The American chestnut tree may soon become another genetically modified creation, a transgenic trick of biotech magicians. William Powell at the College of Environmental Science and Forestry in Syracuse, New York has been experimenting with the genes of the chestnut tree for over 25 years now. He says that he’s doing so in an effort to stave off a fungus from Asia that causes blight among chestnut forests.
The tree was once a dominant part of the biosphere from Maine to Georgia, but in the 1900s, a fungus from Asia began killing the trees off by the billions. Powell and his colleague Charles Maynard have been using genetic engineering methods to try to revive the American chestnut tree.
His efforts are getting mixed reactions from people who want to support the re-growth of the chestnut tree, and those who are concerned that introducing transgenic chestnut trees could harm the environment in ways that are much more viral than an Asian fungus.
The GMO chestnut creation of Powell and his associate is mixed with the genes of a wheat plant in order to fend off blight. The trees are already being grown in labs, and are expected to be grown in the wild very soon. Federal approval to plant GMO chestnut trees has been requested.
As with other biotech projects, the scientists conducting the experiments say that the biotechnology behind their projects is perfectly safe. Powell even says that:
“No one’s ever used the tools of genetic engineering to try to help the environment, and that’s what we’re doing here.”
“A lot of people have a knee-jerk reaction: GMO means bad, without even thinking. So we’re going to have to challenge people to think about it.”
This is largely due to the fact that rogue DNA from biotech experiments has already been shown to infect other plants – causing the same GMO traits to appear in non-GM organisms – often to the detriment of the environment and to human health. The industry itself has admitted this can be problematic.
Rogue GMO wheat created by Monsanto, for example, is continuing to spread unchecked.
The wheat gene in transgenic chestnut trees codes for an enzyme that breaks down oxalic acid. Without the acid to kill the tissue, the fungus (which feeds on dead things) can’t move in. Instead, it hangs out on the bark doing minimal damage. “It’s a gene that billions of people eat every day,” says Powell. “If you eat wheat, you’re eating this gene and you’re most likely eating the enzyme that it produces.”
However, anti-GMO scientists have found that many of the GM crops created by biotech create viral proteins, which are extremely dangerous to human health. Specifically, there are four components of a virus-resistant GM plant that must be considered when looking at the possible effects on humans.
- 1. The viral protein
- 2. The RNA
- 3. The inserted gene (transgene)
- 4. Any changes in the plant due to the insertion process
Each carry unique risks.
Viral proteins can increase susceptibility to viral infections.
According to the Institute for Responsible Technology:
“More than 100 studies have shown, however, that the proteins created by one virus can promote infections by other related and unrelated viruses.”
Furthermore, while some viruses are DNA-based, most plant viruses exist as RNA strands. Normally, when an RNA virus attacks a cell, it produces vast copies of itself. The copies, in turn, produce viral protein, which can help to disable the cell’s defenses to the virus.
Plants have developed a gene silencing mechanism to defend against this onslaught. After the cell recognizes an RNA virus, the double stranded RNA (dsRNA) is cut into short pieces and stripped into a single strand. That strand is used as a reference to “find” other RNA with identical or similar sequences, which are then destroyed or degraded.
Biotech scientists don’t always understand how these strands will code with new organisms, and they certainly don’t always stay contained within the original organism. Just look at GM mosquitoes. The GM genes of mosquitoes could very easily cross over into other pollinating insects that we need. One could seriously upset the apple cart with these genetic poker games.
Abnormalities in the GM chestnut tree have also been detected. The transgenic chestnuts contained less vitamin E, though the levels were still consistent with the ones seen in Chinese chestnut trees. Otherwise, it doesn’t seem that the transgenic trees differ significantly from other chestnut trees, but this remains to be seen. And other biotech experiments have vastly underestimated the ability of DNA to code in ways that they don’t expect in their genetic experiments.
Powell is seeking regulatory approval from the FDA, USDA, and the Environmental Protection Agency so they can start planting the trees across the United States. The problem is – you can’t un-plant millions of transgenic trees once you figure out they aren’t as ‘safe’ as you once so presumptuously thought and claimed.
Just as with Monsanto’s rogue GM wheat that was found growing suspiciously in an Oregon cornfield, and later in Montano, we have no true understanding of how, when, and why GM traits spread through cross-pollination. Nor whether traits will express as genetic scientists plan, or cause ‘undesirable’ organisms like fungus or insects to develop immunity to the very GM traits that were being cultivated – such as in super weeds and super bugs created by Monsanto’s Round Up.
Lastly, we could not have predicted how Bt corn, for example, – that was made to contain its own pesticide which makes a bug’s stomach practically blow up – also incite incredible damage on the human and larger mammalian form. Taking chances like this with trees is no different.