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USA Today Covers the
Frankenpharm Controversy

USA TODAY
September 23, 2002
The Farmer in the Lab
By Elizabeth Weise


Nature never intended that goats would produce spider silk. But a handful
now can.

Catfish don't have their own hospitals, but when scientists gave some of
them a moth gene, they started making an anti-bacterial protein to protect
themselves from disease.

Farmers couldn't do much about pig droppings before. But science has changed
the genetic makeup of some pigs so porcine excrement has less phosphorus,
which in turn lowers the pollution of ponds and streams and helps stop algae
blooms that kill fish and taint the water supply.

The goals are often worthy: Alter the genetic composition of animals in a
way that produces the world's food more abundantly; use animals as factories
for human pharmaceuticals; change creatures so they are friendlier to the
environment.

But are these useful animals or monsters? Do they pose a threat to the
environment? Is it humane to create them? How should they be regulated?
Is their meat and milk safe to ingest?

These are among the issues to be discussed beginning Tuesday at a Dallas
conference hosted by the non-profit Pew Initiative on Food and
Biotechnology, where experts will look at the risks, benefits and social
issues raised by biotech in the barnyard.

The discussion is more than academic. The ramifications could affect the
genetic traits of animals in the wild and balance in the environment. Good
intentions aside, the public isn't sure what it thinks about serving these
creatures for dinner.

* Consumers appear to have more discomfort with the notion of the genetic
engineering of animals than with plants, but that may be in part because
there's very little public awareness of the technology, says Michael
Rodemeyer, executive director of the Pew Initiative.

* In a pre-emptive move against genetically engineered fish, more than 200
chefs, grocers and seafood distributors announced last week they won't buy
or sell them when and if they're approved for sale. The concern is mainly
environmental: Bigger fish have more mating success. If transgenic salmon
escape their ocean pens, they might out-reproduce and push aside their wild
cousins.

* In Europe, the sale of genetically engineered foods from plants is legal
but there's a de facto ban, as most stores won't sell them.

New questions for consumers
The coming years will see a simple visit to the store becoming much more
complex than "Paper or plastic?" as we are faced with transgenic meat that's
lower in fat, milk that's more heart-healthy produced by cows containing rat
genes, or an arthritis drug produced not in a factory but in (carefully
purified) pig semen.

Industry would prefer that we just take the government's word for it and not
ask about our roast's origins. The contention is that if the FDA has
certified foods as safe, labeling them only confuses the consumer by making
it appear as if biotech foods are different. An initiative on the Oregon
ballot in November to require labeling of all genetically engineered food is
likely to be the first round in a contentious debate.

For the consumer, the question isn't if something contains genetically
modified ingredients, says Neal First, an animal-science professor at the
University of Wisconsin-Madison who will open the Pew conference. "I'd like
to know what it was that they did to it. The consumer deserves the right to
know what they're getting."

But not everyone is worried. Last month the Japanese Ministry of
Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries said that because its studies have found
that cloned cows' meat and milk are nearly identical to naturally born cows,
it might allow the consumption of cows cloned from the cells of adult
animals, making it the first nation in the world to do so. A final report is
expected by March.

This brave new world already has slipped into our meals in plant form. The
Grocery Manufacturers Association estimates that up to 70% of processed
foods in the supermarket contain ingredients from biotech crops. But no one
expects a biotech Bossie to amble quite so easily onto the American dinner
table. Watch for the debate to intensify, first in 2003 when the Food and
Drug Administration releases the first safety guidelines for clones, and
then possibly again in 2004 for transgenics.

Transgenic engineering is the process by which animals have extra genes from
another animal -- often another species entirely -- inserted into their
genome.

The new gene is used to make, or "express," a protein that the animal
normally wouldn't. For example, a Canadian company has inserted spider
genes into female goats so they express spider silk proteins in their milk.
These proteins can be harvested and turned into super-strong fiber.

