Naturally Destructive

13 05 2020

By and large, I’m a great fan of nature. There are exceptions of course. Not a big supporter of one or two viruses of recent fame and could happily survive in a universe where domestic cats had never evolved. But otherwise – fully paid-up member of the compost bin owners’ society and trying to do my bit for the green revolution.

I have reasonably firm views on GMOs. (Though as a rational person I like to think I’m always open to persuasion). I accept that humans have artificially guided evolution for thousands of years with the selective breeding of dogs, horses, pretty much all domesticated food animals and crops… and garden flowers. Not to mention ourselves through cultural preferences and transient arbitrary ideas of “beauty”.

The key for me though is that each intermediate state from “found in nature” to “final product” was deemed by Mother Nature to be viable and fit to breed the next generation. It might have been a human-guided process, but Mother Nature implicitly gave it her rubber stamp of approval: “fit to breed”.

Technically speaking any human-bred plant or animal is a GMO as it’s genetics were artificially chosen not by the influence of its natural environment but by human hand (though arguably this is increasingly “the environment” in which most things now exist). Selected for better muscle tone, brighter colours, headier scent, etc.

The modern idea of a GMO though includes the much more insidious toolset of directly adjusting genes within an organism – no breeding required. Just a test tube and a lot of PhDs. Though this might be presented as “short-cutting” the process of having to breed and select from all the intermediate stages, it also removed Mother Nature (who unfortunately isn’t a real scientific agency setting the rules) and her veto from the entire process. No longer do we have even the limited checks and balances of “nature” testing whether an intermediate result is “fit to breed”.

Mules are a great example. They were useful beasts of burden, but nature’s given a big thumbs-down to their ability to breed, effectively causing an evolutionary cul-de-sac (or “bag’s bottom” as we say in English). Any dodgy unforeseen side-effects of creating a mule are prevented from being passed to any future generation.

Modern GMOs can go even further though and take genes from a completely different part of the “tree of life” and insert them in an organism that has had no shared relation for the last billion years or so!

Image Source: Wikipedia

I was horrified a few weeks ago to discover that glow-in-the-dark fish are now commonplace in Canadian pet shops. A 2003 article in NATURE was already ringing alarm bells about the risks of “transgenic” release into the wild.

The GloFish® web site states:

“The fluorescent color in GloFish is produced by an inherited fluorescent protein gene that is passed from generation to generation and creates the beautiful fluorescence that can be seen when looking at the fish. The fluorescent protein genes are derived from naturally occurring genes found in marine organisms.”

Image source: GloFish®

Now please don’t me wrong – I have nothing against GloFish®. They found a marketing niche and exploited a loophole in US regulations to sell a legal product. What bothers me philosophically is that there is no “natural” way this fluorescent protein could get from the unidentified marine organisms (which I assume are not fish, otherwise why not say so?) into the tropical fish. Even with the kinkiest fish sex you can imagine. (No – please don’t.)

Once there though, having side-stepped nature’s checks and balances, the gene now gets a free ride and is passed on with the “legitimate” genes to future generations, and potentially into the wild if accidentally released. These other genes were tested as a package at each and every step for viability by nature/evolution for millennia. This direct gene modification is NOT the same as breeding bigger cows or coloured carrots (actually the orange ones are not the natural colour. The others are – blame William of Orange for that). Nature is not configured to stop the unforeseen consequences of genes artificially introduced this way, in the same way as it is to stop mules breeding. It can’t make an intermediate step sterile (or in this case downright non-viable) if it was never even invoked.

Have these people never read Atwood’s Oryx and Crake?!

Now, I realise that this rather gaudy example is just an edge case and more mundane things like the invention of glasses to allow myopics such as myself to function – and live long enough to breed without walking off a cliff – are just as valid an example of humans meddling in what genes get passed on, but at least for the moment we’re not allowing direct gene manipulation for “better” humans. Come the apocalypse (and the end of opticians) nature will undoubtedly have the last laugh. Nature, I’m sure, was the scientific advisor to the awesome film Gattaca.

I sense I’m treading close to eugenics here, so choose to stop with the thought that ALL humans are bad for the Earth, but I’m confident that she’ll figure out how to get rid of us in the end. Even if it’s only to palm us off on her estranged brother Mars.


Image Source: @astrid_kalt

Believe it or not, before I put finger to keyboard this post was supposed to be about “natural weed killer”. Such is the random nature of human thought. I enjoy gardening, but sometimes the tap roots on more persistent weeds make them harder to get rid of reliably.

I discovered a recipe for home-made weedkiller made from common household substances, so am giving it a try. The added bonus was that one ingredient is vinegar, which Mrs E hates with a vengence. This was a convenient way of removing relatively large quantities of rice vinegar from ancient experiments in sushi-making from the cupboard in one go.

I’ll try and remember to post pictures of this particular human’s hypocritical negative impact on nature as represented by the weeds in my back garden.

The Non-GMO Project

14 02 2015

Those who know the Quieter Elephant in the real world would be amongst the first to agree I was a bit of a geek. I love technology. But there are limits. I also espouse “just because you can doesn’t mean you should”. Falling firmly in this category for me are genetically modified organisms. GMOs.

