Technology

Biotech questions from a high schooler — and the answers

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A ninth-grader in an advanced biology class sent in questions to GMO Answers, and because I am one of the organization’s experts, the questions were forwarded to me to answer. But I wanted to do more than simply reply to this student — these are good questions that deserve to be answered more broadly and to reach more people. So I’m sharing both the biotechnology questions and answers here.

The student said the questions are part of “Genius Hour,” which is a year-long project about a specific topic at the school. “Part of this project requires us to interview an expert who has studied our topic,” the student said. “My topic is ‘The past and present of Genetic Modification.’ “

Here are the questions, with my answers:

1. What kind of experience did you need in order to pursue a career in genetic engineering?

A sincere interest in the foundations of biology and a blockbuster announcement (more on that later)!

Some backstory: I was raised on a vegetable farm and have always been interested in crop variety development — the start to finish timeline that includes needs assessment, testing, and public release of the best prospects.

I was a precocious kid when this up and comer started to generate some press — genetic engineering (aka GMOs, transgenics, biotech, etc.). I couldn’t fully appreciate it at the time, but this new frontier broadened the tools we had at our disposal to make crops “do” new and better things. No longer were we limited to simple breeding — and all the uncertainty that came with it.

It can be a real chore to get the desired mix of genes by crossing two parents. Now we could tap genetic resources from the entirety of the living world. After all, everything is “assembled” based on genes — instructions coded in a specific sequence of A’s, T’s, G’s, and C’s. A deceptively easy and universal four letter alphabet of life.

All we needed to do was to make a spot change to the crop’s biological blueprint (like a contractor “addition” to a home) to churn out something new. Is there a gene in organism X that enhances growth? Perform a gene transplant of sorts into organism Y. And what we got in the end was much more predictable. We knew exactly what to expect in the end product. Scramble thousands of genes (or more) using conventional breeding, or cut and paste a few in cleanly?

Hypothetically it should work, but can we actually do it?

Case in point: I remember seeing a news story on transgenic tobacco (I was very young at the time, but this is the article that the news story referenced). This tobacco had been engineered with a luciferase gene from a firefly. Water with luciferin, and the tobacco sports a weak bioluminescent glow. Doesn’t matter that the gene was from an animal and the recipient a plant – remember the universality of the genetic code! A gene is a gene, the source is irrelevant. It’s all read the same by the cell’s ribosomes (the worksite supervisor/crew that interprets the blueprint and directs construction). It was no longer an abstract, untested concept, we had an actual proof of concept on the books.

The great granddaddy of them all. The picture that piqued my interest in transgenics:

Image courtesy of Ow, D. W., K. V. Wood, M. DeLuca, J. R. de Wet, D. R. Helsinki, and S. Howell. 1986. Transient and stable expression of the firefly luciferase gene in plant cells and transgenic plants. Science 234:856-859

After that, I made it a point to study the plant sciences and related fields. As an undergrad and grad student, I took courses in plant physiology, plant cell and tissue culture, genetics, plant pathology, entomology, soil/weed science, and risk assessment. They all intertwine, especially when it comes to biotechnology. It was especially helpful to get my “Plant M.D.”

2. What advice would you give to someone who is interested in a similar career path?

Land Grants are generally your go-to at the grad level — go wherever you want for undergrad!

Depending on the level of responsibility you want, a graduate degree (master’s and/or doctoral) will probably be necessary to land a decent job. The best venues for this are generally “Land Grant” schools that specialize in agriculture. In my opinion, where you attend as an undergrad isn’t nearly as important. Go where you’re comfortable.

Get mentored early — grades aren’t everything, focus on more than your transcript

Mentorship is vital for your personal and professional development. Look for summer REU (Research Experiences for Undergraduates) programs, especially at the land grant universities. If at all possible, get a job working in a mentor’s lab during the academic year. Don’t be afraid to “shop around” to find a mentor with compatible interests and personality either. Working in a lab may seem like an added burden with your coursework and social life, but it won’t detract from your academic experience — it’ll only enrich it. This is one piece of advice I failed to heed as an undergrad.

Broaden your horizons — don’t neglect the Agricultural Experiment Stations!

Every land-grant school has experiment stations (yes, plural!) that focus on a given region’s major crops. Specific attention is paid to local soil types, pests, diseases, and climate. This is a great platform to find a mentor outside the confines of the main campus, especially in grad school.

