GM Vegetable Oil

Written by Matt DiLeo

Field of soy, ready to harvest. Image via Wikimedia.It’s an exciting time in genetic engineering! I’ve long been bored by the simplicity of our contemporary transgenic crops and the single-minded focus on agronomic traits. Dropping in an herbicide or pest resistance gene is good for the environment and the farmer, but it doesn’t visibly benefit the consumer very much and just doesn’t impress me technically. Now, Monsanto and Pioneer’s new soybean varieties are heralding a new era of more sophisticated metabolic engineering of traits that will directly benefit the public.
One good thing about the industrialization of agriculture is that nothing gets wasted. Vegetable oils get turned into all kinds of different products: cooking oils, frying oils, salad oils, cosmetics, industrial waxes, lubricants and polymers, margarine, shortening, medical products and biodiesel. As you might expect, different characteristics are important for different applications. For example, it’s important for frying oils to withstand high temperatures without burning and forming bad-tasting impurities – and all the better if the oil’s low in saturation and full of omega 3s and vitamin E.

I’m willing to bet that making fryer oil “healthy” will win over public opinion of genetic engineering more than just about anything that’s happened to date.

Written by Guest Expert

Matt DiLeo has a PhD in Plant Pathology from UC, Davis. During his postdoctoral research at Boyce Thompson Institute, he researched unintentional effects of genetic engineering. Matt builds R&D teams and biotech platforms: genome editing, gene discovery, microbials, and controlled environment agriculture.


  1. While I share your enthusiasm for new somewhat more complex traits the following

    Dropping in an herbicide or pest resistance gene is good for the environment and the farmer, but it doesn’t visibly benefit the consumer very much and just doesn’t impress me technically.

    is a tad harsh, particularly the last bit, as getting insect resistance and herbicide resistance traits to work right (ie work without buggering up the plant, and subsequently to get em into other germ) is actually a pretty spectacular technical achievement (I can picture the scientists who have worked, or who are working on, such projects singing a certain Lily Allen song – although that said I just spoke (like literally after typing Lily Allen there) to a guy who has a wall of patents on various Bt type things who said “I couldn’t agree more” – so you may be closer to the mark than I’m giving you credit for!)

  2. I definitely don’t want to blow off achievements where credit is due. I haven’t had any direct experience with these specific transgenes but my impression from hearing people talk (and with messing with tomato ripening genes myself) has always been that you get these single gene transgenics by:
    1) soaking your plant in agro with the transgene
    2) tissue culturing out thousands of plants
    3) growing thousands of segregating plants until you catch one that just happens to have your gene but not any screwy side effects of tissue culture or transgene integration
    Adding herbicide resistance genes in the lab is pretty foolproof, but I know things tend to get complicated in the field – so I definitely wouldn’t be surprised if all kinds of subtle, very challenging problems popped up in the development of early generation herbicide and insect resistance traits. It would be an interesting story to hear someday if it all gets ‘declassified.’
    In the meantime, I’ll remain much more impressed with the ability to make controlled, quantitative changes to a complex, endogenous metabolic network than plugging in a new foreign enzyme!

  3. Rather simplifies things – you have to do the transformations right for a start – which as Anastasia has alluded to is something that most labs simply can’t do in the lines that get used by big biotech.
    Then you have to have the right experiments designed to prove your product works and works well.
    All manner of faffery to get regulatory approval.
    None of it is exactly reinventing the wheel, but there are technical considerations at every level of the process which impress the pants off me. (I may however be easily impressed)

  4. This sounds like good news, and is even the topic of the plant breeding journal club in my building today.
    I would like them to try an experiment in direct sales to the consumer – bottles of these oils available in supermarkets. According to FDA guidelines, GE crops that alter the nutritional properties of a food must be labeled as being achieved through genetic engineering. So this could not only be a first for a consumer trait, but also for labeling in this country.
    I have predicted before that there will be a cultural collision between the desire to avoid GE foods, and the desire to have the benefits of these traits – and the tension between the two opposing desires will make for some interesting interactions. I think many people who were on the fence will start accepting it to get those benefits, and some in the wary group will move to the fence, or farther. Particularly interesting is that this is a trait that would appeal directly to health-conscious consumers that are wary of GE for precisely that reason – concern about health.
    Don’t take my word for it – Michael Pollan – who penned criticisms of GE from the 1990’s to just a couple weeks ago, said that consumer-oriented traits such as this (and the Omega-3 fatty acid-containing soybean) will change public opinion. Not might, will.
    Here’s an interesting question, will the Center for Food Safety sue to stop its release?

