Do Lawyers Dream of Shocking Sensitivity?
by Guest Blogger,
Tyler Kokjohn, Ph.D.
Scientists are developing sensitive devices to reveal DNA or proteins from genetically engineered organisms in complex environmental samples (1). This technology may give investigators an unprecedented ability to track engineered genes and their protein products through ecosystems. Genetically modified (GM) Bt-corn plants express toxin genes originating from the bacterium Bacillus thuringiensis that kill certain insect pests. Although widely adopted, assessing the environmental effects of Bt-corn agriculture has been challenging. An ability to trail toxin genes and proteins flowing through the environment might help ecologists detect any consequential impacts linked with Bt-corn farming. Because the new genetically engineered product detection devices will be adaptable to many situations, they might become a standard part of both risk assessment and compliance assurance processes.
The management of GM farming operations can be complicated undertakings demanding proactive actions to minimize the unintentional dispersal of modified plants or their products such as pollen (2). Despite the efforts, GM farms and ‘organic’ food growers sometimes coexist under tense conditions. Concerns over spreading GM materials have already induced neighboring organic food producers to launch lawsuits alleging economic losses due to contamination (2). The deployment of new, highly sensitive detection tools could turn out to be a double-edged sword that renews concerns over product purity. Let’s assume the new detection systems reach the scientist’s stated goal of revealing 3 copies of a specific target DNA molecule in a one milliliter liquid sample (1). Would finding that level of GM DNA in or on a certified organic food item mean it is impure? The problem may be that highly sensitive analysis methods might reveal GM materials are widely dispersed in our environment in places we never dreamed they would be and do not want them.
The emerging situation might be similar to what we face with radioactivity. Consumers would reasonably reject food products they knew to be radioactive. It might seem to be a simple matter to issue regulations forbidding the sale of all radioactive foods. The problem is that if the appropriate detection tools are sensitive enough they will reveal that all food items are slightly radioactive due to the universal, low-level presence of carbon-14. That forces regulators addressing such issues to craft rules with care and precision.
It will be scientifically important to use new, sensitive detection tools to confirm how far things like Bt toxins are now flowing quietly through our environment and establish valid thresholds to justify any future actions taken to protect ecosystems. However, it will be interesting to see what happens if someone tests their free range chicken and finds Bt toxin DNA all over it. Notwithstanding legal judgements regarding the safety of GM products, consumer concerns or outright refusal to purchase items they deem contaminated could create economic havoc for organic food producers.
GM foods have a contentious history and a sensitive new analytic technology is now advancing rapidly in a regulatory vacuum. This might turn out to be a lawyer’s dream come true.