Wednesday, October 3, 2012

GMO Lab Rats

I personally hate working with animals in the laboratory. They take up lots of room, are messy, and they smell; though not as bad as some anaerobe cultures. In order to get reasonable data from a study that utilizes animals one must use dozens, and their care and maintenance pushes other productive studies out of the lab. I personally avoid using animals in the lab wherever possible, and that has thankfully been possible most of the time.

Some people use primates. Laboratory monkeys have a habit of throwing fecal material at people. I’ve never worked with monkeys, but I cannot picture working with them making Monday a more pleasant day of the week.

The iconic laboratory rat is a creature inbred for generations upon generations that usually self destructs around its second birthday. I am not a big fan of the Laboratory rat, and by the fact that many of them have tried to bite me while I’ve held them down I am lead to believe that they are not too fond of me.

It is not uncommon to look at a colony of specially inbred mice and see one missing a limb. “This strain sometimes eats one of their legs off” I have been informed. Conversely once a lab worker who started a colony from a control group of mice to feed her snakes showed me her colony, and in it I observed some tiny disembodied limbs. I was told that: “If I don’t get to the babies soon enough Mom sometimes eats them”. Mice are simply horrid.

The worst thing about working with animals is that I don’t like the way the data looks from studies involving them. Luckily I have not had to use animals or work with anyone using them for several years. I do not look forward to ever using them again.

In addition to the worthiness of animals as test subjects they are actual feeling creatures. Viewing them in the dispassionate way that I dispatch cultures containing billions of microbes is not a humane option. I do not think it is psychologically responsible to ignore the action of causing discomfort, pain, or death in another feeling creature.

With that in mind I also dislike being bombarded with papers describing this or that animal study. Over the past couple of weeks a dozen or so people have sent me questions regarding the same animal study paper:

Food Chem Toxicol. 2012 Sep 11. pii: S0278-6915(12)00563-7. doi: 10.1016/j.fct.2012.08.005.
Long term toxicity of a Roundup herbicide and a Roundup-tolerant genetically modified maize.
Séralini GE, Clair E, Mesnage R, Gress S, Defarge N, Malatesta M, Hennequin D, de Vendômois JS.

Most of the references have only included some words like: “Scientists prove GMO food causes cancer”. Luckily it was not too difficult to track down which scientists and how they proved the cancer link. It was not too difficult because so many news outlets are talking about this study; crosswalk a couple and one can reproduce enough information to look up the paper using an abstract service like PubMed. It was made even easier because of all the papers studying GMOs fed to laboratory animals there was only one that found such a link.

The study is interesting because it not only addresses GMO corn but the process of taking advantage of the GMO gene this particular corn (NK603) had. NK603 is a RoundUp (a herbicide) resistant corn; to make it worthwhile to grow it one has to use RoundUp. It has long been suspected that dousing foodstuff with increased amounts of herbicide might be bad for people who later ate the foodstuff. This study examined this possible issue with surprising results.

"All Natural" corn

The study reports a 200% to 300% increase in tumors as well as other problems in rats fed diets with NK603 grown with RoundUp, and rats fed diets with NK603 grown without RoundUp, and rats fed a diet without NK603 that was simply dosed with RoundUp. There were a variety of ailments, and some occurred as much as 5.5 times as often in a particular test group. Interesting data.

Having roundup in a diet is therefore bad, but greatly overshadowed by the presence of the GMO gene. In other words there appears to be a specific protein that when present in food aggressively causes cancer, and we know what that protein is because it was specifically introduced. This is important information regardless of the link to GMO foodstuff.

The gene in question codes for the protein called 5-enolpyruvylshikimate-3-phosphate synthase (EPSPS). It is present in most plants and is a key enzyme in the biosynthesis of the aromatic amino acids phenylalanine, tyrosine and tryptophan. RoundUp (which is a tradename for Glyphosate or more specifically N-(phosphonomethyl)glycine) inhibits this enzyme so the plant cannot make these essential amino acids, and it dies. Many bacteria have the enzyme as well. In RoundUp-Ready GMO crops a version of this enzyme that is resistant to Roundup is transferred from a soil bacterium to a crop strain. Because it is a ubiquitous naturally-occurring enzyme if a randomly-selected version of it causes cancer it is reasonable to believe that there are cancer-causing versions of the enzyme in many non-GMO foods.

