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Despite genetically modified crops being extremely common, especially in the United States, there is still a lot we do not know about them. Pushed to the market without proper research, testing, and oversight, it is only a matter of time before we uncover the darker side of these scientific concoctions, a discovery that could shake the world’s confidence in the safety and integrity of GMOs as a food source. In fact, it might have already happened. The European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) recently found that the most common gene sequences used in genetically modified organisms also code for part of a viral gene, according to a recent scientific study published in notable journal Landes Bioscience. Further research into the virus, the gene for which is called Gene VI, indicates that it might be dangerous both for humans to consume foods containing the viral gene and for surrounding crops in areas where the GMOs are grown.
What is Gene VI?
Gene VI is a viral gene that has a number of roles in the process of a viral infection cycle. Although it is a plant gene, most plant proteins can affect mammals and other humans in similar ways. We know that Gene VI suppresses the body’s immune system on a cellular level through targeting a mechanism known as RNA silencing, which makes it harder for the body to react to pathogens such as bacteria and viruses. This makes it easier in general for an affected individual to get sick, as there are fewer antiviral defenses in place to prevent and fight illness.
We also know that Gene VI activates the production of new proteins in plant cells, which might lead to the production of allergens or toxins in plants that normally are nontoxic and rarely allergenic. Because this protein activation is unpredictable and largely random, it can be impossible to tell how each species will react, and there are many species of food crops that are potentially affected.
Plants that have Gene VI intentionally added to their genotype express a yellow color, deformed growth, and are infertile or have abnormal fertility. All genes have to produce specific proteins in order to have an effect on the individual carrying them, and research has shown that plants that specifically have been engineered to produce the Gene VI proteins have all of the negative aspects associated with the gene. While the crops that EFSA identified as afflicted only carry a portion of the gene, we don’t know whether that portion can produce the same abnormal proteins, and until we know for sure, it’s a legitimate concern that our GMO foods are expressing potentially dangerous viral proteins.
Finally, we don’t know whether Gene VI is a human toxin, but we know that it is a harmful toxin to plants. Plant viruses often affect humans in a similar way, so we know that it’s possible that Gene VI is a toxin to humans. Without further research, it’s impossible to say that Gene VI is not a threat, yet there hasn’t been a recall of the food products that have been engineered to contain portions of the gene.
How Does This Affect Consumers?
There are eighty-six different sets of DNA that are used commercially in GMO foods, and of those, fifty-four sets contained Gene VI in some form. The most common foods containing the viral gene include strains of cauliflower, soybeans, and corn, although there are many more that may contain it. Most foods that are affected contain the final third of the DNA sequence for Gene VI, which is the portion that researchers believe produces most of the active, negative effects. Because the EFSA has not been regulating GMO foods for viral genes up to this point, there has been no research and no way to tell scientifically whether any harm has been done, or on what scale consumers have been affected.
What may be most worrisome is that GMO foods have been on the market for over twenty years at this point. No one knows for sure how long Gene VI has been unintentionally on the market alongside (or rather, inside) these products. For now, the safest course of action for anyone concerned is to avoid GMO foods, as the majority are potentially affected. This may mean shopping in farmer’s markets or growing produce at home, as GMO foods aren’t always marked as such.
What Does It Mean For Genetically Modified Organisms?
In light of the Gene VI controversy, the general public now knows that there have been significant failures in assessing risks when it comes to marketing GMO foods to the public as a safe food source. Regulators have allowed the public to believe that GMO foods are independently screened for basic threats to safety, when in reality, an issue as basic and potentially dangerous as a viral gene has slipped through the cracks all along.
Interestingly, scientists have known that Gene VI exists for much longer than genetically modified foods have been around. This makes it even stranger that regulators failed to note its presence in GMO foods for so long – it would be more understandable if it was a new discovery and therefore hard to recognize. The scientific literature documenting Gene VI is extensive, and there’s no doubt that those responsible for regulation had the resources to identify it long before now.
Additionally, the possibility of gene overlapping is basic to the field of genetics, and any scientist should have recognized the possibility of splicing in a gene that wasn’t originally intended. Plenty of DNA sequences overlap each other, and with the best care, it’s still possible that the outcome will be an unintended gene sequence – which is what happened when bioengineers accidentally spliced portions of Gene VI into the DNA sequences of numerous GMO crops. It’s hard to know which is more frightening: that the researchers didn’t anticipate this as a byproduct of genetically modifying organisms, or that there was no system in place to assess risks properly and identify viral genes that end up where they shouldn’t be.
This isn’t the first time that genetically modified DNA sequences have ended up with genes that weren’t considered in the risk assessment originally. In the past, the figwort mosaic virus FMV has gone out in commercial GMOs without being recognized first. Similarly, the NewLeaf Plus potato strain contains almost the entire sequence for the potato leaf roll viral gene, although this variety never went to sale because of a lack of demand. If it had gone to sale, though, the gene would have gone into the market without being addressed first, as it was only identified after the United States had already approved it for sale.
In many ways, biotech and bioengineering are still fields that are largely experimental, even though their products are marketed as complete, safe, and precise in every way. Without public approval, GMO foods have no market – but to gain public approval, regulators have to present themselves as much more sure than they actually are. This reinforces a public need for labeling of GMO foods so that consumers who don’t want to consume them can avoid them, and consumers who are open to the risk are explicitly informed. The situation that Gene VI has brought upon the GMO crops industry is damaging at best to the reputation of biotech, and we can only hope that the government recognizes the need to issue a recall.