  5. Here’s an interesting question, will the Center for Food Safety sue to stop its release?

    I think that’d be a pretty safe bet.

  6. After leaving my comment above, I went to go check the FDA guidelines on labeling of GE foods. Now I am not so sure that a “GE” label is required. For instance, the guidelines are voluntary and non-binding, and it does not specifically state that the GE aspect must be labeled, but that instead, the nutritional alteration must be labeled:

    Although the 1992 policy does not require special labeling for bioengineered foods, the agency advised in that policy that labeling requirements that apply to foods in general also apply to foods produced using biotechnology. Section 403(i) of the act requires that each food bear a common or usual name or, in the absence of such a name, an appropriately descriptive term. In addition, under section 201(n), the label of the food must reveal all material facts about the food. Thus:
    * If a bioengineered food is significantly different from its traditional counterpart such that the common or usual name no longer adequately describes the new food, the name must be changed to describe the difference.
    * If an issue exists for the food or a constituent of the food regarding how the food is used or consequences of its use, a statement must be made on the label to describe the issue.
    * If a bioengineered food has a significantly different nutritional property, its label must reflect the difference.
    * If a new food includes an allergen that consumers would not expect to be present based on the name of the food, the presence of that allergen must be disclosed on the label.

    So it appears that this may not be a requirement, what do y’all think? Here is the 1992 document in addition to the 2001 document I linked to above.

  7. I am NOT going to eat any more GMO Crap. It is POISON. All of it and I will NEVER agree to eating it. Labratory/scientific/medical studies IN EVERY country have proven that it causes health issues, allergies, cancer & death. The sick idiots in this world that want it & want to make it can EAT IT ALL or just shove it directly up their bums. That is where it will do the most good. REAL FOOD FOR REAL PEOPLE.

  8. A well reasoned and researched reply.
    You can tell due to the randomized caps lock utility.
    Also the made up facts about studies in “every country” (a quick search fails to find any research done in Fiji, so I’m rather in awe of the library resources Lisa has available) show a strong arguement (clearly one couldn’t insert obviously made up material into an arguement unless it was a really really good one)


    Will nobody think of the androids? =(

  9. I would be interested to learn more about how these new breeds were created–linked article says a combination of traditional and GM methods. How so and which ones?

  10. I just got out of Journal Club – and this should really help the discussion of this trait. It turns out that transgenics were not used to create the unique oil profile properties of this soybean, it was a combination of mutagenesis and marker-assisted breeding. Those are both biotechnology – but not GE. They did breed in the Roundup Ready 2 transgene so they are transgenic, but not in how they achieve the oil content alterations.
    Plenish soybeans by Pioneer, however, are transgenic, and Monsanto appears to have two more transgenic soybean oil modifications coming down the line afterward. Here is a Nature Biotechnology news clip that explains more.
    I just got sent a couple papers from another grad student on the way this all works, but perhaps we can get a guest post together from someone more knowledgeable about these metabolic pathways.

  11. Karl,
    Part of the 2001 Guidance is precisely on point. If the soybean has been engineered to have a different oil profile, the physical difference of the oil from standard soybean oil must be mentioned on the label.
    However, the process used to make the oil different (biotechnology) is optional.
    There’s a caveat, though: a Guidance is not a regulation — there’s no enforcement mechanism. At best, it’s an indication of what regulations would look like if the agency had to deal with the issue in the real world. That said, we should be seeing such a regulation in the near future, and it likely will be substantially similar to the Guidance.

  12. I will bring attention to the ‘new’ pathogen article, which cites a claim made by Don Huber that GE crops are linked to it. However, absolutely no evidence is provided for this link. I would suggest reading Academics Review in tandem with Jeffrey Smith – it helps to have the correct information about Smith’s claims when reading his books.

  13. Virus sized fungi… sure ok, congratulations on the nobel for discovering a eukaryote which is smaller than one would think possible given the requirement for things like membranes, organelles and a genome of greater than viral size.
    Or BS, whatever suits your fancy.
    Why is it that these claims have to have fantastical elements associated which any undergrad (or indeed high school student assuming they weren’t taught to Seralini’s guidelines) in any of the sciences should be able to pick apart.

