Just one misconception

I just got back from a visit with a nutritionist. I generally make good choices, but wanted to get concrete numbers for what my daily fat, protein, and carb intakes should be. She was really nice, and was candid enough to say that dark green veggies actually have more calcium than milk. Calcium from plants is actually up to twice as digestible as that from milk. Watercress, bok choy, and broccoli are all good sources (and have more calcium than milk per 100 calories of food). She admitted that industry has way too much effect on the food pyramid and doctor’s recommendations, especially when it comes to meat and milk. The best diet is: everything in moderation, except whole grains, veggies, and exercise. We all know that, but it doesn’t make headlines. One thing we do like about the new food pyramid is that they include legumes, nuts, and seeds as proteins, and suggest eating these instead of animal protein for at least some meals.

She asked if I was an undergrad, so I said that I’m a PhD student majoring in plant genetics, improving nutrition of corn. With a half smile, she said “just don’t go putting wheat genes in corn, or the celiacs won’t be able to eat it anymore.” Celiac disease is basically an intolerance of gluten in wheat, rye, barley, and possibly oats. When celiacs eat gluten from these sources, they get a lot of nasty symptoms like pain and diarrhea. If they keep eating gluten, they have a much higher risk of gastro-intestinal cancer.

Having this gluten properly labeled is of great concern to celiacs, as is expected. The idea of other food plants containing the very thing that makes them sick is understandably very frightening. They are against genetic engineering of food crops for this very reason. I really wish scientists did a better job of educating the public. As I explained to the nutritionist, when scientists engineer a plant, only one or a few genes are involved. Let’s say that we find a strain of wheat that has great tolerance to salty soils, and farmers want corn with that trait. Scientists can find the gene or genes responsible for the tolerance. The gene of interest is either cut out of the wheat genome or is synthesized with a machine. Then, that gene is used to transform corn, usually with a gene gun. Only that one wheat gene is used. The corn plant has the instructions now on how to be salt tolerant. It does not have the instructions on how to make gluten. It will therefore contain no gluten, and won’t make celiacs sick.


  1. Feynman, I believe, liked to push the idea that you should be able to explain a scientific concept to children at a level they can understand. But in cases like this, that’s not even really the problem.

    The average Joe, and even average science geek, has too many other things crowding his or her mind to keep from oversimplifying other fields to the point of distortion – and that’s what happens here. The idea that you can take one gene from another plant without bringing in a bunch of other genes unrelated to your intent is lost on the layman. Even the educated layman could be muddled on this – for example, I’ve had one year of college biology and understand the bare basics of genetics.

    You come to me and say “we’re augmenting corn with a gene from wheat for salt tolerance.” In my head, I’m blindly guessing at the mechanism, and I’m envisioning what? Maybe some sort of transport protein that would sit on the membrane? Okay, so I’d need a gene to code for that protein. Ah, but isn’t it possible for a gene to code for *more* than one protein, through myriad mechanisms I couldn’t begin to remember without cracking my bio book? Couldn’t a wheat gluten protein somehow result?

    Even if all that were true, I have some faith that genetic engineers would know better. Most of the above is probably wrong, too.

    Anyway, I hope that illustrates my point. The problem boils down to the cold truth that the decision of what is wise in genetic engineering is best left to the genetic engineers, and the rest of the public just has to trust you. We do that in all sorts of other areas of life, not the least of which include politics, medicine, structural engineering, etc.

    The difference with your field, I think, is that there’s been too much negative science fiction. Oh, and the mouse with the human ear. That didn’t even have anything to do with genetic engineering, did it? But that’s the story that prevailed. You all have a long hard battle ahead of you to clean up your field’s image. Don’t mess it up!

  2. I know you are right – people just don’t have the background. We can only hold so much in our brains! However, I wish people wouldn’t leap to conclusions about things they don’t understand.

    The recent glowing cats and pigs are going to help. Nevermind that the researchers are making huge advance in science that will eventually become medicine, preventing suffering… nevermind that these techniques will help to save endangered animals… and nevermind that GFP (green fluorescent protein) is totally harmless… it still looks crazy.

    I’m actually working on a project that uses GFP as a marker. It’s nice because you can see what’s happening while your plant or animal is alive, and it doesn’t harm the organism. Even better, varying levels of fluorescence indicate varying levels of gene expression. If you are interested in taking a look, you could come by my lab sometime.

  3. See, glowing animals are just going to scare the crap out of the naive at best, and likely challenge the stance of the average defender of modern science. Humans tend to be rather emotional creatures, and the first natural reaction, I would think, would be “that ain’t right, we’ve gone too far.”

    Not me, of course. I think the current administration especially has gone way too far in holding back science for no good, rational reason. I try to keep a low profile about that stance though, personally – I think the better approach for the science community would be “it’s easier to ask forgiveness than permission.” How many cases have you ever heard of scientists being tossed in prison for illegal research? I think society turns a blind eye to it, so we can say one thing and do another, and therefore be forever blameless. That, and the U.S. doesn’t *really* want to end up falling behind the rest of the world.

    Your professors wouldn’t mind unwashed, undeclared undergraduates roaming your expensive labs? I’ll take you up on that if you’re serious.

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