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ISIS Report 22/07/13
Why GMOs Can Never be Safe
The new genetics tells us that organisms need to engage
in natural genetic modification in order to survive; artificial genetic
modification interferes fundamentally with the natural process, and it is
well-nigh impossible to avoid doing so Dr Mae-Wan
This report is based on
invited lectures delivered in GMOs and Food Safety
International Forum 2013, 9-10 July 2013,
Yunnan University of Finance Economics, Kunming, Yunnan; and13
July 2013, Gloria Plaza Hotel Beijing,China.
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From ivory tower academic to science activist
I was an ivory-tower academic who had rejected mechanistic
biology from the start, and kept changing fields in search of the meaning of
life, until just over 20 years ago, when some of the world’s top physicists and
chemists inspired me (see  Quantum Jazz Biology,
interview) to invent a new quantum physics of the organism  The Rainbow and the Worm, The
Physics of Organisms. Soon after that, I met remarkable people like Vandana
Shiva and Chee Yokeling of the Third World Network, who taught me just how
important science is in shaping people’s lives and how crucial to get the
science right. To me, science is the most intimate knowledge of nature that is
beautiful beyond compare; it is also reliable knowledge that enables us to live
sustainably with nature, and I have dedicated my life since to defending and
promoting that science.
The greatest danger of GM
One main theme of my book  Genetic Engineering Dream or Nightmare,
the Brave New World of Bad Science and Big Business - first published by
Vandana in 1997 and by Third World Network in 1998 ahead of the commercial
publications and translations – is to elaborate what I consider to be the
greatest danger of genetic modification: its being misguided by the ideology of
The rationale and impetus for
genetic engineering and genetic modification is the ‘central dogma’ of
molecular biology that assumes DNA (deoxyribose nucleic acid) carries all the
instructions for making an organism. Individual ‘genetic messages’ in DNA
faithfully copied into RNA (ribosenucleic acid), is then translated into a
protein via a genetic code; the protein determining a particular trait, such as
herbicide tolerance, or insect resistance; one gene, one character. If it were
really as simple as that, genetic modification would work perfectly.
Unfortunately this simplistic picture is an illusion.
Instead of linear causal chains
leading from DNA to RNA to protein and downstream biological functions, complex
feed-forward and feed-back cycles interconnect organism and environment at all
levels to mark and change RNA and DNA down the generations (Figure 1). Molecular
geneticists have coined the term ‘fluid genome’ by 1980. The fluid genome
belongs in the organic quantum paradigm of interconnectedness, as Vandana says.
Organisms work by intercommunication at every level, and not by control.
Control belongs in the static mechanistic paradigm of the central dogma.
Figure 1 The new
genetics of the fluid genome versus the central dogma
In order to survive, the organism
needs to engage in natural genetic modification in real time, an exquisitely
precise molecular dance of life in which RNA and DNA respond to, and participate
fully in ‘downstream’ biological functions. That is why organisms and
ecosystems are particularly vulnerable to the crude, artificial GM RNA and DNA
created by human genetic engineers. It is also why genetic modification can
probably never be safe.
More importantly, the human
organism shapes its own development and evolutionary future; that is why we
must take responsible action to ban all environmental releases of GMOs now.
Not only have GM crops failed to deliver on the many false promises, they are
unsafe for health and the environment  (Ban GMOs Now, ISIS
publication), and obstructing the shift to sustainable non-GM agriculture
that’s productive, resilient and health-promoting (see  Food Futures Now *Organic
*Sustainable *Fossil Fuel Free , ISIS/TWN publication), and precisely what
we need in times of climate change.
Big difference between natural and artificial genetic
A GMO (genetically modified organism) is simply an organism
with synthetic genetic material inserted into its genome. It is made in the
laboratory with sterile techniques, which also means without sex. The genome is
all the genetic material of an organism (apart from those in mitochondria and
chloroplasts), a copy of which is in practically every cell; and in cells with
a nucleus, the genome is enclosed within the nucleus, organised into
chromosomes. Each chromosome unwinds into long threads of chromatin, consisting
of proteins coating the double helix DNA. Strip off the proteins, and the DNA
can be chopped and changed and recombined in test tubes, copied, amplified, and
transferred into any organism, and that is what artificial genetic engineering and
genetic modification involves (Figure 2).