  14. I just got sent another piece about this “new pathogen” aka “micro fungus” thing, by someone in the Sus Ag program at ISU. Yeah. I’m pretty skeptical. Here’s the letter Researcher: Roundup or Roundup-Ready Crops May Be Causing Animal Miscarriages and Infertility. I’m really really frustrated by the lack of citations or sources of any kind.
    Edit: I’m really really pissed off at the lack of citations or sources of any kind and at the willingness of people to accept the claim that there is an entire new category of organisms caused by a herbicide?! without any evidence.

  15. Way to blow the lid on my analysis, Ewan!
    The largest virus in the world (as of 2009) is half of a micron in diameter:
    This is a type of Mimivirus, more info:
    Whereas, the smallest single-celled organism ever discovered would be the mycoplasmas at 0.2–0.3 by 0.5–2.0 microns.
    Though there is some overlap in size between the largest virus and the smallest bacterium, we are not talking about a large virus – he said a medium sized virus – the kind that you need an electron microscope to see. So in order to be a medium-sized virus it would have to be much smaller than the smallest known cell. That would be an extraordinary claim – and made more extraordinary that he is claiming it is a fungus, which requires organelles as Ewan points out. Mitochondria are 3 microns, so that would be a bare minimum size for a fungus, which contains mitochondria.
    36,000X electron microscopy can see objects that are on the order of a dozen microns to maybe a tenth of a micron, so it may be that Huber does not know how big viruses are and is just guessing.
    Sizes of tiny organisms and organism-like things:
    Maybe Huber is reporting on some crazy organism that has just been discovered and maybe it is not a fungus at all but something new – I would not be surprised to find out that the world of biological science is incomplete in its catalog of living and pseudo-living things. But the odd part about this is that Huber is stating this in the context of a request for policy change. And is presenting it without any evidence, without anything peer-reviewed, and publicly, but with a big “CONFIDENTIAL” thing on the top, calling it an emergency. (And he doesn’t want to be alarmist?)

  16. Two words any self-respecting pathologist would have done before they started running their mouth: Koch’s postulates

  17. We need a like button. I had to look up what Koch’s postulates are (not being a pathologist) but now I can confidently say: YES!
    I just don’t understand this whole thing at all. Why would anyone ever release something making such extremely extraordinary claims without any evidence? Maybe he can do it because he’s retired and can spend all his science cred on this because he doesn’t need it any more? Maybe he knows that no one who reads it and takes it at face value will question his claims at all?

  18. I found it interesting that Huber felt it necessary to point out that the organism is capable of reproducing. Oh, the horror of it all… And also that the information was “sensitive”, which must be why he turned it over to the public domain. His name is also on an amicus brief filed with the US Supreme Court in the GM alfalfa case. On the organic side, no less. I think he wants to be the next Arpad Pusztai…

  19. I see that sarcasm is an acceptable reply? “A well reasoned and researched reply. You can tell due to the randomized caps lock utility. Also the made up facts about studies in “every country” (a “quick search”(Your intelligence is showing)(IQ12) fails to find any research done in Fiji, so I’m rather in awe of the library resources Lisa has available) show a strong arguement(can’t spell either?) (clearly one couldn’t insert obviously made up material into an arguement(still can’t spell what well thought out reply) unless it was a really really good one)”
    And I guess this idiocy is a well researched reply. Many countries have proven that roundup is toxic waste. That GMO’s are also toxic waste. With studies done in labs by scientists & doctors that showed mutation in animal genes. Cancer, organ failure, and allergies. Now I have seen this before where people who want to keep their toxic waste jobs claiming that GMO is good healthy safe. And it is all BS. I will be glad to see these companies go under and all of you OUT of a job. How do you like that for Cap lock use idiot?

  20. It is much easier to list supposed problems with GE foods than it is to demonstrate them with evidence. Allergies, Cancer, Mutations in animal genes (?! That’s a new one) have no basis, and the “organ failure” was an invention of Rady Ananda, who writes the Food Freedom blog linked to above. It also is unsupported.
    Sarcasm is legal currency in many economies, sometimes it is all you’ve got when people stop by just to yell an angry opinion. Always best in moderation, though.

  21. It’s one of my favorite random facts that, while all chemicals (even water) will hurt your body in high enough doses, glyphosate (Roundup) is actually less toxic than either aspirin or caffeine. Records like these are public and available on federal and state websites.

  22. I see that sarcasm is an acceptable reply

    Certainly, particularly when the opening salvo is a spit flecked rant full of misinformation and demands for anal insertion of crops.

    ”(Your intelligence is showing)(IQ12)

    Shouldn’t the second parenthetical be contained within the first? Also either you’re missing your last digit (I forgive you) or you are unaware that someone with an IQ of 12 would be utterly incapable of posting a reply.

    can’t spell either?

