Friday, June 24, 2011

Synthetic biology

Should synthetic biology be policed?
By John Farrell
June 23 2011

What scares many people about the emerging field of synthetic biology is the lack of official safeguards. The Do-It-Yourself movement is taking off, with blogs and user groups of grad students and high school students publicly sharing information about how to home-brew microbes. The International Genetically Engineered Machine Competition (iGEM) draws hundreds of experiments made from basic biology toolkits from undergraduates all over the world. Students from Slovenia were the grand prize winners in 2010 for designing a DNA scaffold that accelerates the synthesis of particular proteins.

These kit-level experiments are harmless, hobbies pursued as much for educational purposes as for ingenuity. But in the wrong hands, some have warned, more than lives could be threatened.

As I mentioned in the last post, Craig Venter’s celebrated paper prompted President Obama to ask Amy Gutmann, President of University of Pennsylvania and the chair of his Bioethics Commission, to look at synthetic biology and assess what the Federal Government should do about this rapidly growing field of biotechnology.

Gutmann called three meetings between July and November of last year to consult with specialists on the question. Venter spoke at the first meeting, along with Drew Endy of Stanford, Harvard’s George Church and MIT’s Kristala Jones Prather, among many other leading resesarchers.

Church, who has made a career out of perfecting the speed with which genes can be sequenced, was emphatic about the need for the Federal government to regulate and monitor the new field. “We need to – it is not sufficient to have a set of rules and guidelines, if there isn’t testing, if there isn’t surveillance,” he told the Commission in July. “You can do licensing, as we do driver’s license, but you have to do surveillance to make sure people are obeying the laws.”

[Read More…]

‘Damaging’ report stalled

AgResearch stalls ‘damaging’ report
By Kiran Chug
The Dominion Post
June 23, 2011

Attempts to shut down a scientific report critical of AgResearch’s practices at its genetic engineering laboratories have been revealed through the company’s internal documents.

The report has sparked a war of words between the Canterbury University professor who wrote it, and the Crown research institute he criticises.

Professor Jack Heinemann, from the university’s Centre for Integrated Research in Biosafety, wrote the report, which was published in an international peer-reviewed journal last month.

Its publication came about a year after he was asked by GE Free New Zealand to look into AgResearch’s monitoring of the risk of horizontal gene transfers at its Ruakura facility.

AgResearch receives a mixture of taxpayer funding and commercial backing, with about three-quarters of its funding for research carried out at Ruakura coming from public funds.

The report looked at the agency’s offal holes containing genetically engineered cow carcasses and its monitoring of the risk of material from those pits contaminating the soil.

Correspondence made available to The Dominion Post under the Official Information Act reveals that staff who saw a draft of Prof Heinemann’s critical report found it to be “at face value quite damaging”.

“Generally the report looks and sounds authoritative and thorough. The response should be to take it seriously. This is particularly important as it questions the rigour of AgR scientific processes - an issue that any scientific institute must regard as an issue of core competency.”

[Read More…]

Friday, June 17, 2011

Food safety funds cut

House Republicans vote to cut funds to implement food safety law
By Lyndsey Layton
The Washington Post
June 16, 2011

Arguing that the U.S. food supply is 99 percent safe, House Republicans cut millions of dollars Thursday from the Food and Drug Administration’s budget, denying the agency money to implement landmark food safety laws approved by the last Congress.

Saying the cuts were needed to lower the national deficit, the House also reduced funding to the Agriculture Department’s food safety inspection service, which oversees meat, poultry and some egg products. And lawmakers chopped $832 million from an emergency feeding program for poor mothers, infants and children. Hunger groups said that change would deny emergency nutrition to about 325,000 mothers and children.

The House also waded into a controversial issue pending at the FDA, forbidding the agency from approving the sale of genetically engineered salmon, a matter that has triggered an intense debate about the place of biotechnology in the food supply.

[Read More…]

Thursday, June 9, 2011

Roundup birth defects

Roundup birth defects
By Lucia Graves
June 8, 2011

Regulators knew world’s best-selling herbicide causes problems, new report finds

WASHINGTON — Industry regulators have known for years that Roundup, the world’s best-selling herbicide produced by U.S. company Monsanto, causes birth defects, according to a new report released Tuesday.

The report, “Roundup and birth defects: Is the public being kept in the dark?” found regulators knew as long ago as 1980 that glyphosate, the chemical on which Roundup is based, can cause birth defects in laboratory animals.

But despite such warnings, and although the European Commission has known that glyphosate causes malformations since at least 2002, the information was not made public.

Instead regulators misled the public about glyphosate’s safety, according to the report, and as recently as last year, the German Federal Office for Consumer Protection and Food Safety, the German government body dealing with the glyphosate review, told the European Commission that there was no evidence glyphosate causes birth defects.

The report comes months after researchers found that genetically-modified crops used in conjunction Roundup contain a pathogen that may cause animal miscarriages. After observing the newly discovered organism back in February, Don Huber, a emeritus professor at Purdue University, wrote an open letter to Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack requesting a moratorium on deregulating crops genetically altered to be immune to Roundup, which are commonly called Roundup Ready crops.

In the letter, Huber also commented on the herbicide itself, saying: “It is well-documented that glyphosate promotes soil pathogens and is already implicated with the increase of more than 40 plant diseases; it dismantles plant defenses by chelating vital nutrients; and it reduces the bioavailability of nutrients in feed, which in turn can cause animal disorders.”

[Read More…]

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Public kept in the dark

Public kept in the dark on Roundup link with birth defects
Press release
Earth Open Source
June 7, 2011

Industry and EU regulators knew as long ago as the 1980s-1990s that Roundup, the world’s best selling herbicide, causes birth defects – but they failed to inform the public. This is the conclusion of a new report, “Roundup and birth defects: Is the public being kept in the dark?” co-authored by a group of international scientists and researchers and released today.

The report reveals that industry’s own studies (including one commissioned by Monsanto) showed as long ago as the 1980s that Roundup’s active ingredient glyphosate causes birth defects in laboratory animals.

The German government has known about these findings since at least the 1990s, when as the “rapporteur” member state for glyphosate, it reviewed industry’s studies for the EU approval of the herbicide. The European Commission has known since at least 2002, when it signed off on glyphosate’s approval.

But this information was not made public. On the contrary, regulators have consistently misled the public about glyphosate’s safety. As recently as last year, the German Federal Office for Consumer Protection and Food Safety, BVL, told the Commission there was “no evidence of teratogenicity” (ability to cause birth defects) for glyphosate.

[Read More…]

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