Don’t get me wrong – this isn’t a religious position. Far from it. I don’t have a religion, so it would be a little difficult.

I have a lot of respect for Neil deGrasse Tyson but I’m afraid his stance on genetically modified foods was a bit off target for me. The question asked in the video was specifically about transgenic plants. It was in French though, so I’ll give him the benefit. He gave a totally reasonable monologue about how foods are virtually all genetically modified – in the sense that wheat is a selectively bred form of grass, that cows are selectively bred wild bovine, etc. As far as this goes – I’m with him.

But that’s not the point.

To get from wild grasses to productive wheat fields there were a whole series of ever more productive – genetically naturally viable – intermediate steps. Each step was viable in its own right. Seeds were selected, and the next step grown. In a field. With rain. Same thing with cows. Modern cows could never exist in the wild. They produce unnaturally massive quantities of milk. If they were not milked by humans twice a day they’d likely die. However, each step prior to the modern cow was born naturally of a naturally viable earlier form of cow. Stretching right back to a natural wild cow, producing milk, but at a lower volume.

For me, the important point is that this selective breeding – though technically modifying the genetics of the breed – iterates through a series of intermediate steps that are each naturally “validated”. Each step must be viable in the world we all share. It must be born, survive to an age fit to reproduce and then produce viable offspring.

There are a few exceptions in the plant world where cloning is possible. The word is laden with science fiction potential, but in the plant kingdom it’s a naturally occurring phenomenon every time a branch breaks off and re-roots. It has the exact same DNA as the original plant yet now lives a separate existence. This phenomenon was used to save the ancient, spiritually laden Golden Spruce of Haida Gwaii. It was felled by a disgruntled logging employee, and was thought lost forever – it was a male tree and therefore unable to produce seeds. UBC scientists managed to clone it from cuttings though.

Golden spruce clone

Golden spruce clone

This phenomenon can be used to reproduce plants without the more normal form of seeds being used. This is how the seedless watermelons Tyson refers to are produced, and yes, it is true that in a human-free world they would be highly unlikely to reproduce. Same thing with bananas. Their seeds are not viable any more… for human convenience. However, by and large, our “genetic modifications” are bound by the normal processes of seeds/birth and natural reproduction. Forced, guided, evolution, you might say.

It is true that these processes of selective breeding can lead to some abominations. Just look at the French poodle if you need further argument!

Wikipedia: French poodle

However… they are genetically viable in their own right. “Natural” is a subjective word, but the intermediate steps were at least not creations of some Frankenstein process.

And then we get the “oo, I wonder what would happen if…” brigade. To be fair, some of our most exciting leaps forward have come from “blue sky” ideation. Just trying something to see what happens. Unfortunately though, we are all too capable of creating things that really have no place in our world. Like creating an explosive device capable of generating the heat of a small sun for example. And then trying it out on Japan. And then trying out an even “better” one, just to make sure we got the maths right.

So, whilst I can understand the excitement of seeing what might happen if you take a gene from a firefly, capable of making it luminous, and placing it in a plant, I shudder at what might happen next. This is what I refer to as a GMO. An organism that is genetically modified outside of the natural process. It is true that a few cross-species boundaries can be breached in nature (a mule is a sterile result of cross-breeding a donkey and a horse), but there is no possible natural way a firefly gene could naturally find itself inside a plant. There were no shortage of Kickstarter funders though…

Kickstarter: Glowing Plants

These laboratory procedures don’t merely speed up the process that could be done naturally through careful selective breeding. They break the rules. They merge genes that have no business being merged. This is where my problem lies. Natures checks and balances are being subverted. The natural balance that aborts “unfit” organisms, that sterilises incompatible organisms so that they may not breed further, these are all circumvented. Instead we humans are left as the only arbiter of “valid”. We, who have only inherited this finely tuned ecosystem for the blink of an eye. We who are ourselves an experiment in one solitary line of evolution’s grand enterprise. Yet somehow we ended up with the keys to the entire toolkit. The capability to disrupt the very processes that nature itself has relied on for eons.

Life itself will look back on humans and chuckle. Those silly little hairless apes. They gave the Earth luminous plants, four-legged chickens and perhaps some other things from Margaret Atwood’s all too prescient imagination. They have gone now. Long forgotten. The planet spins on. Better for their passing.

In the meantime, people are slowly waking up. Monsanto was met with stiff resistance in the UK and the EU around 20 years ago. People didn’t see the need for genetically modified foods. There was outcry that US food labelling laws meant that soy beans from there might contain  some proportion of GMO content and not declared. It could therefore slip past EU labelling rules. Soy beans and soy extract were in everything. Same with GM canola oil. It was a huge issue.

And then we emigrated to Canada… and food labelling of any kind was rare. Sell by date? Best before date? Why would you need that? Over the years it’s got better and better. And then today, we visited the US and I was delighted to see that there was very prominent shelf labelling for non-GMO products. A real ground swell seems to be starting . It’s taken a while, but it’s arrived.

GMO? Not on my shelf!

GMO? Not on my shelf!

For further reading, check out the Non-GMO Project.

Non-GMO Project