3 Myths about Genetically Modified Crops

Genetically modified oilseed rape, one of the four main commercial GM crops. Photograph: David Levene

Genetically modified oilseed rape, one of the four main commercial GM crops. Photograph: David Levene

The debate about GM crops has reached a new level with many countries deciding on its fate. Among all this shrill and cacophony about it, we indeed have been fed many myths about it. Scientific American published a nice article on it some days ago, tiled – 3 Myths about Genetically Modified Crops . It looked into some detail about the 3 most important myths.

Lets have a look, shall we ?

Myth 1: GM crops have bred superweeds

Verdict: FALSE

This issue has been quite a contentious issue for more than a decade now.

US farmers had widely adopted GM cotton engineered to tolerate the herbicide glyphosate, which is marketed as Roundup by Monsanto in St Louis, Missouri. The herbicide–crop combination worked spectacularly well — until it didn’t. In 2004, herbicide-resistant amaranth was found in one county in Georgia; by 2011, it had spread to 76. 

Many scientists, and even some of my colleagues have argued that use of GM crops which are herbicide resistant are responsible for the evolution of herbicide resistance in many weeds.

Twenty-four glyphosate-resistant weed species have been identified since Roundup-tolerant crops were introduced in 1996.

However, herbicide resistance has been a problem for farmers regardless of whether they plant GM crops or not. For more see this chart on the rise of super-weeds:

‘The rise of superweeds’  Source: Scientific American

‘The rise of superweeds’
Source: Scientific American

So, blaming just the increased use of GM crops wont solve the problem of these super-weeds.

Myth 2. GM cotton has driven farmers to suicide

Verdict: FALSE

Now this has been a big news item in India recently when a leading rights activist and environmental campaigner Vandana Shiva alleged that some 270,000 farmers have committed suicide ever since GM crops have been used. Bt cotton which has a gene from the bacterium Bacillus thuringiensis has been planted in India and has been the major bone of contention in India.

Seeds initially cost five times more than local hybrid varieties, spurring local traders to sell packets containing a mix of Bt and conventional cotton at lower prices. The sham seeds and misinformation about how to use the product resulted in crop and financial losses. This no doubt added strain to rural farmers, who had long been under the pressures of a tight credit system that forced them to borrow from local lenders.

This claim was however refuted by researchers at the International Food Policy Research Institute in Washington DC, who scoured government data, academic articles and media reports about Bt cotton and suicide in India. Their findings, published in 2008 and updated in 2011, show that the total number of suicides per year in the Indian population rose from just under 100,000 in 1997 to more than 120,000 in 2007. But the number of suicides among farmers hovered at around 20,000 per year over the same period.

Suicide Rates and GM crops Source: Scientific American

Suicide Rates and GM crops
Source: Scientific American

The important thing to note here, is that the focus of argument in India has shifted from a balanced discussion on the various ways technology can benefit us to calls for outright bans on using it. This would never solve the issue but aggravate it.

Myth 3: Transgenes spread to wild crops in Mexico

Verdict: UNKNOWN

We finally come to another issue about how transgenes have spread to far-off maize fields in Mexico. What started all of it was:

In 2000, some rural farmers in the mountains of Oaxaca, Mexico, wanted to gain organic certification for the maize (corn) they grew and sold in the hope of generating extra income. David Quist, then a microbial ecologist at the University of California, Berkeley, agreed to help in exchange for access to their lands for a research project. But Quist’s genetic analyses uncovered a surprise: the locally produced maize contained a segment of the DNA used to spur expression of transgenes in Monsanto’s glyphosate-tolerant and insect-resistant maize.

Now, as GM crops are not approved in Mexico, the only possible source of such transgenes could only have come from GM crops imported from the United States for consumption and planted by local farmers who probably didn’t know that the seeds were transgenic. When the results were published it brought a furore in Mexico with people arguing for and against the issue. Ever since, few detailed studies have been done on the spread of transgenes via GM crops.

In 2003–04, Allison Snow, a plant ecologist at Ohio State University in Columbus, sampled 870 plants taken from 125 fields in Oaxaca and found no transgenic sequences in maize seeds.

But in 2009, a study led by Elena Alvarez-Buylla, a molecular ecologist at the National Autonomous University of Mexico in Mexico City, and Alma Piñeyro-Nelson, a plant molecular geneticist now at the University of California, Berkeley, found the same transgenes as Quist in three samples taken from 23 sites in Oaxaca in 2001, and in two samples taken from those sites in 2004.

