Are some scientists just taking the cis out of genetic engineering? Pt I

By Guest Author 11/02/2010


cornBy 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:


The new entry reads: SEX: FOR SEX, ASK AT THE DESK.

just funny

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

0 Responses to “Are some scientists just taking the cis out of genetic engineering? Pt I”

  • I’d be cautious before accepting the opinions put forward by Prof. Jack Heinemann as being accurate descriptions what his opponents think.Listen to them to find out this withot added spin, and expecially listen to Dr Fedoroff who is far more expert , and indeed famous, from her scientific track record on plant genetics and the natural behaviour of plant genes that mimics genetic engineering than even Prof Heinemann. That why she currently advised Hillary Clinton.

    These are many genetic events in exising plant evolution that pose potential risks similar to human genetic engineering. These risks are present in conventional food, and they are much more frequent that the events of GM.

    When two grass species hybridise there are two completly new sets of genes bought together and numerous natural, random reaarragements of those genes occur subsequent to the hydridisation event. This is well documented to have occured in wheat for instance, which is a hybrid derived from three distinct grass species arising quite recently in evolutionary times. These rearragements involve random movements of virus-like DNAs, (famously studied by Dr Fedoroff and her co-workers) which create numerous novel genetic structure. The hybrid will contain chromosomes with structures that have never resided together before in the same cell, not least because they will have had a history of exposure to natural radiation that scrambles DNA structure in ways that are MORE radical than genetic engineering. If this contribution were a scientic discussion, this contrary part of the argument about risks of GM should have been included.

    Introduction of genes from other species occurs often in nature, and is not confined to grass hybridisation just mentioned. Prof Heinemann has contributed to books that describe it, but doesnt mention this other part of the story. Viruses are one example of this. In forrests, epiphytes exchange genes with the trees they grow on, even if they are commpletely unrelated.

    The basic message from science is that natural genetic changes pose similar risks to laboratory genetic engineering, they are more frequent and numerous than artificial transgenes, but they are far less regulated by governments.

    The other question that has to be posed is: are the delays imposed on better crop breeding by Prof Heinemann causing more harm than will ever occur from GM crops?

    I think they have already, as shown by the ban the has just been placed on GM insect-protected eggplant in India– which could greatly reduce pesticide use NOW. This ban was partly at the instigation of Prof Heinemam. Thus poor India farmers will continue to spray pesticides because of him. We should thus discuss the harms caused by unneeded bans on new-crops instigated by Professor Heineman. GM bans and actiivist-instigated delays have arguably caused even more harm caused by delays to vitamin A rich rice (Golden Rice), which have lead most likely to 100, 000s of deaths. Vitamin A deficiency caused millions of deaths due to infectious disease as vit A is need by the immune system. Por rice growing families tend to have poor diets. This vitamin enriched rice is an example of a new crop that is free from the patent encumbraces Prof Heinemann is concerned about, and is to be free to poor farmers but was still the target of anti-GM action. Why?

    The anti-business rhetoric of Prof Heinemann provides part of an explanation. The anti-GM movement is mostly not about science, but politics, largely reflexive left-wing politics, and it would be better for discussion to separate the political opinions and ideology from biology, as the politics is highly contentious. Similar mixture of politics and biology caused enormous harm in the former-Soviet Union. There, this confusion of biology and polotical ideology led to banning of modern genetics in the 1950s during the infamous Lysenko Affair, setting back Soviet farming. Professor Heinmenn’s mix of politics and genetics is following this same harmful tradition. This all should be discussed. Those who forget history are condemned to repeat it.

  • informedobservers
    In reply to assertions about the quantitative differences of breeding/radiation versus genetic engineering, could you please present qualified peer-reviewed studies? My blog makes clear who I am and the references I cite allow readers to track the source of my statements. As I said in my post, few studies have ever attempted to measure this hypothesis. The ones that have are not amenable to meta analysis because of fundamental differences in methodology and scope. Just point us to the data rather than asking us to blindly believe in your anonymous authority.

    And make the data more recent than my 2007 review of the literature on this topic please.