Figure 2 What is
involved in making a GMO (see text)
A transgene (Fig. 2) is a unit of
the synthetic genetic material transferred into cells to make a GMO that
expresses the required protein. It consists of a signal for starting the
transcription, the promoter, the coding sequence determining the
amino acid sequence of the protein and the signal for ending, the terminator.
The three parts of the transgene are typically from different sources and
variously modified with synthetic sequences that bear no relationship to any
natural DNA; and this applies to each of the parts as well. More than one
transgenes are usually included in a GM construct, most often, an antibiotic
resistance gene to help select for cells that have taken up the GM construct.
There are big differences between natural
genetic modification done by organisms themselves and the artificial genetic
modification done by ‘genetic engineers’ in the lab (Table 1). Natural genetic
modification is precise and predictable. It happens in the right place, at the
right time without damaging the genome, and as appropriate to the organisms as
a whole in relation to its environment. In contrast, artificial genetic
modification is crude, imprecise, unpredictable and uncontrollable. The
artificially created GM constructs have to be smuggled in by (disarmed) pathogenic
bacteria and viruses that infect the cells, or otherwise forced into the cells
by gene guns or electric shocks. The artificial constructs get scrambled in the
process and could land anywhere in the genome, scrambling and damaging the genome
in the process. Aggressive promoters are used essentially to force foreign
genes to be expressed out of context.
Table 1 Contrasting natural and artificial genetic
Natural genetic modification
Artificial genetic modification
Precisely negotiated by the organism as a whole
Crude, imprecise, unpredictable uncontrollable
Takes place at the right place & time without damaging the genome
Forced into cells with no control over where & in what forms the artificial constructs land with much collateral damage to the genome
Appropriate to the organism as a whole in relation to its environment
Aggressive promoters force foreign genes to be expressed out of context
There is, therefore, nothing natural about artificial
genetic modification done in the lab.
It lacks the precision and finesse of the natural process
It is greatly enhanced gene transfer without sex, also
called horizontal gene transfer
GM constructs are designed to cross species barriers and
to jump into genomes with aggressive promoters to force expression of
transgenes out of context
It enables genes to be transferred between species that
would never have exchanged genes otherwise
GM constructs tend to be unstable – with weak joints from
being cobbled together from different sources as well as well-known break
points associated with promoters and terminators - and hence, more prone
to further horizontal gene transfer after it has integrated into the
Consequently, all the signs are
that genetic modification is inherently hazardous.
GM inherently hazardous
Reliable evidence obtained by scientist independent of the
biotech industry fully corroborates real life experiences of farmers in the
field from different parts of the world (hitherto dismissed by the scientific
establishment as “anecdotal evidence”): GM feed and other exposures to GMOs
invariably cause harm, regardless of the species of animal, the GM crop, or the
genes and constructs involved. A full list is presented in our report , and
it includes the most horrendous cases of excess deaths, birth defects,
infertility, tumours and cancers (some of which will be presented by other
scientists at this conference). The inevitable conclusion one comes to is that
genetic modification is inherently hazardous, on account of the new genetics of
the fluid and responsive genome. I list the categories of hazards in Table 2.
Table 2 Hazards of GMOs
unpredictable impacts on safety due to the genetic modification process* Scrambling the
host genome* Widespread
mutations* Inactivating genes* Activating genes* Creating new transcripts (RNAs)
including those with regulatory functions* Creating new proteins Creating new metabolites or
increasing metabolite to toxic levels* Activating dormant viruses* Creating new viruses by
recombination of viral genes in GM insert with those in the host genome*
of transgene protein(s) introduced (intentionally or otherwise) Transgene protein toxic* Transgene protein allergenic or
immunogenic* Trangenic protein becoming
allergenic or immunogenic due to processing* Unintended protein created by
sequence inserted may be toxic or immunogenic
due to the GM insert and its instability* Genetic rearrangement with
further unpredictable effects* Horizontal gene transfer and
antibiotic and drug resistance* Creating new
viruses and bacteria that cause diseases Creating mutations in genomes of
cells to which the GM insert integrate including those associated with
of herbicides used with herbicide tolerant GM crops*
*Documented in scientific literature
Although the weight of evidence
against the safety of GMOs is overwhelming, we are still largely in the dark as
to the precise nature of the hazard(s) associated with different GMOs. Toxicity
has been found for transgene products such as the Bt proteins from different
strains of the soil bacteria Bacillus thuringiensis expressed in many GM
crops, while the multiple toxicities, endocrine disrupting propensity and
carcinogenicity of glyphosate herbicides, heavily used with glyphosate tolerant
GM crops, are no longer in doubt as reviewed in detail in our report . There
remains a range of hazards not so easily identified without dedicated research,
even though evidence exists for most, if not all of them in the scientific
literature. These are due to the unpredictability and uncontrollable nature of
the genetic modification process itself (Table 2, category 1), which can
activate or inactivate genes, scramble genomes, create new proteins, new
nucleic acids, new metabolites, and others due to the transgenic DNA and its
instability (Table 2 category 3), of horizontal gene transfer - the direct
transfer of DNA into the genomes of cells - from the GMO to all other species
that come into contact with the GMO.