In another study, Alvarez-Buylla and her co-authors found evidence of transgenes in a small percentage of seeds from 1,765 households across Mexico.

However, some scientists argue that transgene spread could in effect have a neutral or even a positive effect on local crops.

In 2003, Snow and her colleagues showed that when Btsunflowers (Helianthus annuus) were bred with their wild counterparts, transgenic offspring still required the same kind of close care as its cultivated parent but were less vulnerable to insects and produced more seeds than non-transgenic plants.

In the end, i would quote something from the article here:

Tidy stories, in favor of or against GM crops, will always miss the bigger picture, which is nuanced, equivocal and undeniably messy. Transgenic crops will not solve all the agricultural challenges facing the developing or developed world, says Qaim: “It is not a silver bullet.” But vilification is not appropriate either. The truth is somewhere in the middle.

What in fact, would be beneficial for ending the food insufficiency problems would be develop GM crops which would have more protein content, or even essential animal proteins or could produce various other required molecules in our body. These would benefit us in more ways than by simply developing GM crops for resistance to insecticides/ herbicides. The industry needs to look at developing a holistic view of GM crops and instead of creating shrill noise, detractors should sit together with the scientists from academia/industry,policy makers and industry honchos to use technology for our benefit.

For further reading:

1). Bt Cotton and Farmer Suicides in India: An Evidence-based Assessment, Guillaume Gruèrea & Debdatta Senguptaa,The Journal of Development Studies,Volume 47, Issue 2, 2011.

2). Field versus Farm in Warangal: Bt Cotton, Higher Yields, and Larger Questions, Glenn Davis Stone, World Development,Volume 39, Issue 3, March 2011.

3). Economic impacts and impact dynamics of Bt (Bacillus thuringiensis) cotton in India, Jonas Kathage and Matin Qaim, PNAS, 2012.

4). Are GM Seeds to Blame for Indian Farmer Suicides?, Adam Pugen, Feb 2013, The International.

Ever wonder – What Major World Cities Look Like at Night, Minus the Light Pollution

In a stunning montage of pictures, Smithsonian Magazine published an article on just about that topic. How does it look at night? Has pollution really taken away the charm of beautiful nights?

Thierry Cohen, took up the challenge some three years ago when he started on a world wide tour to take pictures of major cities minus all the light & air pollution. Cohen fears, as he recently told the New York Times, that the hazy view has spawned a breed of urbanite, sheltered by his and her manmade environs, that “forgets and no longer understands nature.”

Well, here take a look:

 

San-Francisco-Thierry-Cohen

San Francisco 37° 48′ 30″ N 2010-10-9 Lst 20:58. © Thierry Cohen 

 

Tokyo 35° 41′ 36″ N 2011-11-16 Lst 23:16. © Thierry Cohen.

Tokyo 35° 41′ 36″ N 2011-11-16 Lst 23:16. © Thierry Cohen.

 

São Paulo 23° 33′ 22″ S 2011-06-05 Lst 11:44. © Thierry Cohen.

São Paulo 23° 33′ 22″ S 2011-06-05 Lst 11:44. © Thierry Cohen.

 

Paris 48° 50′ 55″ N 2012-08-13 Lst 22:15. © Thierry Cohen.

Paris 48° 50′ 55″ N 2012-08-13 Lst 22:15. © Thierry Cohen.

 

Los Angeles 34° 03′ 20″ N 2010-10-09 Lst 21:50. © Thierry Cohen.

Los Angeles 34° 03′ 20″ N 2010-10-09 Lst 21:50. © Thierry Cohen.

 

Hong Kong 22° 16′ 38″ N 2012-03-22 Lst 14:00. © Thierry Cohen

Hong Kong 22° 16′ 38″ N 2012-03-22 Lst 14:00. © Thierry Cohen

 

 

7 Misused Science Words

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Now there are various words tossed around everyday with little attention towards their exact meaning. And sometimes, i am simply amused by people declaring themselves Google and charging ahead by using words like ”Theory” or ”Model”.  A recent article in Scientific American titled – “Just a Theory”: 7 Misused Science Words  is just the cure i was looking for.  It starts off by listing those very words which i hate to be tossed up with during a dinner party or worse at a scientific conference !! I will list them out in full below and you can all have fun in reading the actual article in Scientific American.