    In reply to gene transfer in nature, of course I am aware of this and such processes are the primary focus of my research. Your attempt to equate these processes with genetic engineering fails in my view, since they share no biochemical similarities or evolutionary histories. This would be like saying that since both automobiles and asteroids can cause damage on impact we shouldn’t have speed limits.

    I have several replies to your assertion that 1) I have instigated bans on GM products and 2) this has resulted in harm. First, once again, you make assertions without evidence of cause and effect. It is true that I was one of a number of submitters to both the Indian regulator GEAC and subsequently to the Minister of the Environment, by his unsolicited invitation. I would be curious to know if your group would have come to different assessments of the scientific studies I viewed, even if you were to ultimately come to different conclusions than the Minister? Have you read either the original data or the analysis by all the submitters? Your comments do not suggest that have any familiarity with my submissions.

    Second, you seem to imply that the Minister was incapable of understanding the scientific advice that he received. This Minister does not impress me as someone who fails to do his homework. He appears to be on top of both the science and the social implications of his decision. He collected advice from his regulator, GEAC, and openly invited it from all sources. You could have made a submission to him. Perhaps you did? Your comments on this matter are an absurd attempt at character assassination and lack substance.

    Third, what evidence do you have to suggest so unequivocally that insecticide use would significantly decline with the introduction of Bt brinjal? To date, the maximum reduction in insecticide use comes from the adoption of Bt cotton rather than other crops such as maize (Marvier et al., 2007). As has been pointed out by others, the data from estimates of chemical insecticide reductions observed (so far) in US cotton plantations are often extrapolated misleadingly to other crops and countries. To date, I have not seen evidence of sustained reductions in other cropping systems and places, and this observation is backed by solid peer-review (IAASTD, 2009). Year to year and location to location variation exists and at times and places such benefits have been seen. But there isn’t solid evidence for such benefits being reliable or sustainable (IAASTD, 2009). How did you arrive at the suggestion that there would be a substantial reduction in other kinds of insecticides (besides the toxin produced by the Bt brinjal itself) with the introduction of Bt brinjal? Show us the evidence.

    Finally, in your comments on ‘golden’ (beta-carotene) rice you fail to mention that a recognised barrier to its availability was the long delay in reaching an accord with the some 32 different patent holders of the estimated 40-70 different patents on the product (Graff et al., 2003, Herdt, 2006, Toenniessen, 2000). You fast forward to nearly a decade later, when this has apparently been resolved for intended releases in developing countries. All that squabbling well before any safety regulators have caused ‘golden’ rice any trouble. In fact, I am unaware of any competent authority having received an application for the release of this product to date. What is the evidence that it is being gratuitously held up by safety regulations? In any case, what evidence do you have that the existing barriers to a diet sufficient in vitamin A would be overcome by ‘golden’ rice? The world currently makes more food than necessary and has the ability to make more vitamin A than necessary. So will all important causes of vitamin A maldistribution be solved by this product? How? Once again, I see no evidence linking my call for proper and rigorous testing to your asserted hypothetical harms.

    Graff, G. D., Cullen, S. E., Bradford, K. J., Zilberman, D. and Bennett, A. B. (2003). The public-private structure of intellectual property ownership in agricultural biotechnology. Nat. Biotechnol. 21, 989-995.
    Herdt, R. W. (2006). Biotechnology in agriculture. Annu. Rev. Environ. Resour. 31, 265-295.
    IAASTD, ed. (2009). International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology for Development (Washington, D.C., Island Press).
    Marvier, M., McCreedy, C., Regetz, J. and Kareiva, P. (2007). A meta-analysis of effects of Bt cotton and maize on nontarget invertebrates. Science 316, 1475-1477.
    Toenniessen, G. H. (2000). Vitamin A Deficiency and Golden Rice: The Role of the Rockefeller Foundation. Rockefeller Foundation.

  • This article is very interesting, and professor I would like it if I could call you some time for an interview for my senior paper. It is on Genetic Engineering I would appreciate it very much if you would do that for me. . . . . . Thank you

  • Sorry Lacey, I assumed that you were in New Zealand. The full number is +64 3 364 2500, with 64 being the country code and 3 the area code. I can be reached most weekdays between 9 and 5 local time. Leave a message with the secretary if you’d like me to ring back, or send me an email. My address is on the University of Canterbury site.