Friday, February 06, 2009

Playing God in the Garden - New York Times:
"A few days later, once the slips of potato stem have put down roots, they're moved to the potato greenhouse up on the roof. Here, Glenda DeBrecht, a horticulturist, invited me to don latex gloves and help her transplant pinky-size plantlets from their petri dish to small pots. The whole operation is performed thousands of times, largely because there is so much uncertainty about the outcome. There's no way of telling where in the genome the new DNA will land, and if it winds up in the wrong place, the new gene won't be expressed (or it will be poorly expressed) or the plant may be a freak. I was struck by how the technology could at once be astoundingly sophisticated and yet also a shot in the genetic dark.

''There's still a lot we don't understand about gene expression,'' Stark acknowledged. A great many factors influence whether, or to what extent, a new gene will do what it's supposed to, including the environment. In one early German experiment, scientists succeeded in splicing the gene for redness into petunias. All went as planned until the weather turned hot and an entire field of red petunias suddenly and inexplicably lost their pigment. The process didn't seem nearly as simple as Monsanto's cherished software metaphor would suggest.

When I got home from St. Louis, I phoned Richard Lewontin, the Harvard geneticist, to ask him what he thought of the software metaphor. ''From an intellectual-property standpoint, it's exactly right,'' he said. ''But it's a bad one in terms of biology. It implies you feed a program into a machine and get predictable results. But the genome is very noisy. If my computer made as many mistakes as an organism does'' -- in interpreting its DNA, he meant -- ''I'd throw it out.''

You really have to read the entire article, and then try to figure out a way to deal with your overwhelming rage. Monsanto is so completely unconcerned about anything other than making money it's almost a parody. Unfortunately, it is an all too real beast in the world and a very effective one at that. It is to the biotech industry what Enron was to the energy industry. Yeah it's that bad.

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