Except for a few holdouts at Fox News, most average folks now have some understanding of global warming, but the normally environment-conscious and science-friendly liberal left is still filled with GMO haters. Why? The problem with biotech food research is that there's a cornucopia of feel-good vibes associated with the opposition. Organic foods (which are becoming a monolithic corporate entity to rival even Monsanto's reputation) capitalize on the words "natural" and "sustainable" while hurling words like "chemicals" and "frankenfood" at the biotech community. Fear-mongering activists also constantly try to link biotech to images of farm animals tortured in overcrowded "factory" farms or greedy mega-farmers engaging in environmentally unsound practices. Plenty of GMO researchers also have their own veggie gardens, believe in sustainable farming practices, and don't want animals tortured. 

In addition, there is a conspiratorial bent to the way many (normally level-headed) people look at anything GMO. Any "scientific" evidence showing they do harm is taken as gospel, while any (peer-reviewed, statistically significant) evidence of their safety is brushed off with "of course that's what they want you to think! Big Farma just wants your money!" In fairness, our brains are hard-wired to remember things that might do us harm, and we do so with a visceral prejudice. Ever eat a particular thing like, say, Coco Puffs, while sick with the flu, then in your fluish state you vomit it all up . .  . and afterward for years you avoid Coco Puffs because the thought of eating them makes you feel ill?  That's your brain protecting you from something it deems a danger because it remembers being sick the last time you ate it. We apply this notion to stuff we learn, too. We just remember (and pass along) news about health threats way more than news of something being safe. Many folks have a vague notion that GMO corn "causes cancer." This was shown by one--only one--study known as the Seralini paper, published in 2012 and running counter to the many many studies that had heretofore found GMOs safe and noncarcinogenic. The Seralini paper has since been retracted after it was brought to light that authors used a too-small sample size and chose a breed of rat that was prone to developing tumors. 

Let me give you a for-instance. My siblings and I had hamsters as kids. Mine and my sister's died of tumors (as hamsters often do). My brothers' hamsters did not (I think they died of too much rough handling, personally, but they were tumor-free when they left this world). Conclusion: Being owned by a girl causes tumors in hamsters. Have I proved it? No. My sample size is only four hamsters and they are prone to tumors in the first place. 

I'll bet you've heard of the results if the Seralini study, even if it was just from a Facebook meme featuring a photo of tumor-ridden rats, but you've never heard a peep about the retraction or the study flaws. Likewise, I'll bet few of you have heard of golden rice, which was modified to produce vitamin A so that children in third-world countries going blind due to lack of this nutrient now have a better shot at keeping their vision. 

Besides the Biofortified blog, there are also a few other sites you can visit for news and actual facts on genetic research and GMOs. Check out www.geneticliteracyproject.org for starters. The site covers issues in both human and agricultural genetics and has a handy search feature. Another source of facts (and some snarky humor) is a Facebook group called GMOLOL, which is a forum where anti-GMO memes are tossed up for discussion and picked apart by scientists who know their stuff. Though there's no way to search the site (being Facebook and all), by scrolling down you will find nearly every scary anti-GMO meme or slanted news piece dissected . . . and the comment thread will enlighten you and make you chuckle. They also eagerly take questions from anyone who is anti-GMO as long as no namecalling or trolling goes on. But, as Mark Twain once said, "It's easier to fool people than to convince them they were fooled." I have seen a few GMO haters dig their heels in tight and rage in all caps, while more level-headed science minds try to point them to credible evidence.

Frank is spotted in the wild!
But, evidence shmevidence, GMO just sounds ugly, doesn't it? And the term "frankenfood" brings up all sorts of fears, right? Well, my hat's off to the Biology Fortified folks, who are running with the label imposed upon them and trying to lay their own claim to it. Their Frank N. Foode shall be informative and cute, a cartoon mascot for the scientifically literate (or even those who are open to becoming more scientifically literate). The Kickstarter launched by Biofortified.org this week (see their blog for details and link!) will fund production of a Frank N. Foode plushie doll, which is an adorable way to spread the love of science and what it can do for our dinner table. I feel lucky to be able to participate in this venture--and they are kindly paying me for some other cartoons here and there, but I have agreed to a much lower rate than I'd normally charge. (Remember, this is a group of PhDs working on a nonprofit public science awareness project, not a giant corporate powerhouse with deep pockets!)

