By Prof. Jack Heinemann*
Part 1: While appearing to take concerns seriously, the promotion of cisgenics and intragenics by New Zealand science companies risks further public alienation.
The debate on the safety and appropriateness of using genetically engineered/modified (GE) plants and animals for food or animal feed is frequently manipulated through semantics. Language and not substance has been used to overstate hazards and also to obscure the search for them.
Currently, there is a campaign in New Zealand to redefine aspects of genetic engineering which, in my opinion as a geneticist and genetic engineer, could undermine regulators while patronising and further alienating the public, and has no clear rationale for improving risk assessment.
The new language in vogue among technologists could result in less regulation over the use of genetically modified organisms (GMOs). The terms cisgenics and intragenics are proposed to replace the term transgenics for describing some GE products. The ’cis’ and ’intra’ are meant to convey that the origins of the building blocks of genes that are being manipulated are from the same ’species’, perhaps even the same genome into which they will be again inserted. Transgenics is a term they reserve for products using genes from different species. Since advocates of such language have come to personal conclusions that there is no particular hazard arising from using the techniques of modern biotechnology to insert and delete genes, they perceive that the use of genes from closely related organisms would eliminate most of the risks special to GMOs.
This perspective is described by some commentators using a book metaphor, where cis/intragenics is the recycling of words from the same book, and transgenics is the importation of words from a newspaper into a book (Hanley, 2008). This informational metaphor can be tested by anyone in their own home. Take your favourite book and excise any arbitrarily long string of letters (start and end within words or between them, as you like) and then reinsert them into the text at random anywhere in the book. Now source your letter string from a newspaper. Do the two products look any more similar, or inserts have less effect on the flow and grammar, depending on the source of the string (Table)?
Advocates of the new language include the Crown Research Institutes AgResearch and Plant and Food Research. These CRIs make GMOs with an intent to commercialise them, so reducing regulatory hurdles would clearly be in their commercial interests. Creating categories such as cisgenics would, they suggest, allow risk assessors and the public to relax about some products of genetic engineering because those products appear to be closer to plants and animals that humans have been breeding for thousands of years. As Dr. Tony Conner of Plant and Food Research has argued: ’In some instances it is now unclear whether these new techniques result in [GMOs] as defined in legislation.’
However, there is no question that these techniques result in the creation of GMOs. The international consensus definitions of genetic engineering (a kind of ’modern biotechnology’) makes no distinction between cis/intra/transgenics and for good reasons. Our regulators and others from countries that are parties to the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety are bound by the international definitions. A genetically engineered organism is, or is related by descent to, an organism that contains nucleic acids (e.g. DNA, RNA) that have been released from their natural physiological conditions into a test tube and then forced in some way back into a cell or virus. The point is that these genes are taken out of a cellular context and inserted back, not that they derive from a particular genome. It is this process and the products of which that define the risk issues that are to be assessed on a case-by-case basis. To not acknowledge this is to make a statement contrary to agreed case-by-case evaluation and to potentially miss important possible hazards.
Table: how similar do source strings need to be in order to have no informational effect?
cis/intragenic change (from newspaper articles)
|The Irish Stammerers’ Association will hold a seminar will hold a seminar entitled ‘Aids for Stammerers’ tonight.||duplication of 100% identical information from same text|
|The skeleton was believed to be that of a Saxon worrier.||importation from closely related species (98.2% perfect identity over 56 characters)|
|The authorities at Ongar library have received a number of complaints about a card in the index file which read:
SEX: SEE LIBRARIAN.
The new entry reads: SEX: FOR SEX, ASK AT THE DESK.
source: The Daily Mail
Word games will undermine public trust in the technology community
Issues of concern to both the general public and members of the specialist scientific community are expressed using words. However, we don’t all have the same vocabulary, especially the same jargon, to describe the issues that trouble us. When describing what might concern them, non-specialists will use common words to articulate concepts that a scientist would associate with a more specific term. For example, the common term ’species’ may be used and understood even though there is no single overall guiding concept in biology as to what it means. Depending on the specialty of the biologists, or when they last thought seriously about species definitions, they will have different views about the relevance and meaning of the term species. Nevertheless, non-specialists and specialists alike may not have a better technical word to get across a risk concept. Under such circumstances, there is an additional responsibility to be exercised from a truly caring specialist community to not exploit technical loopholes in the language, and risk being seen as just manipulating the non-specialists’ concerns.
Some in the specialist community argue that the use of the terms cis/intragenics would allay perceptions that products of genetic engineering were unsafe among those who hold to particular views on the natural order of species. Let me emphasise that members of the specialist community, along with members of the general public, have concerns about how we assess the safety of GMOs intended to be used as food or released into the environment regardless of the source of the manipulated nucleic acids. I also think that many scientists and civil society leaders (which get lumped together with references to ’the general public’ or ’activists’) have concerns that are not restricted to their beliefs on what a species is and they do not formulate their concerns in terms of a presupposed natural order of species. Finally, among those who may use such words to express their concerns, there are many that I know that say this because they are using non-specialist language.
Failing to take seriously the legitimate concerns of the public and some members of the specialist community by spinning how they express their concerns will backfire (de Cock Buning et al., 2006). A patronised public is slow to forgive when they realise that they have been played.
If one has already formed the view that all products of genetic engineering are safe, then the rationale of the cis/intragenic language is meant to (cynically) manipulate the view of others. If one has formed the view that it is reasonable to test the safety of all products of genetic engineering, keeping to a case-by-case framework, then there is no need for this language. If one has formed the view that all GMOs will be harmful, then this language is unlikely to be persuasive.
In the next instalment, I’ll discuss why I think cis/intragenics does not have a firm research basis for its claims.
De Cock Buning, T., Lammerts van Bueren, E. T., Haring, M. A., de Vriend, H. C. and Stuik, P. C. (2006). ‘Cisgenic’ as a product designation. Nat. Biotechnol. 24, 1329-1331.
Hanley, Z. Pastoral Genomics: GM approaches without GM outcomes. Date of Access: 6 December 2009
* Professor Jack Heinemann, College of Science (Biological Sciences), University of Canterbury