The discovery that there may be versions of EPSPS that cause cancer may be a major breakthrough in identifying an environmental cancer trigger, especially for vegetarians. The potential impact is far greater than simply identifying a problem with NK603.

High-profile research must pass through the uncomfortable but expected gauntlet of post-publication peer examination. Discrepancies and weaknesses in data are pointed out, and in high-profile studies like this one camps form that support or deride particular aspects of the study. More data is provided, and follow-up studies are designed and conducted. This is an essential element in the advancement of science, and it is an honor to be surfing a wave of attention to one’s work.

Unfortunately the French researchers who conducted this study have clamed up. The French parliament went so far as to state that they were in a position to ban the import of GMO corn if the study stood up to a standard level of examination. However Gilles-Eric Seralini responded at a press conference saying that "It's out of the question that those who authorised NK603 carry out a counter-study of our findings as there'd be a conflict of interest.". No data would be released, and no examination would be possible.

This leaves the examination of the study struggling to second guess the published data. Were the data real at all? Was there a flaw in the conducting of the experiment? Was there a problem with the design of the experiment?

What the general public should be concerned with is why these researchers should be so shy about a potential breakthrough in cancer research as to willingly appear to be narcissistically defending their narrow interpretation of the results. The idea that a researcher should be allowed to authorize the people who see their data on the basis of a potential bias is a troubling politicization of science. What are the motivations behind such secrecy? In light of this conspiracy-marinated-paranoia can we even treat this study as valid scientific inquiry?

Some high profile studies do not survive the process of post-publication examination. Just a couple years ago a new life form where arsenic replaced phosphorus was “discovered”. Upon examination this “discovery” was found to be the result of a series of unfortunate experimental issues. A retraction for the “discovery” was eventually circulated. Nobody envies the research team that ends up on the losing side of an examination, but they are awarded a certain amount of respect for supporting the process that is science.

Gilles-Eric Seralini and his team may be sitting on data that are embarrassingly less than perfect. After all they did use animals.

The specific animals Gilles-Eric Seralini’s team used were Sprauge-Dawley rats. These are albino mutants which sport such inbred deformities as no gall bladder, a left lung with only one lobe, and a right lung with four. They become sexually mature in a little over two months, and have been bred since 1925. So any rat you see may be the product of well over a thousand generations of genetic homology.

The Sprauge-Dawley Rat’s esophagus attaches to the stomach in such a mutant way that they are physically incapable of vomiting. Is this a good thing?

When they are stressed the Sprauge-Dawley rats produce a pigmented excretion from ducts around their albino-red eyes that looks like blood when it dries. These "tears of blood" glow under UV light.

The Sprauge-Dawley rats can live up to 3.5 years if coddled, but the average lifespan is closer to two. The Gilles-Eric Seralini team discovered most of the physiological effects of GMO corn in rats approaching two years of age.

Old Sprauge-Dawley rats get sick. They get awful-looking tumors. They get the diseases that Gilles-Eric Seralini’s team attribute to GMO corn. Differences in how they are kept or fed can increase the occurrence rate of many of these age-related diseases. The specific data are needed to determine if there are ancillary factors that accounted for the observed disease symptoms in Gilles-Eric Seralini’s data.

However, the reticence of Gilles-Eric Seralini to release the data for examination suggests that they have trouble with another type of animal. It suggests that the problem is not in the subtle effect of mutant rat traits in end-of-life pathologies but in the excretions of political cattle. It suggests that the data is contaminated with bullcrap.


Bjorge Queen said...

I heard Tooele is up to their old tricks.
Care to comment on this?

adult onset atheist said...

I was thinking of writing up something on it. I've been asking people I know if any of their kids were amongst those banned from the dance. I would love to get a photo of one to put on my post.