But nothing ends up completely altruistic, it seems. Trading art favors can be rewarding in so many ways. Any seasoned caricaturist knows that this job can put you in front of the most interesting people in the world. Or, in this case, it put me in touch via with them via email and Facebook. 

Karl Haro von Mogel, plant geneticist rock star and one of the principal bloggers on Biofortified, actually agreed to let my stepson interview him for his high-school paper on GMO foods! And he took the time to formulate really complete answers to the sometimes sci-fi-inspired questions he was given. I wanted to share them below, because many folks probably have the same questions that the average high-schooler might about GMO. As I said, it's a highly misunderstood science! 

So enjoy, and thanks for indulging me on my not-exactly-caricature-related post. (Though Karl does touch on the intersection of art and GMO--yes, GMO technology does have a connection to artists! So there!)

1. What is it you exactly you do at your job, and the role it plays within the big picture?

I am a plant geneticist, and the kind of research that I do is to try to understand how plants work at a genetic level. As you probably know, every organism on this planet has DNA, and the instructions for building and maintaining living beings are coded into these DNA strands as “genes.” The different genes in each organism combine to give them their unique traits, and geneticists use those differences to figure out where the genes are that control these traits, and study how they work. The gene that I have been studying for my graduate thesis project is called “Sugary Enhancer” – which was discovered in the 1970s when a corn breeder found some sweet corn that was especially sweet. It has been bred into many different sweet corn varieties – you’ve probably eaten them – but we didn’t know what gene caused this. (It is not a GMO) Now we can use our knowledge of this gene to make it easier to breed better sweet corn varieties, and also improve other crops as well. This is because the genes that make sugar and starch in corn kernels are very similar to the ones that make starch in say, potatoes, so you can see how basic discoveries in one organism can tell us something about others. The long term goal of all of this kind of research is to improve our crops to make our lives better.

2. What exactly are GMOs, I've read a lot of biased stories and possibly even a lot of fake ones, but I haven't been able to really get a straight answer from any of them.

“GMO” stands for Genetically Modified Organism. These are organisms that have had their DNA altered by a process called Genetic Engineering. Because we discovered that the way organisms translate the genetic code within genes is essentially the same for all life, we can take genes from one organism and put them into the DNA of another to give it a new trait. That’s basically what genetic engineering is, and it can also be used to remove genes from an organism, or change and combine multiple genes into one to create a new one.
     Plant breeders have been modifying the DNA of crops for centuries by crossing different plants in the same species, or even between related species, ‘mutating’ the DNA to cause random changes, or making a plant have an extra copy of all its own DNA (These are called polyploids – seedless watermelons are made this way). Since all crops we eat have been genetically modified in some way, most scientists use the term “genetically engineered” or GE to mean plants that have been modified by moving individual genes. Here is a picture of what the process looks like to make a GMO plant.

Here are some of the genetically engineered crops that are being grown: “Bt” corn and cotton that are resistant to insect pests that try to eat the plants. These use a gene from a bacterium that makes a protein called “Bt” that kills specific insects that eat it, but gets digested normally by everything else. These need less insecticide when they grow, and produce a little more because they are protected from bugs.
  • Corn, cotton, canola, soybeans, sugar beets, and alfalfa that are “herbicide tolerant” so you can spray your field with an herbicide to kill weeds but not harm the crop.
  • Papayas in Hawaii that are immune to a devastating viral disease.
  • Bt insect-resistant eggplant has just been approved in Bangladesh.
And here are some GMO crops that have been developed and are being tested to see if they are ok to release:
  • Apples that dont turn brown when you slice them open.
  • Potatoes that also don’t turn brown, and are safer to make French fries out of than normal potatoes.
  • Golden Rice which produces beta-carotene  the orange stuff in carrots that our bodies turn into Vitamin A for our eyes. This is being developed for people in developing countries who can’t afford to eat much more than rice on most days, and are going blind or dying because they don’t get enough Vitamin A.
  • Soybeans that make some of the same healthy oils that we find in fish.
Just to name a few!

