Biopharma is such a strange word. To me it sounds sort of sci-fi, evoking images from the 1950s of a future where everything will be high-tech but beautiful and simple at the same time. Of course, not everyone has such positive thoughts about this potentially dangerous yet potentially lifesaving application of technology.

Scientists Worry Over GM Drug Crops“, posted on Environmental Graffiti, briefly covers the news that crops engineered to express pharmaceutical proteins will be field tested this growing season, concentrating on the Union of Concerned Scientists’ reaction. Apparently UCS is taking their typical anti-tech stance, asking the USDA to require all such crops to be grown in greenhouses or underground. I was not able to find any record of UCS’s recent comments.

I’d like to defend myself, as a scientist. I refuse to believe that any scientist or biotech company would purposefully release a dangerous plant into the food supply. Even if you think scientists and biotech companies are unethical, they certainly aren’t stupid. The first company to sell a biotech plant that’s actually dangerous would likely be burnt to the ground by activists before they had time to go bankrupt. While debates over biotech crops continue, no one has ever gotten sick from a GM plant, or any GMO. What I’ve read about proposed biopharma and industrial crops haven’t indicated that this will change.

For example, consider the Amflora potato, developed by BASF. This humble potato will be used to produce starch for industrial applications. Two types of starch are produced in plants naturally: amylose and amylopectin. Amylopectin is the starch that can be used in all sorts of industrial and food applications. Amylose is useful for other purposes, but hinders some of amylopectin’s properties. It must be removed in a process that takes energy, water, and money.

The BASF scientists simply stopped production of the enzyme that makes amylose with an antisense copy of the enzyme’s mRNA. This is the same method used in the tear-free onion. Basically, the antisense copy of the mRNA binds to the natural mRNA for the targeted gene before it can be translated into a protein. It’s very clever because no actual transgenes are needed. More details can be found at BASF and BioPro.

So, what’s the fuss? Pollen spread isn’t an issue because potatoes don’t reproduce by seed, and there are no native potato relatives in Europe for Amflora to “contaminate” anyway. Even if a tuber makes it into the food supply, Amflora potatoes are completely safe to eat, although probably shouldn’t be eaten as a primary food source becasue they don’t have amylose, thus might not be a nutritionally complete carbohydrate. I don’t know of any type of wildlife that exclusively eats potatoes.

Amflora has been ready for years, but still faces regulatory roadblocks in Europe. The European Food Safety Authority declared Amflora potatoes to be safe back in 2005, but the European Commission is just now considering approving it for use, along with four of Monsanto’s insect and herbicide resistant maize varieties. According to Farmers Guardian, “Public health watchdogs and environmental NGOs have voiced concerns, in particular relating to the BASF ‘Amflora’ potato, which contains antibiotic-resistant marker genes. They fear that parts of the potato would be used to feed livestock, ultimately entering the human food chain and subsequently conferring resistance to antibiotics.”

There is absolutely zero evidence that horizontal gene transfer can happen between plants and bacteria in nature. It happens between different bacteria species all the time, but I think we all know that plants are very different from bacteria. It is possible for bacteria to acquire plant genes via horizontal transfer – but only under specially optimized laboratory conditions and when particular genetic “tricks” are used (comment if you’d like more information on the “tricks”). GMO Compass has an excellent article on the safety of antibiotic resistance markers. They explain that two of the most common genes are for resistance to kanamycin and ampicillin. Natural bacteria in the environment already have genes for resistance to these antibiotics in much higher proportions than would ever be expected with horizontal gene transfer from transgenic plants. Regardless, “kanamycin is now rarely prescribed in human medicine. Ampicillin is still used to treat certain infections, but since resistance is so widespread, treatment is usually combined with substances (beta-lactamase inhibitors), which take away the effect of the resistance genes.”

The particular antibiotic resistance gene in Amflora is to kanamycin. I wasn’t able to find statistics on rates of kanamycin proscriptions, but according to a 2007 transcript on the House of Commons website, “there are no licensed products containing kanamycin in the United Kingdom and there are no records of kanamycin having been prescribed in the national health service in the last five years.” Despite all of these facts, Greenpeace and FoE insist that the resistance genes are dangerous. It seems that they would rather have water and energy wasted to extract starch from regular potatoes than back down from their agenda.