English author Mary Shelley was the mother of the science-fiction genre and an unlikely heroine of the horror fiction genre. In the early 19th century, Mary traveled through Europe with her future husband Percy Shelley, Lord Byron, and John Polidori. They traveled along the River Rhine in Germany and had a stop in Gernsheim which is about 15 km away from Frankenstein Castle, where, two centuries before, an alchemist was allegedly engaged in sinister experiments. Later on their journey, they traveled in the region of Geneva in Switzerland where the topic of galvanism (contraction of a muscle stimulated by the electric current) was the latest fade due to the recent discovery of electrical current and its role in the human body.
The group decided to have a competition to see who could write the best horror story. Several days after the wager, Mary had a dream about a scientist who created life and was horrified by what he made. Mary said that this dream was the inspiration for her novel “Frankenstein”, one of the best horror stories ever and the first true science-fiction novel ever.
“Frankenstein” is the novel about young scientist Victor Frankenstein coming from a wealthy family who created an artificial creature – the Creature – that turned against his own creator. The story revolves around “mystic” scientific experiments, creating life from the non-living matter, and ultimate evil and perversion of such life.
It is the story I absolutely love and love to read. The novel was much ahead of its time, the writing style is superb, the characters are interesting and the story is griping. It is the work of art that keeps you on the edge, entertains you while making you feel uneasy. It is a horror story after all.
It is also the story I absolutely hate. Not because of the story, but because of the lasting impact this story has. While imagined as a fictional horror story, most people treat Frankenstein novel as a documentary novel that documents the futility of scientific progress, the corruptness of science, and the ultimate evil of what comes ahead of us.
To summarize, I love the story itself but I do profoundly resent its impact on public opinion, as it is a grossly misunderstood novel. And the story of the Creature (that most people call Frankenstein) is very popular nowadays.
It is especially popular in the debate concerning genetically modified organisms (GMO). The newly coined term “Frankenfood” is heard more often than not, projecting (on purpose) irrational fear of unleashing unthinkable evil upon the world by using genetically modified plants, animals and microorganisms. It is with a picture of The Creature that various organizations (varying from religious institutions to so-called environment protectionists) sow fear and distrust towards organisms created using tools of modern molecular biology.
So, what’s the big deal with genetically modified organisms? Why are they the topic of THE most heated public debate all around the world for the last 30 years? Why do people fear this technology? How did humanity feed itself through history, and why do we need (if we need) this technology today? How is humanity using this technology today, and what does the future hold for the genetically modified organism? This is the topic I will write about in this and future posts.
Personally, I believe that the most significant number of people who distrust GMOs and are afraid of GMOs distrust and fear GMOs because they are fundamentally not educated enough. I am NOT stating that they are stupid or ignorant, or that they cannot be educated, I am simply stating that this group of people has not received, up to this point, the most basic education in biology of the human body, or biology in general.
To start with, the anti-GMO group does not understand even how digestion works. I was shocked on more occasions than I would like to admit when I was talking to people fighting the introduction of GM food how little they knew about the inner workings of the human body. I did not know whether to cry, laugh, or both when I was told that by changing the DNA of an organism that is being eaten our DNA will be changed, and “god knows what will happen to us then”. Upon the first conversation of such sort, I personally thought that that one man was crazy, but surely other members of the community engaged in these discussions know better. How wrong I was.
First of all, DNA is a static element of heredity – it does not change on purpose by itself at absolutely no occasion. DNA can be changed only on two occasions. First are random mutations, which happen all the time, and most of them are repaired by our own inner mechanism of DNA repair. Mutations are random and are caused by accident, that is, by DNA replicating machinery not being perfect. Most mutations that are not repaired are either dormant mutations that do not affect the human body, while the rest of mutations are either “bad” mutations that lead to cancer or other diseases, or “good” mutations that have some beneficial effect on a man and its offspring. We have no control over these mutations, we cannot induce them, except by treating people with an excessive amount of radioactive emission. The only other way to change human DNA is by retrovirus exposure. Those viruses insert their own DNA into the host cell (e.g. human T4 lysozyme cell) and use the hosts’ machinery to replicate its DNA. That is the way HIV virus work, for example.
Second of all, DNA by itself does absolutely nothing in the cell. It is simply a material that other parts of the cell use as a template for proteins. By its composition, DNA is an acid – deoxyribonucleic acid.
To make the picture clear, I will use this example: you want to bake a cake. You have no idea how to bake a cake. What do you do? You take a cookbook, find a recipe you fancy, buy ingredients which recipe requires, bake the cake following the recipe, and voila! A cake.
That exact thing happens in our bodies. DNA is the cookbook of a cell. The cook from the example (that is, you) is the RNA machinery (RNA + proteins regulating RNA) that reads the DNA, takes the necessary information (what is necessary and what is not is the topic of epigenetics), “buys” required ingredients (base pairs), brings the ingredients to the ribosome (the “oven” of a cell), and ribosome assembles (“bakes”) the protein (the cake). That is, in the simplest possible form, that. All other “nuances” are the topic of cellular biology, and each little detail in the story is a field of science by itself.
As you can see, DNA does absolutely nothing. It is a passive component of the cell. Proteins control DNA replication, DNA repair, shape (state of condensation) of DNA, etc., and RNA machinery is the link between DNA and proteins. Proteins do everything else in the cell as well. Proteins can be defined in the simplest way as a working-class of the cell and all life on Earth. Energy your cells have, functions your individual cells have, the structural integrity of your cells, communication between and inside your cell – all that and much, much more is done by proteins. They do absolutely everything in every cell, and proteins are the final expression of DNA.
