Science in Society Archive

22 November 2001, Montpellier, France

Witness Statement for Defence of José Bove and Dominique Soulier

Dr. Mae-Wan Ho
Institute of Science in Society, UK.

I am a university-based scientist with more than 35 years experience in research and teaching and some 300 publications in several disciplines including genetics. I became involved in the genetic engineering debate in 1994 as scientific adviser to the Third World Network, a non-government organisation based in Malaysia because I felt that our policymakers and the public were misinformed. There was a lot of propaganda on potential benefits - that have never materialised - but almost nothing on the hazards.

Over the past seven years, I have lectured and debated in 30 countries and presented evidence in many national and international forums including the United Nations Convention of Biological Diversity, the World Health Organisation, the World Bank, and the European Parliament. I have written extensively. Let me say that all my initial warnings regarding the dangers of genetic engineering are being confirmed, and I am not alone in recognising those dangers. Here is a World Scientists’ Statement and Open Letter to All Governments, now signed by 463 scientists from 56 countries, calling for a moratorium on GMOs because they are unsafe, and a ban on patents on organisms and living processes because they are unethical. The Open Letter has been submitted to many national and international forums [1]*. You will find many international figures on our list, including some from France.

In 1999, I co-founded the Institute of Science in Society (ISIS), a not-for-profit organisation promoting social responsibility and ecologically sustainable approaches in science. The corporations are corrupting science and scientists who dared to tell the truth either lost their job or their grants. The truth they want to suppress is that GM is inherently dangerous.

The danger of genetic engineering was highlighted in January this year, in the report of a deadly virus created accidentally by researchers in Australia who were trying to genetic engineer a contraceptive vaccine for mice [2]. They added a gene into a vaccine virus made from the relatively harmless mouse-pox virus, hoping to boost the immune system to make more antibodies to kill the mouse egg. But when they injected this modified vaccine virus into mice, all the mice died. In fact, the synthetic virus was so lethal that it also killed half of all the mice that have been vaccinated against mouse-pox.

Mouse-pox virus is a close relative of the human smallpox virus. The spectre of biological warfare has become reality in the anthrax attacks in the United States following the September 11 events, and smallpox is the most feared bio-weapon.

But just as dangerous, if not more so, is the unintentional creation of deadly pathogens in apparently innocent genetic engineering experiments. There are many more examples besides the mouse-pox vaccine [3]. Scientists have been creating super-viruses for decades in the course of researching viruses and vaccines.

I wrote a comprehensive review with six other scientists in 1998 [4]* asking whether commercial genetic engineering might have contributed to the resurgence of drug and antibiotic resistant infectious diseases since it began. Way ahead of us, scientists who pioneered genetic engineering declared a moratorium in the mid 1970s precisely because they were concerned about this dire possibility. But they rushed into commercial exploitation with a ‘regulatory system’ that was aimed more at expediting product approval rather than protect health and biodiversity [5].

Things are changing. President George Bush called for strengthening control of both the Biological Weapons Convention, and genetic engineering [6]. Perhaps he realises that the basic tools and materials for making bioweapons are used to create GM vaccines or GM crops.

The danger of genetic engineering in agriculture and medicine may be worse than biowarfare. Harmless viruses and bacteria can become pathogens through genetic modification, as in the mouse-pox virus mentioned, the results are often unpredictable and it is especially so with viruses. In the case of bio-weapons, they are made under strictly contained conditions, not so in genetic engineering for agriculture and medicine. Many potentially dangerous crops and products are being released on large scales into the environment, as if they were safe, with no possibility of control or recall. Nature thereby becomes a huge uncontrolled experiment for generating superviruses and superbugs.

There are both sound a priori reasons as well as empirical evidence to support the belief that GM constructs may be more likely to spread horizontally than natural DNA [7]*. I want to stress only one aspect here.