Transgene instability & the illegality of GMOs
Since the 1990s, some of us have raised the possibility of
unintended secondary horizontal gene transfer from GMOs released into the
environment with detailed reviews and reports, many of which were sent to our
regulators (see  for references). At first the regulators and GM proponents
denied that horizontal gene transfer could happen at all, or the probability is
so tiny as to be practically zero. Later, when it became clear from molecular
genetic analyses that rampant horizontal gene transfer has taken place in the
course of evolution and in recent times, they said horizontal gene transfer is
a natural process and therefore no need to worry; anti-GM is just anti-science.
Horizontal gene transfer is
indeed a natural process, normally under the control of the organism itself,
which is why GM DNA is such a threat. On account of its increase propensity for
horizontal gene transfer, GM DNA can take over the natural process to gain
access to the organisms’ genome regardless of whether it is appropriate or not.
The increased propensity of GM
DNA for horizontal gene transfer translates into the instability of transgenic
lines. Transgenes not only get silenced (no longer expressed) in successive
generations, but can also become rearranged or lost. Transgene instability is
an open secret buried under the permissive regulatory carpet. Independent
scientists in Europe first discover that all commercially approved and hence
risk assessed and molecularly characterized GM inserts were different from what
was reported by the companies. Since then, at least one of them, MON 810, was
found to have rearranged again, and now there is a substantial literature on
transgene instability (see ). This is not at all surprising, given that GM
DNA is unstable, and the foreign DNA does not really fit in with the whole
organism, which is why transgenes tend to be silenced or lost.
The implications of transgene instability are
far reaching. Transgene instability makes a mockery of the risk
assessment process,because any change in transgene expression, or
worse, rearrangement or movement of the transgenic DNA insert(s) would create
another transgenic plant different from the one that was characterized and risk
assessed. And it matters little how thoroughly the original characterization
and risk assessment may have been done. The legislature should take note: unstable
transgenic lines are illegal. Not only should they not be still growing
commercially, they are also strictly ineligible for patent protection.
Horizontal gene transfer from GMOs does happen and often
There is now no doubt that horizontal gene transfer from
GMOs does happen. For the first time, a proper study was carried out in 2012 by
scientists in China, who found ampicillin resistance bacteria in all 6 of
China’s major rivers . Sequencing confirmed that the gene is a synthetic
version derived from the laboratory, and different from the wild type. It is
the same as the version present in numerous GM crops released in China
commercially or in field trials (see  GM
Antibiotic Resistance in China's Rivers, SiS 57). The researchers suggested
that horizontal gene transfer of genetically engineered plasmids may underlie
the rise in antibiotic resistance in animals as well as humans.
In the only authenticated feeding trial of GM
food on human volunteers carried out by scientists in the UK, the complete
transgene DNA of Roundup Ready soybean was recovered from the colostomy bag in 6
out of 7 subjects after a single meal, at levels up to 3.7 % of intake. In 3
subjects, about 1 to 3 per million bacteria cultured from the contents of the
colostomy bag were positive for the GM soybean transgene, showing that horizontal
transfer of GM DNA had occurred; but no bacteria were found to have taken
up the vastly more abundant non-transgenic soybean DNA. This is direct evidence
that GM DNA has a much greater propensity for horizontal gene transfer, as I
have maintained from the start .
