Frankenstein Was Not A GMO
    By Hank Campbell | July 20th 2012 07:00 AM | 8 comments | Print | E-mail | Track Comments
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    The Los Angeles Times got a little Huffington Post-ish in an article July 17th about Oxitec's genetically modified mosquito to control dengue outbreaks in various poor countries - and perhaps even in the Florida Keys.

    Fortunately, the editors were happy to publish a science clarification, written by yours truly - it just isn't in the print edition.  That's twice in the last week the print op-ed has had anti-science cranks (they also had the Wilson 'scientists are picking on psychologists' whining that I wrote about) but only limit actual scientific responses to the website. 

    I understand artistic license, I understand creating some context, but is there any reason for an editor or a writer in mainstream media to make scare journalism about science the intent of a story, rather than a conclusion reached by people who also believe in ghosts? 

    This is the part that really got me going, and why I wrote a response:
    "Among the concerns are that some small percentage of the mosquitoes released end up being female, which means that people are being bitten by a genetically engineered creature that might insert genetically engineered proteins into the person."
    Well, it's water under the bridge, as they say. If people get a little smarter about what science is or is not by reading my response, I am happy to help.  I remain skeptical it will, though. The 'put warning labels on GMOs' campaign is in full swing and Californians are blaming everything except anti-science beliefs about medicine for the biggest Whooping Cough epidemic in 60 years.

    Please click and go to the article so the LA Times is encouraged to put science in their science articles:

    Fear the fever, not the Frankenbug by Hank Campbell, LA Times

    Edit: They don't seem to keep some pieces archived on the website and I don't have a tearsheet or a PDF so the editor sent me the draft they published and I am including it here.  You can also read it via the Wayback Machine:

    Fear the fever, not the 'Frankenbug'

    By Hank Campbell 
    July 19, 2012

    "Mutated mosquitoes -- or to put it more elegantly, genetically engineered ones -- could help protect people from dengue fever. The question is whether we'll need someone to protect us from the mutant mosquitoes," begins a July 17 blog post by Karin Klein. Unfortunately, that is as close as her piece gets to science, but some understanding of genetic optimization is important to truly evaluate the benefits and risks of a proposed solution to prevent a dangerous dengue fever outbreak in the Florida Keys.

    Was Frankenstein a genetically modified organism (GMO)?

    Detractors of genetics like to put the term "Franken" in front of science they seek to ridicule, and Klein uses that metaphor as well. But it isn't accurate. 

    The Frankenstein monster was not genetically modified; it was a grafted hybrid -- like every single piece of food on dinner tables every night of the week for thousands of years. Virtually nothing people consume today has not been modified using science; tomatoes, for example, would all be the size of our thumbs if not for that "Frankenstein" approach and scientific modification. The mosquitoes to be released in Florida are not hybrids from 200-year-old fiction.

    They are also not mutations, the other metaphor Klein uses.

    Organic food has a lot of mutations

    Scientifically, mutation happens quite often; it is one of the mechanisms of evolution. To organic food proponents, mutation is acceptable because it is natural. It is also random: Cosmic rays can break chromosomes into pieces that reattach randomly and even create genes that didn't exist before. It's all natural, but also dangerous. Science advances have taken the randomness out of organic mutations, and now biologists can precisely modify organisms to achieve one narrow benefit, like having a natural pesticide, without causing any harm to people or the environment.

    The mosquitoes used to curb the spread of dengue fever are not mutated.

    What about these genetically modified mosquitoes? 

    Dengue fever has become a concern in Florida. Policy makers are right to worry; dengue is the most common "vector-borne" (result of feeding activity) disease in the world, with 2.5 billion people at risk, according to the World Health Organization. There's no medication and no vaccine, so researchers have been working on ways to control the insects themselves without using dangerous chemicals -- something we all agree is a positive. Toward that end, a British company named Oxitec has created a genetically modified dengue mosquito strain, and in the wild those males mate with wild females.

    The offspring die before they can bite people and spread the disease. Problem solved.

    But when dealing with the real world, it isn’t so simple because safety is paramount, including evaluating the risks of unintended consequences.

    For that reason, Brazil has a mature regulatory system for genetically modified organisms, as does the United States. Oxitec has worked on this genetically modified mosquito for 10 years, it has been in field testing for the last three.  It has performed so well that both the minister of health and the minister of science and technology in Brazil are asking for Oxitec to use their mosquitoes in more places. Compare that mentality to Florida, where a real estate agent named Mila de Mier started a petition to stop experts from using the Oxitec mosquito. "I don't want my family being used as laboratory rats for this," de Mier told The Guardian.

    Klein essentially agrees with the real estate agent over the scientists, writing, "Before authorities release millions of whining Frankenbugs, they should know more about the potential for unintended consequences."

    But authorities already do. They are the ones who asked Oxitec to come in.

    The science of dengue and mosquitoes

    Male Aedes aegypti mosquitoes are harmless. They don't bite and simply feed on plants. Female mosquitoes do bite, but the only way a female mosquito can acquire the dengue virus is to get it from a human with dengue. Activists seem to be more concerned about the "what if" of a female genetically modified mosquito biting someone as opposed to the real threat of a disease that impacts 100 million people in 100 countries. There is little reason for concern, for three reasons.

