Genetic engineering stuck in the Dark Ages of science

50 years after the discovery of the double helix, why are genetic engineers clinging to old science?

Feature story - 22 April, 2003
Fifty years ago, in 1953, the structure of DNA was discovered and hailed as the "secret of life". A complete understanding of living organisms seemed to be certain. However, fundamental questions regarding how DNA and genes actually work remained unanswered. Genetic engineering (GE), at its roots, is based on an over-simplistic theory from the 1950s. Modern science has since shown gene expression to be far more complex than imagined.

Still living on a flat Earth

The technology and tools to insert genes from different species in a crude, random and often forcible manner into the genomes of organisms were developed in the 1970s and 1980s and termed "genetic engineering". Genetic engineering was called a "life" science; it was the technology to design and shape living organisms.

Our current genetic engineering industry is based on a 50 year old understanding of molecular biology: that a gene is unaffected by its local surroundings on the genome. The outcome of transferring a gene from one organism to another is thought to be specific and predictable. However, this is now regarded by most scientists as an over-simplified theory.

Gene expression is now understood to be regulated by a complex cellular network. Gene expression is the result of many reactions and interactions between elements such as proteins and RNA. The significance of these interactions is increasingly being recognised, but remains far from being fully understood.

This scientific reality is being ignored by GE companies like Monsanto, Bayer and Syngenta. Short-term, economic interests keep these companies holding on to an old-fashioned and outdated scientific understanding that no longer has a sound scientific basis. This behaviour becomes reckless when these companies release their genetic experiments into the environment and hide it in our food.

Some GE crops such as soya and maize, have been commercialised and deliberately released into the environment and food chain in the last few years.

Surprising and unpredictable effects have occurred in these crops. In one example, GE Roundup Ready soya plants unexpectedly split their stems in high temperatures, probably because of a higher amount of lignin.

GE companies regard such unexpected effects as technical problems to be overcome by more research or adapted technologies. However, these unforeseen effects may be due to a more fundamental reason, that the basis of GE is invalid. Recent science has shown that the expression of genes in the DNA of cells is not nearly as simple and not as fully understood as the GE industry would like us to believe.

Learn more:

Chronology of Scientific and Genetic Engineering Developments since 1953 (pdf factsheet)

50 Years Since the Double Helix (pdf factsheet)

Illustrating the Problems of Genetic Engineering (pdf)