It is now clear that horizontal
transfer of GM DNA does happen, and very often. Evidence dating from
the early 1990s indicates that ingested DNA in food and feed can indeed survive
the digestive tract, and pass through the intestinal wall to enter the
bloodstream. The digestive tract is a hotspot for horizontal gene transfer to
and between bacteria and other microorganisms.
Recent evidence obtained with direct
detection methods indicates that horizontal transfer of GM DNA is routinely
underestimated, largely because the overwhelming majority of bacteria in the
environment and particularly in the gut cannot be cultured. GM DNA transfers at
high frequencies to bacteria and fungi on the surfaces of leaves and stems,
helped by the plant wound hormones; and the soil around the plant roots
(rhizosphere) is also a hotspot for horizontal gene transfer. Higher organisms
including human beings are even more susceptible to horizontal gene transfer
than bacteria, because unlike bacteria, which require sequence homology
(similarity) for incorporation into the genome, higher organisms do not.
To make things worse, DNA and RNA
are now known to be actively secreted by living cells in a nucleic acid intercommunication system; the
nucleic acids are taken up by target cells to modify gene expression and may be
integrated into the cell’s genome. The profile of the
circulating nucleic acids changes according to states of health and disease.
Cancer cells use the system to spread cancer around the body. This nucleic acid
intercom leaves the body very vulnerable to GM DNA and RNA, because they can
take over the system for horizontal gene transfer into cells of all tissues
including germ cells.
of nucleic acids, the microRNAs (miRNAs), are specifically involved in gene
silencing via a vastly complex and flexible process that changes according to
the environmental context. Consequently, GMOs based on miRNAs have many potentially
adverse off-target effects, which are radically unpredictable and
uncontrollable  RNA Interference “Complex and Flexible” & Beyond Control, SiS 59).
Dangers of GM DNA and its horizontal transfer
What are the dangers of GM DNA from horizontal gene
transfer? Horizontal transfer of DNA into the genome of cells per se is
harmful, but there are extra dangers from the genes or genetic signals in the
GM DNA, and also from the vector used in delivering the transgene(s).
GM DNA jumping into genomes cause ‘insertion mutagenesis’ that can
lead to cancer, or activate dormant viruses that cause diseases
GM DNA often contains antibiotic resistance genes that can spread
to pathogenic bacteria and make infections untreatable
Horizontal transfer and recombination of GM DNA is a main route
for creating new viruses & bacteria that cause diseases
The CaMV 35S promoter, widely used in GM DNA for crops on the
mistaken assumption that it works only in plants, actually works in practically
all living species including bacteria and human cells; recent research also
suggests it may enhance the multiplication of disease-associated viruses including
HIV (human immunodeficiency virus). In addition, the promoter overlaps with a
virus gene (gene VI) that inhibits gene-silencing, a crucial host defence
against viral infections
vector, most widely used for creating GM plants is found to transfer genes also
to fungi and human cells, and to share genetic signals for gene transfer with
common bacteria in the environment. In addition, the Agrobacterium
bacteria and its gene transfer vector tend to remain in the GM crops created,
constituting a ready route for horizontal gene transfer to all organisms that come
into contact with the GMO or the soil on which GM crops are grown. In 2008, Agrobacterium
was linked to the outbreak of Morgellons disease. The Centers for Disease
Control in the US launched an investigation but failed to investigate the link
The full story of what I have tried to convey
is in the final chapter of our report  with more than 140 references for
that chapter alone. I hope this convinces you to avoid GMOs as far as possible;
and especially don’t let your children eat GM food. We must ban further
environmental releases while we recall and destroy existing ones. We can’t wait
for our central governments, or the European Union, or the United Nations to do
that. Ban them from your home, your local community, your fields, your village,
your town, your city, your province. The governments will follow your lead.
It is often said that GMOs once released is
uncontrollable. But nothing is really controllable in the new fluid-genome
organic paradigm. Fortunately, organisms are resilient, and able to heal
themselves, and ecosystems are like organisms ; once we stop releasing GMOs
and stop insulting them with other practices of industrial monoculture, ecosystems
can recover and regain their health and productivity under sustainable
agro-ecological farming . That’s all the more reason for us to stop GMOs now;
before it is really too late.
Riley D, McCraty R, and Snyder S.