3. Why do you think everyone is so against GMOs?

I’m still trying to figure that out, myself! It is a very complex topic, and most people are actually still undecided about them. But there are some people who are very much against them for one reason or another, and are very vocal about their opinions. Some, it seems, don’t understand the science, but others are worried about political issues, or whether the companies that sell them will get too much power, and some are concerned about safety and the environment. Because the GMO crops that are currently grown have traits that benefit the farmers who grow them, and don’t make the food taste better or be healthier, people who are worried about GMOs haven’t seen a benefit for themselves to accept them, and most everyone else hasn’t had the need to think much about them. I’m optimistic that some of this will change soon as more interesting GMO crops are developed, but any change in opinion will be a slow process.

4. What more do we do with GMOs that goes beyond our food supplies?

Genetic engineering is actually used in a lot of places – especially in medicine. It used to be that insulin, which people who suffer from diabetes have to take every day, was collected from dead animals. But today, most of this medicine is produced by genetically engineered bacteria. Vaccines that help our immune systems defend against diseases are also often genetically engineered. One of the odd things is that most people who are worried about genetic engineering applied to food are perfectly ok with using it to produce medicines.
     Another really important use for genetic engineering is in basic biology research, like the kind that I do. Scientists who are trying to understand how cells and organisms work can use genetic engineering to directly change the DNA of an organism and make this process go faster. It used to be that if you wanted to study the genes that code for an important part of an organism, you had to find a member of the species that lacked or had a mutated form – like a curly wing on a fruit fly. Then you would try to figure out what difference in the DNA caused that change. This has allowed us to figure out some basic genetics, but now you can potentially alter any gene with genetic engineering to study its role in the organism.
     Some people are also using genetic engineering in art! There are purple carnations and a light blue rose, along with fish that glow under a blacklight – all GMO. When we see this technology become easier to use, we’re probably going to see people express their artistic creativity with life itself.

5. If we research further into GMOs, do you think one day that we can genetically modify humans to be able to survive in different conditions because they were modified for it?

Eventually, we may be able to safely modify the genes of humans, but such a thing is still probably a long way off, and there are more ethical questions involved. We could probably do it right now, just like we can do with mice, or plants, but if you make a mistake, you risk harming a person. But someday, the first genetic modifications we may see with humans would probably be to correct genetic diseases for future generations. But even if it is safe and accepted, that is still the beginning of the ethical debate. What if you could change the DNA of your children so they run faster, or become more artistic, or have blue hair, or change other traits that could affect them for their entire lives in ways that you wouldn’t be able to predict? We (usually) don’t let our parents choose our careers for us, but what about our DNA? What about people who don’t have enough money to afford the latest enhancements, will that put their kids at a disadvantage? (One of my favorite movies is GATTACA which is about this!)
     There have already been some “GMO” humans born, but not the kind created through cutting and pasting DNA, but by combining cells to correct something that was missing. http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-43767/Worlds-GM-babies-born.html
We humans have been modifying our environments rather than ourselves because it is a lot easier, and faster. But what happens if some humans start to live in space? We’re not well adapted to zero-gravity conditions, so perhaps a few hundred years into the future we may find a way to adapt ourselves genetically? (Or we can discover how to make artificial gravity and save us the trouble!)

6. Has there ever been a time when a GMO has backfired or caused any sort of random mutation that would cause the human population to turn down GMOs?

If you search for “GMO” on google you might think that these sorts of things happen all the time, but so far there haven’t been any disasters like that. Every now and then there is a study that comes out that suggests that there was something unexpected that happened when making a genetically engineered crop, or when feeding it to test animals. Some have been highly publicized – like one last year that claimed that GMO maize caused tumors in rats. But when the scientific community examines these studies more closely, or tries to repeat them, they usually find that there were problems with the original study and reject it. That tumor study was actually just retracted by the journal that published it. From thousands of published scientific studies, we know that genetic engineering in crop plants is not an inherently hazardous process. There are some minor drawbacks we have found to some genetically engineered crops and how they are grown, but not the kind to justify some of the fears that people have.