GM constructs are well known to be structurally unstable, as are the GM crops themselves, and hence prone to fragment and recombine, increasing the chance that the GM construct can be taken up by cells of unrelated species and incorporated into their genomes. This is known as horizontal gene transfer. GM constructs with recombination ‘hotspots’ – sites extra prone to breaking and joining – such as the cauliflower mosaic virus (CaMV) 35S promoter, are extra unstable. (A promoter is a genetic signal necessary for gene expression, and every gene must have it.) The CaMV 35S promoter is widely used in GM crops, and GM rice containing it were found to be extra unstable.

Should the CaMV 35S promoter get into the genome of animal cells, it can cause over-expression of genes that lead to cancer, or else destabilise the genome, which may also lead to cancer [8]. Moreover, viruses lie dormant in the genomes of all organisms, bacteria, plants and animals without exception, and such dormant viruses can be reactivated by recombination with the CaMV 35S promoter.

When we pointed out those dangers of the CaMV 35S promoter in the scientific journals [9-11]*, we were attacked. Our fiercest critic was leader of a research group in the UK John Innes Centre that had discovered the recombination hotspot. Two years later, the same group admits the need to avoid CaMV 35S promoter and other recombination hotspots in GM constructs [12].

Horizontal gene transfer from GM plants is not just a theoretical possibility. Transgenic DNA and antibiotic resistance marker genes were found transferred to soil bacteria both in the laboratory and in the field planted with transgenic sugar beet in Germany [7, 13]. Recent evidence suggests similar transfer could take place to bacteria in the mouth and other parts of the gut, as well as in the respiratory tract [14]*. The antibiotic resistance genes, if transferred to pathogens, would make infections untreatable.

Horizontal gene transfer to mammalian and human cells could also occur. The genetic material of a virus fed to mice, passed through the gut to the blood stream and ended up in blood, spleen and liver cells; and when fed to pregnant mice, it pass through the placenta to the cells of the foetus and newborn [7]*. Numerous studies in ‘gene therapy’ also leave no doubt that GM constructs can easily get into mammalian and human cells, where they can reactivate dormant viruses, and integrate into the cell’s genome, with potentially harmful effects including cancer [15].

I should point out that the GM rice created by CIRAD contains these hazardous elements. Besides antibiotic resistance genes and the CaMV 35S promoter, it has a gene coding for Cry1B, a ‘Bt protein’ isolated from the soil bacterium Bacillus thuringiensis to kill insect pests; but may also harm butterflies, moths, bees, beneficial soil insects, and up the food chain, lacewings and birds. Some Bt toxins are toxic or allergenic for human beings [16]*. Bacillus thuringiensis is a close relative of Bacillus anthracis, the anthrax bacterium [17]*, and readily exchanges genes with it. This has the potential to generate new pathogens of both human beings and agricultural crops.

It is becoming increasingly evident that GM technology is inherently hazardous and unreliable both in agriculture and in medicine [18].

Our governments have failed to protect us from these dangerous developments. And not just our crops, but all organisms, including human beings are being genetically modified and cloned for the use of other human beings. Mechanistic science has been allowed to get out of control, a mechanistic science that has been thoroughly discredited by scientific findings [19].

The ideology of genetic determinism – genes determine what we are, one gene for one character - has ruled biology and the popular culture before genetic engineering really got underway. Scientific findings over the past 25 years have shaken genetic determinism to the core. They clearly reveal that genes work in complex, entangled networks, with feedback interactions at every level between the environment and the genome. The genes and genome can change in predictable ways in the course of development or as the result of environmental influence. Conversely, changing even a single gene can have profound effects on the ecology.

The new genetics is ecological, organic and holistic. It is all of a piece with the recovery of the organic perspective in the rest of contemporary western science, reinstating the ecological knowledge systems of indigenous cultures across the world that have enabled people to live sustainably for millennia.

We need a sweeping paradigm change to survive the destruction that reductionist science and technology has wrought on us and our planet. We have all the means to deliver genuine health and food security to the world without using GM technology and going against the wishes of the vast majority of people to put all of us at intolerable risk. As a scientist, I sincerely thank José Bové and his colleagues, and others all over the world for sending strong messages to our governments. If they succeed, our children and grandchildren will be grateful to them as well.