1). Hypothesis

2). Just a theory?

3). Model

4). Skeptic

5). Nature vs. nurture

6). Significant

7). Natural

Now the above words are something which we all encounter during our school and college education. But the misuse of these words shows that people are not taught how science actually works !! Its not how it is showed in cartoons or zombie dystopian movies.

In the end, i would like to quote from the article itself:

Most people tend to use mental shortcuts to make sense of the cacophony of information they’re presented with every day.One of those tendencies is to make a binary distinction between something that is true in an absolute sense and something that’s false or a lie. “With science, it’s more of a continuum. We’re continually building our understanding.”

Additional readings:

1). What is Science? The Scientific Method, LiveScience Website, 2012.

2). The trouble with “science” (guardian.co.uk)

Beer Lovers Rejoice: A new study says a mere sip of beer triggers chemical pleasure in the brain !!

English: Taken in an Irish Pub located in Madr...

English: Taken in an Irish Pub located in Madrid, Spain on January 3rd, 2007. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

To start off, let me begin by saying that i love drinking beer especially an Irish stout. Now, whenever i take a couple of sips, moments later there is always  a distinct sensation of pleasure. Now urban legend would have it that the beer exudes a blend of aromas due to a  blend of malt, hops and yeast which produces that sensation in us. Just take a look at the Beer Flavour Wheel below from Mark Dredge‘s upcoming book – Craft Beer World

CBWFlavourWheelMarkDredge908

Now scientists have known for a long time that the pleasurable sensation which alcohol produces in us is because of the release of a particular class of neurotransmitter called dopamineThis molecule is known is to act as reward for the brain and is associated with other tasks like sleeping, sex etc. So, now you might reasonably ask if we already know that then what’s new?? Well, what’s new here is a paper published in Neuropsychopharmacology titled – Beer Flavor Provokes Striatal Dopamine Release in Male Drinkers: Mediation by Family History of Alcoholism. 

This paper published by  David Kareken and other researchers of Indiana University tries to answer this question – As intoxication via alcohol leads to the release of dopamine, does the same thing happens when you take a sip of alcohol? Or the release of such reward molecules subject to intoxication alone? Now, answering this question would lead us towards a more complete explanation of the process of addiction towards alcohol and lead us to develop deterrents in the process.

So, what they did was to strap 49 men to a  Positron emission tomography (PET) scanner   after giving them a sip of beer to drink. The key idea here was to track the levels of various molecules in the brain which are released in response to the alcohol intake. To make the study more scientifically more sound and interesting, they chose the participants in varying levels of alcohol tolerance from, almost teetotalers to heavy drinkers. The delivery mechanism for the beer was completely automated to spray 15 millimeters only which ensured that any difference in levels of molecules observed wouldn’t be a by-product of intoxication.

Surprisingly, what they observed was when men tasted beer there was a significant release of dopamine when compared to tasting a mixture of gatorade + water. Incidentally the researchers also asked the participants whether they had any cravings for the drink they had been given and they were generally much higher after tasting beer than Gatorade or water. However, the amount of dopamine release was not random but was seen in higher levels in people with a history of alcoholism. The researchers believe that this could be a clue as to why some people are predisposed towards alcoholism—and why it’s more difficult for them to quit. The immediate release of dopamine from just a taste of beer would likely serve as a powerful mechanism that would drive their cravings, and this tendency towards experiencing a burst of pleasure might also be genetically inheritable. This could be part of the reason that people with a family history of alcoholism are twice as likely to experience alcoholism themselves.

This experiment shows that for a few unlucky people all it takes for alcoholism to develop is a sip of beer !!

For the rest, i say PROST !!

Additional Readings-

1). Neural response to alcohol stimuli in adolescents with alcohol use disorder, Tapert SF, Arch Gen Psychiatry, 2003.

2). Influence of cue exposure on inhibitory control and brain activation in patients with alcohol dependence, Mainz V, Front Hum Neurosci, 2012.

Well, finally i bid adieu to the Sasquatch/American BigFoot…

Photo of an unidentified animal the Bigfoot Re...

