In the New Zealand media and social media people are talking about this genetically modified ‘Impossible Burger’. Except it’s not.
Sorry everyone, but it really isn’t genetically modified.
What was genetic engineered is a yeast that makes one of the ingredients used in the ‘Impossible Burger’.
It’s just a different way of making that ingredient. The ingredient is the same as in soy plants. All the ingredients in the burgers are the same as in ‘natural’ plants.*
A noisy few rush to declaim loudly everytime someone mentions genetic engineering or GMOs, calling to banish the use of a technique, rather than look at each application. Let’s look at this one.
A key part of what gives the burger it’s ‘meaty’ taste is a “blood” protein, leghaemoglobin. The one used is actually from soy plants, not animals. Like the similarly-named haemoglobin in our blood, it’s a protein that tightly binds an iron atom to carry the oxygen around. Haemoglobins are a part of blood, and make the patty taste like we’d expect meat to.
(Plants don’t have blood, but evolution re-uses similar proteins in other forms of life, re-using the detailed molecular job they do—in this case, carting oxygen about. They’re structurally very similar, and, apparently smell and taste similar, too.)
The yeast have been made to biosynthetise the protein by adding a gene for the leghaemoglobin to them. The leghaemoglobin protein made by the yeast is identical to what is found in soy plants.
You could try to extract it from soy plants. Or you could get yeast to make the protein you’re wanting directly, more efficiently. In both cases, the protein is exactly the same. The burger isn’t any different.
It’s not the burger that has been genetically modified, or anything in it: it’s the yeast that makes one of the ingredients that is. (The yeast is not in the burger, only the protein it produces. The protein is identical to the ‘natural’ one.)
This is basically the same as to how insulin is made. Diabetics take insulin to control the levels of sugar in their blood. Insulin was once made by extracting it from pancreases of cattle or pigs. Forty years ago scientists first made insulin from bacteria with a gene for insulin grafted into them. Since then biosynthesis using either bacteria or yeast has been commercialised, and is used worldwide by countless people.**
Making medicines, vitamins, supplements, and other products are valuable applications of genetic engineering. Well-established examples include insulin, human growth hormone, vaccines, supplements (e.g. tryptophan), rennin (used in cheese making) and biofuels. There are many, many other examples under development.
There are wider-still applications. Some of these have great potential. Things like modified biomolecules as nano-engineering scaffolds, biomining (extracting minerals), and mopping up or breaking down waste.
It’s not just bacteria or yeast. We can biosynthesise things using plants and animals, too. There’s research to develop plants that make medicines, or supplements. There is modified milk to reduce allergies, to give an example related to New Zealand.
One problem with people opposing genetic engineering is that they take concerns about ‘possible’, maybe-one-day things then ask to ban all use of genetic engineering in-the-field at a stroke.
There is a very wide range of applications for genetic engineering. Just within plants, there’s resistance to disease, drought, frost, making supplements (vitamin A, calcium), onions that don’t make you cry (developed in NZ), preventing browning in fruits, and a whole raft of others.
A key thing is that they’re all very different! You can’t really talk about them in a general, sweeping way.
Any ‘possible’ risks are with the new plant or animal variety, not the techniques used to make the variety and that particular application. (GMOs are not completely ‘new organisms’, but are new varieties of existing organisms; they’re almost entirely the same as the ‘parent’ organism with one or two of the tens of thousands of genes in them altered, added, or removed.)
If anything, calls for blanket bans are getting distracted away from risks. They’re ideological objections when you strip away the science facade often placed on the objections.***
Rather than throw all the good applications out for the sake of hypothetical worries, why not consider what applications are acceptable?
It’s not helped by a few irresponsible groups (that seem to like attention) encouraging ‘banning’ all of them, throwing out the many good applications. Ironically, they often end up at odds with their own aims of a more environmentally-friendly world. (Greenpeace, for example.)
Late last year I wrote a brief list of points about genetically-modified plants, as starters for discussion. It’s worth just laying down what is actually there, rather than the excitable noise, and thinking about it.
Impossible Foods is not the only company making meat substitutes. Another is Beyond Meat. They’re unlikely to be the only or last. It’s a market NZ could contribute to and benefit from if we weren’t hampered by unnecessarily restrictive GM laws.
Similarly, we could be getting on making and using with the many beneficial GM crops and animals if we could throw off this distracting focus on ‘what if’, ‘maybe one day’ concerns and look at each application. They’re all different. It’s a crying shame to be throwing all these good applications for no sound reason.
Other articles on Code for life
Read more about GMOs on Sciblogs.
Kumara are transgenic (Transgenes occur in nature too.)
Genetic modification now accepted by most New Zealanders (A survey indicates New Zealanders now accept GM food as safe.)
GMOs and the plants we eat: neither are “natural” (An essay on food.)
Green Party GM policy and discussion about GE or GMOs (The Green Party should revise their stance on GM.)
In a demon-haunted world (Not about GM, but unfortunately relevant as GMOs are being demonised by many. A tribute to Sagan, sorely needed in these times.)
Christmas trees weedy and not (The proposed project that the court case shut down – despite EPA approval, and that it didn’t involve introducing new genes. Wilding pines are a curse in New Zealand.)
Carrots for my neighbour (A short story of sorts.)
New Zealand political spokesperson for GE and more endorses homeopathy for Ebola (What can we say? Some people are… interesting. He re-asserted this claim in his valedictory speech, flipping on what he said at the time.)
Changing the GMO regulations – the ministry options (The options that set the current legislation.)
Gene editing and GMOs in NZ, part one (A short series; parts two and three are linked at the start.)
GMOs and legislation: useful suggestions for New Zealand in British report (A summary of a large UK report. Not a short or light read!)
The House of Commons Science and Technology Committee on GMO legislation (Lighter take on the previous article.)
* The crops we use aren’t really ‘natural’ as we’ve so extensively selected, breed, and modified them (by all sorts of techniques). See GMOs and the plants we eat: neither are “natural” from the list of further reading above.
** Incidentally, the first protein amino acid sequence to be worked out was insulin by Frederick Sanger. I wrote about his work that brought on modern molecular biology in 2013.
**** Older ways of making new varieties can make new varieties that are potentially less-than-ideal too, but they’re explicitly approved by fiat—even though those some of the techniques actually are much more prone to making unintended changes some people worry about. The new techniques reduce that risk.
One thing I think that needs some education is a disconnect in most of the public’s view of what it means to transfer a gene between species, and what it actually means. One of these days I must get to writing about this; I’ve been saying this far too long! It’s a central and deep cultural meme that’s behind some of the protesting, one that needs unpacking, one that we’d do well (worldwide) to move on from.
About the featured image
An early sample of the ‘Impossible Burger’. Source wikipedia, Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license.