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Wheat: The Next Genetically-Modified Food Staple

Genetically modified, or GM foods, are foods from crops that have been subjected to some type of genetic engineering. This means that there has been some kind of change to the DNA in the cells of the plant. Being able to modify the DNA of an organism allows scientists and food manufacturers to make very precise changes to the plant. The purpose may be to change the ripening time of a fruit, to engineer in resistance to a disease or pest, to produce more nutrients, or to speed up the growing time. All of these things can be altered by manipulating the genetic material of a plant.

The first genetically engineered plant was a tobacco plant created in 1983 to have a resistance to antibiotics. The first GM food to be approved by the FDA and sold in the U.S. was Calgene’s Flavr Savr tomato. The modification made to the tomato was to delay its ripening, so that it could be picked when green and then transported before ripening and turning bad.

The benefits of these altered foods sound great, but there is a downside. Regulation of GM foods is minimal, labeling is not required, and these foods are too new to really understand the effects they will have on humans and the world at large. Very recently, the negative health effects of GM wheat have come to light with some very disturbing findings.

A recent report released by John Heinemann, molecular biologist at the University of Canterbury in Australia details the potential hazards of GM wheat. At the moment, GM wheat is not yet in our food supply. Others are such as GM corn, soy, and canola, making up to as much as 90 percent of the total. Heinemann and others are calling for rigorous safety testing on animals before GM wheat becomes yet another staple in our food supply.

Glycogen Storage Disease IV

The concern over GM wheat is that it may cause a disease called Glycogen Storage Disease IV in those who consume it. This is a rare hereditary disease. Infants who are born with this illness rarely live past the age of five. There are several different types of glycogen storage diseases, or GSDs, all characterized by defects in the way glycogen is stored in the liver. Glycogen is a long, branched chain of smaller glucose, or sugar, molecules. When we have excess glucose in the bloodstream, it is stored in this long chain in the liver. When needed for energy, the glycogen is broken down and more glucose enters the blood.

The different types of GSD cause different symptoms and some are severe, while others can be managed. GSD IV, also called glycogen branching enzyme deficiency or Andersen’s disease, is severe and results from an inherited mutation in a gene called GBE1. This gene is responsible for producing the glycogen branching enzyme, which creates branches in the glycogen molecules in the liver. Without the branching, glycogen simply forms one long chain of glucose molecules. The branching is important because it allows for the large glycogen molecules to be stored more efficiently and it helps make the process of breaking glycogen down into glucose happen more quickly. Without branching, glycogen can accumulate in places where it should not.

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Young children and infants with GSD IV can be treated according to their individual symptoms and a liver transplant may be attempted, but the prognosis is not good. The life expectancy for a child with this disease is only five years.

GM Wheat And Glycogen Storage Disease IV

The type of genetic modification of wheat that is now in question is rare. CSIRO, the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization of Australia, is the research institute performing this work. They are using a type of RNA (a molecule that provides the code for creating proteins and enzymes in cells), called regulatory RNA, within wheat to turn off certain genes in the plant’s DNA. Because this is a rare way of modifying crops, little research has been conducted regarding its safety and effects on those consuming the food. That RNA can be used to regulate genes in DNA is in itself a new discovery.

In the GM wheat research, scientists are using these RNA molecules to turn off, or silence, certain genes. They are silencing the genes in wheat that create the glycogen branching enzyme in order to create a food that has a lower glycemic index. The overall objective is to create wheat that is better for people in that it will not cause the detrimental spike in blood sugar that high-glycemic foods create. The concern here is clear: if the wheat contains this RNA molecule that suppresses the enzyme in the plant, could it do the same in the people that eat it?

This is what Dr. Heinemann would like to see answered. According to him, the risk is too great to simply introduce this GM wheat into the food supply without first doing animal trials. He sees evidence that the transfer of the RNA from the wheat to the animal consuming it is possible. Previous studies, referenced in the report, have shown that plant-derived RNA has been found in human blood. This means that the molecule can remain intact through the digestion process. Furthermore, the same study found that this RNA can turn off a human gene in cell cultures. Whether the same will happen in a living human remains to be seen, but clearly the evidence indicates that it is possible.

CSIRO is planning to introduce the GM wheat into fields in Australia, but Dr. Heinemann and others urge more testing and real trials in live animals before doing so. Wheat is a staple of diets throughout the world and provides many people with a large amount of daily calories. Australia is responsible for three percent of the wheat produced in the world every year and exports 11 percent of its own production each year. Changes, possibly detrimental and tragic, to wheat in Australia will have effects on the whole world.

If the RNA from GM wheat can be transferred intact from plant to human, then there is a very real possibility that when this wheat is introduced into the marketplace, liver disease will be on the rise. With the RNA sequence silencing the same gene that is at the heart of the devastating illness glycogen storage disease IV, it stands to reason that this wheat has the potential to wreck lives by causing liver disease and maybe even death if the effects cannot be reversed.

Since Dr. Heinemann has spoken up regarding the issue of GM wheat and its potential dangers, others have added their voices. Dr. Carman of Flinders University, a biochemist agrees with his findings. So does Michael Antoniou, molecular geneticist at King’s College, London. He believes that the question is not if this wheat will affect human genetics, it is to what extent. These experts in the area of chemistry, molecular biology, and genetics are concerned and highly critical of CSIRO and Australian regulators, such as the Food Standards Australia New Zealand for being uninformed about the latest RNA research and for potentially endangering us all by letting this wheat into the fields.

Dr. Heinemann’s and the other professor’s research into the issue of GM wheat were encouraged by the Australian non-profit, Safe Food Foundation, which strives for high quality of research in food safety. Based on the results, Safe Food is strongly calling upon CSIRO to release all findings of their research and to stop field trials until the wheat can be tested more thoroughly. As more and more genetically modified food sneaks its way into our food supply, it becomes important for consumers to be.

©2012 Off the Grid News

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