Sunday, July 29, 2007

The Terminator- The Gene Not Arnie....

Continuing from where I left off last blog, I'll try to give my take on why Genetically-modified foods have such a bad name. The reason can be given in one word -MONSANTO. An incredibly rich MNC in the USA - it is also a paradox- a great scientific/engineering department with morons in the management side.

Chronologically the Monsanto story starts with the first controversy - The Roundup ready corn- their hybrid corn with the promise of high yield. This plant had one extra feature - it was genetically engineered to withstand a strong weed-killer , also manufactured by monsanto incidentally. This allowed you to plant the seeds, watch it grow, and then spray the whole field with the weed-killer indiscriminately- resulting in death of the weeds while the corn plants survive easily. A very easy and time - saving alternative to current weed-killing alternatives where multiple chemicals are used for different weeds. The catch was that you buy both the seeds and the weed-killer only from Monsanto. This monpoly idea put off many farmers and got the company in trouble with the US Govt. resulting in withdrawal of the product. This idea was later made use of by Matthew Reilly in one of his novels where the Chinese release a deadly biological warfare virus worldwide which kills people of every ethnicity like Whites, Blacks, South Asians while the Chinese alone have a genetic mutation which protects them from the virus.

The next stupid product from Monsanto was the BT-Cotton (BT- bacillus thuriensis - a bacteria) which was engineered to cause the death of the Boll Worm which eats up the cotton plants causing heavy loss to the farmers. The genetically enginnered plant leaves when eaten by an insect or a caerpillar is activated in the alkaline conditions of an insect's stomach (animals have acid in their stomach) forms a toxin and kills the insects- resulting in high yields. Again a good idea -but the way it was marketed suggesting death to all insects (including cute butterflies -which of course come from ugly leaf eating larvea) got the naturalist group into a great indignation and protests. They expressed doubts that the insects will not be affected by the Bt-Gene and what if they develop resistance to it? The answer is - of course they'll develop resistance - its just a matter of time. We are talking biological warfare here- our brains Vs. organisms adaptive capacities remember? Again a good product and unbelievable marketing disaster.

Fianlly we come to the most notorious - The Terminator Gene. Farmers usually use the seed from this year's crop to cultivate next year. But most hybrid seed varieties are naturally sterile and don't germinate that easily. Monsanto went a step further and created a hybrid seed variety - intentionally and completely sterile and non-germinating. Of course the seeds were producing yields 4 to 5 times more than normal seeds - but the farmer had to buy them every year from Monsanto again and again. No one could compel the farmers to go back to the company for the same seed except if they liked it and got good returns for the money- and of course the company has to pay huge amounts as salaries to its scientists right? The problem was the huge furor caused by the Idea, the Very Idea of genetically creating something sterile (as opposed to our ideas of fertile life-giving plants)- an incredible marketing disaster - one which destroyed the company. There was the point raised by our environmentalists that the gentic mutation may spread to adjacent crops (cross-pollination) which don't have the Terminator gene resulting in widespread sterility of all plants. This is an inane argument - biology shows us that it is always the other way around - given a chance the terminator plants would have somehow got cross-pollinated and regained the capacity to undergo germination again - Life goes on - that's the very basic principle of biology. Anyhow the resulting controversy destroyed the company which never recovered from this disaster and was sold off.

So as I said in my first Blog - all this controversy has created a fear psychosis in people regarding the safety of genetically- modified foods - which indeed are the future if our species continue to develop at the present rate - given the limited resources available on this planet. We either have to increase the yield of every single crop many times over or try some method of population control or go for extra-planetary food farms on the moon or elsewhere if we have to survive as a species..

For those readers who have survived up to this point, I hope I have not bored you - I next intend to write about some truths in the IT field... So keep coming back, Ok?


  1. is this stuff true?

  2. @Ganesh - Having read your posts on science / biology, I find that you have a very clear understanding of the concepts and are not easily influenced by mass hysteria. I reiterate that you're made for a career in research.

    PS: An incentive - girls in molecular biology are usually intelligent and super-goodlooking. You might find your mate there. TIFR / NCBS is the best research institute in the country, in terms of the freedom and atmosphere it provides.

    1. Good looking girls in molecular biology? you know me well enough to hit me where its soft V.....thanks for the links - will check them up....

  3. :) Yes, do,

    Here's a link to the founding father of Molecular Biology in TIFR - Prof. Obaid Siddiqui
    The point I want to make is that, if you see the comments, almost all the persons are addressing him as Obaid, not Professor or Sir. Further, there was no hard and fast rule that one had to be a biologist by training to pursue research in biology (see Babu's comment; KVR himself was a Chemical engineer by training). That's the kind of environment the place gives.

    However, what one needs is a very strong drive and self-discipline, because no one would goad you into working. Think about it; evaluate if you have the right temperament and then decide. ATB.