7. How heavily does the US government invest into this field of science?

The US government spends a lot of money funding scientists who do basic genetic research to understand how genes work, and to develop new technologies. The genetically engineered papaya in Hawaii was funded by our government, and has been a very successful crop. But right now, most of the investment in developing new genetically engineered crops and getting them through the safety regulations comes from private companies. I’m actually working on a project to collect all the published scientific research on GMOs into one place to put on our website, and when I look at the funding sources for this research a large part of it comes from governments around the world, especially the United States. I couldn’t put an exact number on it, but one report on how much the European Union has spent studying genetically engineered crops reported that they spent 300 million Euros on it since 1982!

8. Why are GMO grown crops much better than Organic Farming?

That depends on what you mean by better! (And it depends a bit on who you ask.) I like to think about them as two different approaches to getting safer, more abundant (and delicious) food, but right now a lot of people think they are polar opposites. Organic farming focuses on trying to rotate crops, minimize the use of pesticide sprays (by banning most synthetic ones and using ‘natural’ ones), and recycle nutrients from manure and compost to reduce the need for fertilizers. But the main drawback to Organic farming is that it produces less food on the same amount of land, and makes the food more expensive to produce and to buy in the store. Genetic engineering, on the other hand, is merely a technique for changing the DNA of a plant so that it has a new trait you are interested in. That can be a trait that also reduces the need for pesticides, or helps the plants survive harsh environmental conditions like drought or cold. It has been shown to increase the amount of corn that farmers can produce on the same amount of land, but they don’t address all the problems that farmers face. What I think is strange is that very few people are talking about combining these approaches. Some farmers who grow GMOs are using more of the farming methods that organic farmers use, but organic farmers are not allowed to use GMOs if they want to sell the food as Organic. But maybe someday that might change?

9. Is it possible to be able to modify the genetics of an organism far enough to the point where it would be classified as its own species? Going back to the modified humans, where if we modified them enough where they could survive under the sea without equipment and from there just be able to colonize on the sea-floor, would they still be considered humans at that point or because of how different they would become in many different aspects, would they just be their own race?

That’s a difficult question. Sure, it would be possible to change the DNA of a species enough so that you could consider it a new species, but the hard part would be to figure out where this line would be. We’re over 98% identical to Chimpanzees on the DNA level, even though we are a different species from them. That’s because we are different enough that we can’t interbreed with them. So let’s take your underwater civilization idea as an example. To live underwater, we might need some genes that give us gills, take away or reduce our lungs, and some fins for feet would probably also be a good idea just for starters. If people who are hybrids of regular humans and underwater humans are healthy, fertile, it will allow genes to move between the populations (this is called gene flow), and we’ll all still be the same species. But if the genes don’t combine well and people with half-gills and half-lungs can’t live, then there will be two human species on this planet. It all comes down to how well the genes from each species work together.

10. Is it possible to recreate animals of old using animals of today as a base and from there modify their genetics to what is similar to their ancestors (Example: Using a Tiger's DNA, and modifying it to be similar to the Saber Tooth Tiger)?

It may be possible to do this, depending on how good the DNA samples of the extinct species are. After organisms die, their DNA starts to degrade, and unless something like ice or amber preserves them, it will be completely gone. Even then, the strands will slowly break into pieces. If the pieces of DNA are too short, we won’t be able to figure out how to put them back together again. Bringing a wooly mammoth or a Saber Tooth Tiger back would be a lot easier than bringing back a dinosaur. But we have a lot of species today that are in danger of going extinct and it would probably be a better use of our resources to help keep them from disappearing too! At least until we can stabilize our impacts on this planet – such as the impacts that farming has on other life. But maybe someone will discover that a species that went extinct eons ago would be an important addition to the ecosystem today?


  1. THANK you for this. I haven't had a chance to research GMO much but I know that several of my friends are adamantly against it. I just didn't quite understand why. I will start doing my homework. Of course, it won't matter against the "nope nope nope nope" mentality, but at least I'll feel better knowing the facts.


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