December 6, 2021

I, Science

The science magazine of Imperial College

Themes of the last fortnight have been GM crops, the circadian eye and stem cell bath doubts ...

CropDesign - Auf der Suche nach neuen Genen / Crop Design - The fine art of gene discovery
Themes of the last fortnight have been the GM crops inquiry, the circadian eye and doubts about the stem cell acid bath technique.

GM crops the sequel

The European market shunned the growing of GM crops in the early noughties because of fears they would harm the environment and the people eating them. Some would say it was European regulators prudently adhering to the precautionary principle while others would say it was overkill. Either way, much of the rest of the world adopted GM and these modified crops are now grown on 12% of the world’s arable land. In response, a new parliamentary inquiry has been set up in the UK to re-examine the issue.

The clear message coming from the global GM adoption is that food from GM crops won’t give you cancer, the crops don’t cause super-weeds and that GM pollen rarely spreads to wild populations. A report commissioned by the Prime Minister’s Council for Science and Technology has now states these same conclusion.s One of the report’s authors, Professor Sir David Baulcombe, argued in a recent article in the Guardian that the restrictions are holding back British agriculture and that, clearly, the regulatory spoon is missing for the GM “jam”.

But aside from the colourful insights of Prof Baulcombe the stats are on the side of GM. Since 1998 just a single GM crop has passed the rigorous EU bureaucracy while 96 crops have got the green light in the US over the same period. Also, 70% of European livestock eat imported animal feed and most of that is genetically modified, which brings into question how concerned we’ve really been on the issue. Government science advisor Mark Walport has come out saying that not using GM puts pressure on the food supply and that there are no inherent risks in the technology. In the Telegraph, he suggests GM crop production should be judged on a crop-by-crop basis.

There’s been very little backlash to this pro-GM onslaught so far. Although advocates might say that the European economy missed out during the early commercialisation of GM crops and should learn to react faster on ethical questions in future, a more sober summation may be that Europe’s reluctance to embrace GM crops provoked the sort of care and reflection in adopting the technology around the world that might otherwise have been overlooked. Unfortunately, this kind of strategy is unlikely to work again, which is why avenues for communication and discussion of these kinds of issues have been multiplying over the last ten years and why we should continue to put well-informed discussions on big science decisions into the public dialogue.  For GM, it’s been suggested that a public body, called ‘PubGM’, should be created to judge the safety and utility of each new and existing GM crop that may be used in the UK, and so prevent GM use coming a cropper.

Circadian light show

Spring is coming and plants will start flowering because their circadian rhythm tells them when their most favourable flowering time is. Humans also have a circadian rhythm that lasts 24 hours. A plant’s circadian rhythm is helped by environmental changes like day length and temperature, and new research from Belgium has found that ours also responds to environmental changes. The colour of the light entering our eye affects our circadian rhythm. Orange light is associated with the start of the day and so can ‘reset’ the rhythm, which can increase brain activity associated with alertness and cognition. Blue light has the opposite effect and mellows us out in preparation for sleep. It was found the effect of light shaded green was neutral, but no results were reported for red light.

Acid test

The simple stem cell producing technique reported in this blog recently may not be a breakthrough after all. The two Nature-published papers reported how cells dipped in mild acid would revert to an embryo-like state, but the technique, found by Haruko Obokata, has been called into question. Thirty-year-old Obokata’s past has been scrutinised and Japan Realtime reported five allegations attacking her short career including plagiarism, method inconsistency and image doctoring in both her 2011 thesis and the Nature papers.  Even Dr.Wakayama of Yamanashi University in Japan, a co-author on the Nature papers, has said they should be retracted according to the Wall Street Journal, although last month he reportedly said “I did it and found it myself,” and “I know the results are absolutely true.”

Another co-author Dr. Vacanti of Harvard continues to support the work and insists the results hold, although he concedes there was some improper practice in Okokata’s article. The acid test is reproducibility. Ten research teams have tried to get the same results and eight have said their attempts so far have failed. Wired report that a social media uproar is complaining the results are fantasy. It’s on a knife edge – if the results are faked, then further malpractice by young Obokata will be revealed over time; if the results are accurate, then we can confidently stop using the word ‘simple’ when describing the technique.