    I’m British you lackwit.

    still can’t spell what well thought out reply

    Again, I remain British – perhaps you should expand your horizons a little and realize that your quaint colloquial misspelling of perfectly good words isn’t the only way to go about it.

    And I guess this idiocy is a well researched reply.

    I assume you’re refering to your own post – the first part of your statement holds true, the last part not so much.

    Many countries have proven that roundup is toxic waste

    Citations thanks? (Seralini for preference!)

    That GMO’s are also toxic waste.

    Citations again required (Seralini again is the expected response, or maybe Shiva – a crank bingo in the offing)

    With studies done in labs by scientists & doctors that showed mutation in animal genes. Cancer, organ failure, and allergies.

    I hear it has detrimental effects on the Who population also – turns em all green and anti-xmas.

    How do you like that for Cap lock use idiot?

    Shouldn’t there be a comma between use and idiot there? I’d give it maybe a 3 out of 10, way too unrandom and an abject failure to intersperse it throughout the text – your text screams crank but your formatting simply doesn’t follow through.

    Sarcasm is legal currency in many economies, sometimes it is all you’ve got when people stop by just to yell an angry opinion. Always best in moderation, though.

    I feel perhaps an apology is owed to the less cranky amongst us – I’m all for conversation with those as will converse, but am all out of patience with those as won’t at the moment (blame it on having to wake up twice a night if you will, or invent some conspiracy whereby working with 100’s of GMOs turns people into belligerent asses – my wife would no doubt concur)

  23. Matt – do keep in mind however that glyphosate isn’t the only thing in roundup – some formulations contain surfactants which have been shown to cause damage to larval frogs (Relyea, various) – not unsurprising given the nature of surfactants in general, but worth keeping in mind (I was roundly, and rightly, savaged by SC over at Pharyngula for failing to make the distinction – my bad as at the time I wasn’t as aware of that particular issue as I should have been) – also explains why roundup formulations would act as irritants to people.

  24. Yeah, absolutely. I just think it’s crazy that people can get so worked up over minor/potential damage of a chemical that’s replacing stuff like atrazine, which has REALLY hurt people.

  25. In a world where differential national spelling of words is enough to induce poop flinging one can hardly be surprised at other irrationalities in the debate! (I shall remain tickled by that all day, regardless of the speedbumps life may throw my way)

  26. Don’t like GM crops and glyphosate? Consider the popular alternative.
    The Hidden Dangers in Organic Food
    Products most people think are purer than other foods are making people seriously ill.
    According to recent data compiled by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC), people who eat organic and “natural” foods are eight times as likely as the rest of the population to be attacked by a deadly new strain of E. coli bacteria (0157: H7).

  27. Oh geez. Hudson Institute? Really?
    Look into organic regulations for manure use.
    Look into where that strain of e coli derives.

  28. people who eat organic and “natural” foods are eight times as likely as the rest of the population to be attacked by a deadly new strain of E. coli bacteria (0157: H7).

    Assuming this to be the case (Jason apparently would disagree, but that’s immaterial to my point) what are the raw numbers here? are we talking about 1 in 100,000 vs 8 in 100,000 or 1 in 1000 cf 8 in 1000 – I am automatically suspicious of claims of times of likileness claims (or percentage increase claims) without the base numbers to assess whether or not it’s actually something worth being concerned about.
    Also Jason – instead of “look into” couldn’t you at least give a brief sketch… some of us are far too lazy to chase after every last interesting snippet!

  29. Jason,
    To look into where that strain of e coli derives, you need go no further than the head of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control who said, after the findings were released, “It’s grown in poop.”
    Or, you may be asking where this strain of E. coli came from. What happened is horizontal gene transfer from Shigella to E. coli. It’s one of those ‘natural GMOs’.
    What makes this so deadly is that E. coli can live in the soil and actually, literally, infect plants via their roots. This causes no harm to the plant — but you get a situation where washing vegetables as a preventive measure doesn’t work, and you get sick regardless.
    Using manure to fertilize crops meant to be consumed fresh/uncooked (lettuce, etc.) should be illegal.

  30. Fascinating.
    Okay, let’s keep this going a bit. Where did the horizontal gene transfer occur and/or where is the population of this strain of e coli maintained? Can we identify any particular ecological conditions that favor this new strain?