    First, female genetically modified mosquitoes aren't being released; only the harmless males are. What if a female is accidentally released and bites someone? If you have a choice, you should hope you are bitten by a genetically-modified female rather than a "natural" one. There is no chance the genetically modified mosquito is infecting you. 

    Second, what about the genetic modification risk? Even if an accidentally released female were to bite someone, the Oxitec Aedes aegypti proteins are not expressed in mosquito salivary glands. It can't transmit its genetic modification.

    Finally, the proteins are not toxic to humans.

    In other words, concern about the mosquitoes that prevent the disease, compared to the dangers of the disease or even the pesticides to kill mosquitoes, is unwarranted. Believing otherwise requires a kind of "precautionary principle" paranoia that would prevent anyone from ever driving a car or taking any medicine.

    These mosquitoes can save lives without harmful chemicals and they can't harm us. This is a win for everyone.

    Hank Campbell is the founder of  Science 2.0 and co-author of "Science Left Behind," coming this September. 


    Gerhard Adam
    That was a good article Hank. 
    Mundus vult decipi
    Thanks. I have to dial down the snark for mass media consumption but I tried to get the point across.  Yet I bet the anti-GMO hype article got 10X the readers
    Hank, your right on the money about anti-science beliefs in medicine being behind the whooping cough epidemic but then science is also partially at fault for not communicating effectively why thimerosal is permissible as a preservative but is banned for other uses. As a PhD chemist, even I am not really comfortable with divalent Hg in something that is for human injection. Paracelsus may have been correct for somethings, but then he didn't have a clue about bioaccumilation did he? GMOs are different, we are still just begining to understand how epigenetics work and regardless what the companies say, there is nothing out there in the research that convinces me that anyone has a handle on what is happening in GMOs or that it is under control. The methodology used to create GMOs is crude and not controllable. You were wrong about GMOs, while there may have been an initial reduction in herbicide and pesticide use, this year has proven it was only temporary as was predicted and should have been know by anyone with even a basic grasp of evolution since all that it does is create evolutionary pressures on agriculture pests. A even more compelling argument against GMOs is the absolute fact that cross pollination does occur between GMOs and that very fact means their use eliminates choice for everyone, the farmer and the consumer. No corporation and their product has a right to do that and it certainly isn't why I am a scientist. Bottom line is the technology of GMOs is not well enough understood to be releasing into the wild, just look at the mess that was made with trying to transplant new species into environments solve problems. As for the vaccine scare, science needs to standup and effectively communicate with the public and directly address their concerns and not be dismissive if we want to stop the anti-science and pseudo-science movements from gaining further traction.

    Marc Hutton,
    Well said, a voice of reason, and without resorting to snarky, condescending comments. People and animals are not objects to be force fed with secret manipulations involving human, animal, insect, & bacterial genes, etc. We should have access to whatever information we want when it concerns the food we eat. Our food is now treated like a national security issue!

    Well said because you agree with his sentiment and ignore the fact that nothing he said had a shred of truth to it.  It's the same mindset that says banning Big Gulps will cure obesity and banning guns will stop murder. It's a platitude and not much more.

    I say again, the last thing proponents of the legislation to label food is truth or honesty - that is why they made sure organic food is exempt. It is solely a way to achieve by law what they cannot achieve through the marketplace.
    Hank, I was kind before but not now. Your comment demonstrations inconclusively that you are the one who doesn't understand the science behind GMOs or it's implications. Just what is your background in Science? To make my case and point I am going to give you and the readers of this page the following link that lays out the implications of the recent deregulation of GMO sugar beets. Keep in mind that this is independent research that was published in a peer reviewed journal that is relavent to the issue at hand. Dismiss it if you will/can at your own peril because by doing so you demonstrate your own bias and ignorance on the subject matter. A REAL scientist reads this and says, we obviously do not have a handle on the implications of introducing this into the wild and by allowing GMO sugar beets to be grown in what is a prime area for the growth of organic seeds. The FDA and the USDA "picking winners" as the neocon nitwits like to say and allowing those with the greatest lobbying budget to push a growing business sector out of buisness.

    Gerhard Adam
    What are you talking about?  The report you linked to:
    The Plaintiffs in CFS v. Vilsack have moved for a permanent injunction banning the further planting, cultivation, or processing of RR sugar beet or its seed. Our opinion is that such a broad injunction is not justified based upon the distribution and biology of Beta species and upon Supreme Court precedent. The CA District Court must determine the likelihood of irreparable harm in assessing gene flow risks and not summarily presume harm solely based on a NEPA violation.
    Further it is a stretch to consider this peer-reviewed, since it is largely based on legal issues with little science involved [beyond the recommendation that the court also consider the scientific aspects of it].

    The conclusion was based on trying to ensure geographic separation of the crops to avoid gene flow issues.
    Mundus vult decipi
    He's just some crank who has pretensions of caring about other people - but he doesn't, he wants command and control of other people and especially science that disagrees with his ill-understood world view.