As the science has sped up, industry hasn't been far behind. Already there
are hundreds of transgenic and cloned animals around the country in labs and
some farms. But because of an informal FDA ban on the sale of any cloned or
transgenic animal products, their milk has to be dumped and their bodies
destroyed when they die. They cannot be sold for food.

That holding pattern began to see movement in August when the National
Academy of Sciences released a long-awaited report on the food safety and
environmental issues raised by genetically engineered animals as well as the
animal health and welfare concerns.

It found the biggest dangers were the potential for genetically engineered
fish, shellfish and insects to escape into the wild and replace their
natural cousins. The FDA is considering an application for salmon implanted
with growth hormone genes that allow them to grow four to six times faster
than ordinary salmon.

Looking to FDA for answers
Long before we get there, a whole host of regulatory questions have to be
decided. While the FDA hopes to have cloning rules out within a year,
transgenics are a whole new kettle of fish.

Consider the dilemmas faced by University of California-Davis animal studies
professor Jim Murray. He and his colleagues have created dairy goats that
carry the same human genes that put antibodies in mothers' milk to protect
babies from stomach infections. Others have an extra bit of DNA from cows
that makes their milk more suitable for cheesemaking. And a third group have
had a rat gene inserted to change the fat composition of their milk to make
it more heart-healthy for humans.

But as he gazes out over a herd of friendly goats, he wonders how he's
supposed to follow the rules when there aren't any yet. Is it legal to sell
an animal if it's been created transgenically but the transgene didn't take,
so it doesn't express the foreign protein? What should he do with the 50% of
kids born that are male? They won't ever make milk so they won't express the
foreign protein, but the genes for it are still in their bodies.

"What do I have to do to show the gene isn't expressing? Is it enough for me
to show that it's not in meat and not in blood circulation? What do I do
with the offspring that have drunk the transgenic milk? The FDA has to
regulate each of these scenarios."

But that won't be the first issue consumers face. For us, it will be cloned
animal products that are likely to first enter the food supply. One concern
is whether they might trigger allergies or otherwise harm people eating
them. Theoretically, there shouldn't be any difference between a cloned
animal and its natural predecessor. But the scientists on the National
Academy of Sciences committee found that there was no way to know since
there weren't any analytical studies evaluating unanticipated compositional
differences.

Still, herds of cloned cattle are unlikely, if only because cloning is so
difficult and expensive. Mark Westhusin, a veterinary professor at Texas A&M
University, has cloned cats, cattle and dogs, but as many as 85% to 90% of
pregnancies are lost in the first trimester. For one bull, his lab first
transferred adult cells into 189 eggs, which resulted in 40 viable embryos,
26 of which were transferred into surrogate females. But only six
pregnancies took and only one calf survived to term.

Those difficulties raise some red flags for Gary Comstock, an animal
ethicist at North Carolina State University. He believes we shouldn't be
subjecting animals and their embryos to a process so clearly fraught with
problems.

"That's nature's way of telling us that something's not right."

The 'Yuck Factor'
Then there's the Yuck Factor, as it's actually termed in scientific papers.
Using selective breeding, broiler chickens have been created with serious
skeletal problems. Genetic engineering makes a whole host of things
possible. "How far are we going to push animals to be more productive?" asks
researcher Joy Mench of UC-Davis.

While cloning isn't seen as an environmental concern, transgenics are. New
genes give animals an advantage -- but at a price. Take the line of catfish
that create their own antibiotics. This just means the bacteria attacking
them will get stronger.

In biology it's known as the Red Queen hypothesis, named for the huffy chess
piece in Lewis Carroll's Through the Looking Glass, who had to run faster
and faster to stay in the same place.

"Any time you delay viral resistance, it just takes a few years before the
viruses catch up," says Purdue University animal scientist William Muir.

Still, whether talking about cloning or transgenic engineering, researchers
fear we'll never be aware of all the risks. Some scientists worry about the
errors of ignorance, asking the wrong question or not asking the right one.
"We're ignorant of our ignorance," says Muir. "We don't even know what
questions to ask."

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