Proteins are, as stated before, the main actors of life.
Fats and carbohydrates are mostly used as an energy source, but they are also essential for the structural integrity of the cell. For instance, every cellular wall is built mostly from phospholipids bilayer and cholesterol (that is, fats).
Everything else is contained in traces. We would not be able to live without those elements (e.g. minerals, vitamins, DNA is an acid, etc.) but most of those elements cannot be found in the abundance. One notable exception here is fibers, and then only in some plants, and plants only.
Now, let’s get back to our food.
Remember those labels on the food you’re buying? Yes, the one that lists how many calories per serving there is, how many grams of protein per 100 g does your food contain, etc. You can see on those labels that the great majority of your meal contains proteins, fats, and carbohydrates. These components are what your body digests and what your body stores.
So, how digestion and metabolism function?
First of all, digestion and metabolism are two completely separate processes.
Digestion is the process of getting the food in your body and getting unprocessed food out of your body. Its main role is to mechanically (by chewing) and physically (using stomach acid) break down big chunks of food you eat, bring it to the inner intestines, let intestines do their job, and take the nutrients it can process, and then excrete what is left out. What happens in the intestines and then in the blood, and then in the other organs is the job of metabolism.
Metabolism is the process of breaking that food down to the simplest building blocks – that process is called catabolism – and storing these building blocks and then using them to assemble every molecule of your cells – that process is called anabolism. Catabolism and anabolism together form metabolism. There are three main purposes of metabolism, and those are the conversion of food to energy to run cellular processes, the conversion of food to building blocks for proteins, lipids (fats), nucleic acids (building blocks for RNA and DNA), and carbohydrates (sugars), and elimination of nitrogenous wastes. Metabolism allows us to grow and reproduce, maintain our structure, and respond to our environment.
Every food you ever ate and every food you will ever eat was and will be disassembled to its most basic components and all proteins, lipids, carbohydrates, and DNA of your body was and will be assembled within your body, using your own cellular infrastructure. All carbohydrates you ever ate and you will eat were disassembled and will be disassembled to glucose, fructose, or galactose. That means that every potato, corn, wheat, and soybean you ever ate was disassembled to glucose. No matter whether potatoes came from USA, France, Poland, or Croatia. No matter whether that potato was grown “organically” or industrially. To your metabolism, all potatoes are the same and all hold virtually the same nutritional value. Every citrus you ever ate was to your body just a big ball of water with a lot of sugar and some vitamins and fibers in it. All meat you ever ate was a bunch of proteins and fat to your body. And everything was disassembled, stored in your body, and used by your body, when needed, as energy or building blocks for our own proteins, fats, and carbohydrates.
Knowing and understanding these facts renders most of the GMO vs. anti-GMO discussion unnecessary. Knowing and understanding these facts also exposes raw food advocates as simple scams, but I will devote a separate blog post to this topic.
So, how does GM food fit into all of this?
To start with, according to the World Health Organization, genetically modified organisms (GMOs) can be defined as organisms (plants, animals or microorganisms) in which the genetic material (DNA) has been altered in a way that does not occur naturally by mating and/or natural recombination. The technology is often called ‘modern biotechnology’ or ‘gene technology’, sometimes also ‘recombinant DNA technology or ‘genetic engineering. Foods produced from or using GM organisms are often referred to as GM foods.
Genome is changed not because of the DNA itself; new genes are inserted, or genes inherently present in the organism are deleted, to change the proteins in the organism of interest. The idea is to change proteins in the organism of interest. And all proteins, absolutely all proteins you eat, are disassembled in your body to its most basic building blocks. Therefore, even in its idea and theory, the digestion and metabolism of GM food are identical to the digestion and metabolism of non-GM food. There can be no safety issue for human health arising from the introduction of GM food to our diet.
Genetic engineering is a tool just like any other, just like a hammer is a tool, just like a stick of dynamite is a tool. Using genetic engineering, scientists can take any trait from organism A and implant that trait into organism B. It does nothing less, and nothing more. Just like any trade and industry, it takes a lot of knowledge and experience to deliver perfect merchandise, in this case, plants, animals, or microbes. And just like in any industry, some companies and individuals are in the business of genetic engineering because they want to change the world and make it a better and safer world. Some companies and individuals are in this business to make money, and there there are companies and individuals who are in this business to make money the dirty way.
If we take the example of dynamite, its inventor, Alfred Noble, invented it to make the mining industry safer. Instead of sending hundreds of workers with pickaxes in claustrophobic holes to build tunnels and extract the ore, or sending hundreds and thousands of workers to collapse buildings – manually, you could just send a couple of workers with these funny looking sticks and make the job fast, easy and without casualties. Alfred Noble intended to use dynamite solely in non-violent, commercial activities, and Noble saved untold thousands of lives with his invention.
Much to Nobles’ dismay, other people concluded that dynamite can be used for other things, not only non-violent and commercial activities.
Armies started to use dynamite in defensive and offensive actions, but bandits also started using dynamite in train robberies and bank heists.
The same argument hold in the business of genetic engineering. Genetic engineering itself is a noble mission to better the world, and most scientists envision a better, safer, cleaner, and better-fed world than it is today. Unfortunately, GMOs can be abused, just like dynamite.
I just ask of all of you reading this not to put the sign of equation between a bank robber and a dynamite stick.
As I figured out that this topic cannot possibly be covered in just one blog post (it would be more of a blog booklet), I decided to make this post a multi-part series. In the next blog post, I will write more about GMO usage and what business models are used in the business of genetic engineering. I will also start debunking anti-GMO arguments, one by one.