  31. Anastasia,
    You are entirely correct in your observation that manure, properly composted, kills pathogens.
    On the other hand, search as widely as you wish, and you will never find an organic standard involving actual measurement of composting temperatures, or testing for pathogens prior to field application.
    In fact, and this is disturbing, organic certification happens after the crop has hit the consumer market. Not before. Ex post facto.
    In one sense, you can’t be sure that the entire organic production sequence has been faithfully followed until the harvest is complete — makes a bit of sense if you look at things that way.
    Looked at the other way, you have a situation where things hit the market after it’s too late.

  32. Sorry, but you really know very little about organic law, certification methods, and practices.
    That’s generally okay, since you know a lot about other stuff that is quite impressive. I am sure you could quickly learn about the National Organic Program if you did some research.
    Regarding the interest in poop and compost, there’s a lot about how to handle it (legally binding and third party reviewed) in order to prevent disease spread in the regulations.

  33. Let’s say a cow runs on a pasture its whole life and poops and pees all over the ground. Would that ground ever be safe to grow vegetables in or is it forever contaminated with e coli?

  34. I think This link
    Shows an applicable wossname where it is established that unprocessed animal manure can only be applied 90 or 120 days pre harvest (depending on contact with edible parts of plant) and that processed animal manure (in compost) must hit certain temps, for certain times, and be turned etc.
    There was also a piece (which I’ve now lost) which explicitly stated levels of coliform bacteria and Salmonella (if I recall) which were not to be exceeded.
    How well these standards are enforced may be questioned I guess, but they certainly exist (I note in all farms which have been kicked from the program I couldn’t find a single one which was on grounds of manure/compost violations, mostly it was just not paying fees)

  35. Thats an interesting question – I’ve heard conflicting studies that claim E.coli is either outcompeted all but immediately or sticks around for a really long time. I’ll see if I can find some info on it after work.

  36. From:
    “According to recent data compiled by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC), people who eat organic and “natural” foods are eight times as likely as the rest of the population to be attacked by a deadly new strain of E. coli bacteria (0157: H7). This new E. coli is attacking tens of thousands of people per year, all over the world. It is causing permanent liver and kidney damage in many of its victims. The CDC recorded 2,471 confirmed cases of E. coli 0157: H7 in 1996 and estimated that it is causing at least 250 deaths per year in the United States alone.”

  37. NOP regulations are VERY explicit on manure composting regs and application. Due to the new NOP rules, we’ve discontinued use of manures for the last five years. As someone who used that as 99% of fertilization application, it was a mind numbing experience. We used manures mostly to compost our waste product, cactus leaves, often weighing a dozen pound each, and several feet long. A foot of cactus and a foot of manure, piled to six feet, and left to compost for ayear efore turning made for a compost we could turn and maintain afterwards. The manure was mostly to allow the cactus to break down enough to turn…
    But now we just pile the cactus up and dump old compost over it…. we don’t need to worry abut the weekly turning (which could not be done with the long cactus pieces)….
    We never used our compost before the second year…. but now we don’t bring in mulches or manures… we let the weeds grow tall (looks aweful) and mow in summer after the seeds set… I am not happy about not having manures, and liked clean cultivation with a heavy and thick leaf mulch…. but ya gotta follow the Federal rules… and truly, perhaps this is just as good, we grow our own mulch now, yields are still good.. actually better, but that could be weather…. but I love to see deep rich dark soil that’s built up high with manures… but still, we’ve got that anyway… so maybe no real loss, and a lot less work! I haven’t even used the dump bed on my truck for years…. time to sell it and pocket the money..

  38. Hi Matt,
    Check out the work of DL Jones from the University of Wales.
    Potential health risks associated with the persistence of Escherichia coli O157 in agricultural environments
    Soil Use and Management, 15: (2) 76-83 June 1999
    He claims persistence of greater than 4 months in soil.
    I’ve often wondered if this nasty little bug were associated with GM, what the reaction would be.

  39. My family is now allergic to all of the GMO foods. It makes eating very difficult.
    Making plants able to tolerate poisons or less edible to pests makes the plants less edible. I realize profit is the reason, but if your consumers get allergic and can’t eat it anymore, it isn’t food anymore. We only have one generation every 25 to 30 years for adapting, plants can have 2 generations a year to mutate. Mutating the cows and pigs so they can eat the mutated foods, just makes the meats and milk inedible as well.

  40. If you are indeed allergic to foods due to genetic engineering, then you owe it to yourself and your family to get yourself tested to see if it is due to the GE traits, or the food itself.
    GE is not making foods inedible to people, or no longer foods for that matter.

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