Quantum jazz biology, Mae-Wan Ho, Pioneering work in understanding life. Science in Society 47, 4-9,
Ho MW. The Rainbow and the
Worm, the Physics of Organisms, World Scientific, 1993, 2nd
edition, 1998, 3rd enlarged edition, 2008, Singapore and London, http://www.i-sis.org.uk/rnbwwrm.php
Ho MW. Genetic Engineering Dream of Nightmare? The
Brave New World of Bad Science and Big Business, Third World Network,
Gateway Books, MacMillan, Continuum, Penang, Malaysia, Bath, UK, Dublin,
Ireland, New York, USA, 1998, 1999, 2007 (reprint with extended
Chen J, Jin M, Qiu ZG, Guo C, Chen
ZL, Shen ZQ, Wang XW, Li JW. A survey of drug resistance bla genes originating
from synthetic plasmid vectors in six Chinese rivers. Environmental Science
& Technology 2012, 46, 13448-54.
Douglas Hinds Comment left 22nd July 2013 16:04:29 Excellent. Meshes perfectly with what I have been attempting to convey through occasional short comments in diverse forums.
Two points you may want to consider emphasizing further:
The role of gametes in Eukaryotes vs. incompletely cobbled packages of patented but never actually tested synthetic gene packages in GMO commercial products sloppily integrated in evolutionarily tested whole genomes through the use of pathogens and (obviously) pathogenic processes.
Felicidades y muchos saludos. (I'll try to get this translated into Spanish, for you).
Center for Community and Rural Development
Alliance for Environmental and Social Responsibility in Development
Mae-Wan Ho Comment left 22nd July 2013 16:04:46 Thank you Douglas. Can you please expand on the role of gametes in Eukaryotes vs synthetic gene packages? Are you referring to what they are trying to do in synthetic biology? That's a whole grade up from the usual genetic modification, and rightly, we should be extra worried about the whole exercise. They treat organisms as lego pieces, and said so in public.
Paul Vonharnish Comment left 22nd July 2013 18:06:06 Dear Dr. Mae-Wan Ho:
Thank you for your contributions to this critical issue. I have read several of your articles, and am wondering if you have seen the correlations between these unexpected DNA sequence breaks and the role of electromagnetic induction on cellular biology? Electromagnetic induction from household wiring, cellular tower systems, radio and television broadcast, and wi-fi mesh networks, cause single and double strand breaks in DNA.
This is a short presentation from Dr. Martin Blank, but there are thousands of peer-reviewed studies in agreement.
Also see the 2012 BioInitiative Report on the EM radiation issue. http://www.bioinitiative.org/report/wp-content/uploads/pdfs/BioInitiativeReport2012.pdf
Mae-Wan Ho Comment left 22nd July 2013 19:07:14 Paul, thank you for your comment. Yes indeed, organisms depend on electric and electromagnetic fields for intercommunication, they are precise and ultraweak, which is why external em fields can interfere, and very badly. My book the Rainbow Worm deals a lot with the sensitivity of organisms to ultraweak fields, basically because they are quantum coherent. I have written a lot on the subject, among the latest, Mobile phones damage the brain, and Life is Water Electric. Please find them on ISIS site using the Google search engine.
David Llewellyn Foster Comment left 28th July 2013 22:10:16 Dr Ho, thank you for this article that I propose to absorb very fully. I've been following your work now for sixteen years. I'd like to recommend a series of short amateur videos about soil biologist Dr Thierry Vrain who used to work for Ag Canada and is now an organic smallholder in Surrey BC. He is an outspoken, extremely experienced critic of GM, having worked in the field and his views are of significant value in my opinion http://www.tonu.org/2013/05/27/thierry-vrain-part-six/
Dee Comment left 1st February 2015 09:09:14 Fantastic article. I have no knowledge of this area. Now I understand clearly what the dangers are. Do you do public speaking engagements through international media? I am convinced that much of the current conflict in the Ukraine is down to corporate interests in GMO being thwarted by the failed EU deal that led to the Maidan coup. EU farmers and consumers are hostile to this 'science' and Monsan to is widely distrusted. But they are already in the Ukraine and on double want to expand. I am also convincing that Russia is distinctly alarmed at the possibility of cross.border contamination. Thank you again for a brilliant article.