Article first published 03/12/01

  1. Open Letter to All Governments on GMOs, last updated 1.9.2000, Institute of Science in Society
  2. "Disaster in the making: An engineered mouse virus leaves us one step away from the ultimate bioweapon" New Scientist 13 Jan. 2001, 4-5.
  3. "Genetic engineering superviruses", "Superbugs & superviruses from AIDS vaccines", by Mae-Wan Ho, ISIS News 9/10, July 2001, ISSN: 1474-1547 (print) ISSN: 1474-1814 (online)
  4. Ho MW, Traavik T, Olsvik R, Tappeser B, Howard V, von Weizsacker C and McGavin G. Gene Technology and Gene Ecology of Infectious Diseases. Microbial Ecology in Health and Disease 1998: 10: 33-59.
  5. Ho MW and Steinbrecher RA. Fatal flaws in food safety assessment: critique of the joint FAO/WHO biotechnology and food safety report. Environmental & Nutritional Interactions 1998, 2, 51-84.
  6. "Biodefence in tatters" by Mae-Wan Ho, ISIS Report, 8 November 2001
  7. Ho MW. Horizontal Gene Transfer, Hidden Hazards of Genetic Engineering. Third World Network Biotechnology Series, Third World Network, Penang, 2001.
  8. Rasnick D. Auto-catalysed progression of aneuploidy explains the Hayflick limit of cultured cells, carcinogen-induced tumours in mice, and the age distribution of human cancer. Biochem. J. 2000: 348, 497-506. See also, "Rethinking cancer, from cure to prevention" by Brian Goodwin, ISIS News 7/8 February 2001, ISSN: 1474-1547 (print) ISSN: 1474-1814 (online)
  9. Ho MW, Ryan A and Cummins J. Cauliflower mosaic viral promoter – a recipe for Disaster? Microbial Ecology in Health and Disease 1999: 11: 194-197.
  10. Ho MW, Ryan A and Cummins J. Hazards of transgenic plants with the cauliflower mosaic viral promoter. Microbial Ecology in Health and Disease 2000: 12: 6-11.
  11. Ho MW, Ryan A and Cummins J. CaMV 35S promoter fragmentation hotspot confirmed and it is active in animals. Microbial Ecology in Health and Disease 2000: 12: 189.
  12. Christou P, Kohli A, Stoger E, Twyman RM, Agrawal P, Gu X. Xiong J, Wegel E, Keen D, Tuck H, Wright M, Abranches R and Shaw P. Transgenic plants: a tool for fundamental genomics research. John Innes Centre & Sainsbury Laboratory Annual Report 1999/2000, p. 30. See "Top research centre admits GM failure" ISIS News 7/8, February 2001, ISSN: 1474-1547 (print) ISSN: 1474-1814 (online)
  13. "Horizontal gene transfer happens" by Mae-Wan Ho, ISIS News 5, July 2000, ISSN: 1474-1547 (print) ISSN: 1474-1814 (online)
  14. "More horizontal gene transfer happens" by Mae-Wan Ho, ISIS News 9/10, July 2001, ISSN: 1474-1547 (print) ISSN: 1474-1814 (online)
  15. Ho MW, Ryan A, Cummins J and Traavik T. Slipping Tthrough the Regulatory Net. ‘Naked’ and ‘Free’ Nucleic Acids. Third World Network Biotechnology Series, Third World Network, Penang 2001.
  16. "Bt Risk Negligible?" by Mae-Wan Ho and Joe Cummins, ISIS Report, 12 November 2001
  17. "Biopesticide and bioweapons" by Joe Cummins, ISIS Report, 22 October 2001
  18. See "Open Letter to New Zealand Royal Commission on Genetic Engineering" from Mae-Wan Ho, Institute of Science in Society,10 August, 2001
  19. Ho MW. Genetic Engineering Dream or Nightmare? Turning the Tide on the Brave New World of Bad Science and Big Business, Gateway, Gill & Macmillan, Bath, 1998 & Dublin, 1999; Continuum Books, New York, USA, 1999.

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