Photo of an unidentified animal the Bigfoot Research Organization claims is a “juvenile Sasquatch” “Jacobs Photos” . . Retrieved 2009-09-16 . (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Well, urban legend has it that Sasquatch aka American BigFoot, the name given to an ape-like creature apparently inhabits forests, mainly in the Pacific Northwest region of North America and it has been some decades that people have been arguing about its reality. Last year in September 2012, Dr. Melba S. Ketchum announced with some big fanfare that she and her team from DNA Diagnostics Inc. have sequenced the genome (mitochondrial and nuclear) of sasquatch from all the alleged samples people have collected from some time. However, instead just verifying that Sasquatch is nothing but an urban legend they issued this press release:

“Our study has sequenced 20 whole mitochondrial genomes and utilized next generation sequencing to obtain 3 whole nuclear genomes from purported Sasquatch samples. The genome sequencing shows that Sasquatch mtDNA is identical to modern Homo sapiens, but Sasquatch nuDNA is a novel, unknown hominin related to Homo sapiens and other primate species. Our data indicate that the North American Sasquatch is a hybrid species, the result of males of an unknown hominin species crossing with female Homo sapiens.

Hominins are members of the taxonomic grouping Hominini, which includes all members of the genus Homo. Genetic testing has already ruled out Homo neanderthalis and the Denisova hominin as contributors to Sasquatch mtDNA or nuDNA. “The male progenitor that contributed the unknown sequence to this hybrid is unique as its DNA is more distantly removed from humans than other recently discovered hominins like the Denisovan individual,” explains Ketchum.

“Sasquatch nuclear DNA is incredibly novel and not at all what we had expected. While it has human nuclear DNA within its genome, there are also distinctly non-human, non-archaic hominin, and non-ape sequences. We describe it as a mosaic of human and novel non-human sequence. Further study is needed and is ongoing to better characterize and understand Sasquatch nuclear DNA.”

So, one would immediately say -Yay science proved it exists, right? The answer however will be a big emphatic NO. The prime reason is that science doen’t work on hearsay but on repeatable, well-designed experiments with no ambiguity in either the way its conducted or how samples are gathered. And this is where this so called genetic evidence fails big time.

One of the biggest red flags to this whole study is: How did she get her samples? After all, if she was working from a well-reliable source, that alone might be a big sensation because no physical evidence of Bigfoot exists on record. As it turns out, Dr. Ketchum says her DNA sample was obtained from a blueberry bagel left in the backyard of a Michigan home that, according to the owner, sees regular visits from Sasquatch creatures.

And if the sample gathering itself is in doubt, then how can anyone believe the results ? Another face-palm statement: Fully human mitochondrial DNA, which is inherited from your mother, so she assumes that all Sasquatches had human women as relatively recent ancestors, but at the same time, the nuclear DNA is some bizarre menagerie that includes non-ape sequences? And frankly speaking, any biology student would tell you its hogwash !!

But all of this was from last year, and ever since then she has been trying to publish it in a scientific journal and recent news suggests that she has been unable to clear the peer-review stage. So, in response to this, she has decided to start over – recollect samples, do the whole sequencing again, and re-interpret the results…..Naaaaaaa, thats what any other scientist would have done. What she has done is to buy a journal !!  The Journal of Cosmology was available  she bought it and renamed it to De Novo.  One glance at the website and you are reminded of your art school classes in grade 8. The icons are mis-matched, the colour is horrid and the overall design is completely unprofessional. PZ Myers in is blog Pharyngula has it better:

Then she came out with a special edition. It’s Volume 1, Issue 1. It contains precisely one paper, hers.

You should be laughing by this point.

The online journal is a mess. The layout is funky-ugly, it’s difficult to figure out how to actually get to the paper, and when you navigate to it, it’s got a wretched little “Buy Now” button imbedded in a couple of intersecting blocks of color in a hideous table-like layout. It reminds be of the esthetics of JoC.

Anyway, it’s $30 to buy a paper so bad they had to build a custom journal around it to get it published. Not interested.

So, seeing all this mess i wish to bid adieu to Sasquatch !! May it continue to relive in our science fiction movies…

More on this:

  1. Sasquatch is ill-served, Pharygula, 2013.
  2. What I really want to see is the DNA sequence of an alien Grey, Pharyngula, 2012.
  3. Bigfoot in popular culture, Wikipedia.
  4. Is this Bigfoot … or is it a bear with bad skin?, Daily Mail, 2007.