Try to do bench work (lab) and field work if at all possible

How do scientific innovations trickle down to the public? Ideas are generated in the lab, but often executed in the field. This is the basic, translational, and applied science angle. Get a feel for all steps of the process.

Escape the trap of the scientific silo — take courses that examine the social/economic implications of biotechnology (and broader science) as well!

One of the problems with science education (in my view) is that we’ve arguably become too specialized. We churn out Ph.D.’s with a very narrow (though deep) sliver of knowledge, but we need to build bridges and broaden that base. Scientists tend to shy away from the humanities because we’re not “wired” for it, but sociological, psychological, cultural, and economic aspects can’t be dismissed.

Get policy/governmental relations experience — immerse yourself in the intersection of science and policy, it’ll come in handy

Just after I received my bachelor’s degree, there was talk of a moratorium on biotech crop planting in my home state of New York — so I opted to intern in the NYS Assembly for Bill Magee (Chair of the Agriculture Committee). I similarly interned in the U.S. Senate for Sen. Chuck Schumer.

Be prepared to be an ambassador

You’ll probably field pointed questions from your friends and the public at-large. Do so graciously and tactfully, whether face to face or on social media. To prepare, don’t just take courses in technical/scientific writing, but scientific communication! Understand multiple viewpoints and where people are coming from. Tailor your responses accordingly. Analogies are your friend. Offer to write and speak about science. Give yourself some visibility as a trusted, go-to source.

Devour the literature

Be a connoisseur of high quality information, both popular and scientific. Learn how to critically dissect less than stellar info, especially on social media.

Keep informed about past and current controversies

Don’t be afraid to address misconceptions about Golden Rice, “Terminator Technology,” plant patents, and “superweeds,” etc.

Understand how everything intersects

Biotechnology is a sizeable field with many moving parts. Think about all the players in the development and outreach pipeline. Work/intern for Cooperative Extension, industry, and with a governmental regulatory agency (like USDA APHIS BRS) to get a big picture view of the field as a whole.

Avoid the term “GMO”

It’s dated, loaded, and divisive. Use biotech, transgenics, or even better, precision breeding instead.

Get familiarized with recent flavors/variations of biotech

  • Like cisgenics, CRISPR, and gene drive!
Image courtesy of Bayer

3. What do you think is the most interesting aspect of your career?

The individuals you get to meet in your professional odyssey. These are academic heavy hitters, near celebs in academic circles (for the right reasons, because they conduct sound science).

Dr. Marjorie Hoy — my primary mentor in grad school (called a committee chair) at the University of Florida. The foremost world expert on insect genetics. She literally wrote the book on it. Though the first gen of biotech crops had been released in 1996, little work had been done on transgenic arthropods. Questions loomed large, like how do you regulate something you have zero experience with? Recognizing this knowledge gap, she developed biotech mites as a risk assessment model for regulators.

Dr. Lisa Earle at Cornell University — a noted expert in plant cell and tissue culture. Turns out you can do more than cut and paste genes, you can fuse cells of different (but related) species together and get something entirely new. You can also regenerate most any plant from a single cell if you give it the right diet.

Dr. Peter Davies — renowned plant physiologist and dynamic science communicator.

Dr. John Losey — another Cornell prof, an entomologist. Wrote a controversial letter to the editor that was published in the prestigious journal Nature. He claimed that biotech crops were potentially harming monarch butterflies. Though it was rightly critiqued for its poor experimental design and lack of pre-publication peer-review, I enjoyed the debate it stirred and chatting with him about it.

Mr. Dennis Avery — wrote a controversial book called Saving the Planet with Pesticides and Plastic. Sounded like bunk the first time I heard it, but once I delved into it, it made perfect sense. In fact, it made so much of an impact, I interned with him and his son, Alex, at the Center for Global Food Issues in Virginia. This singlehandedly put me on the science communication career track.

4. How do you think the ongoing climate crisis will affect your field?

The climate crunch represents an opportunity — both directly and indirectly.

Directly: unconventional “crops” that can more effectively harvest carbon from the atmosphere. When I worked in Florida, a Ft. Myers outfit named Algenol Biofuels was working on biotech strains of algae to produce biofuel. The benefit is that these would be carbon neutral — carbon dioxide that comes out of a car’s tailpipe would just be refixed (soaked up) at a later time by the algae — allowing us to keep our basic fuel infrastructure (the pump) in place. Definitely a less disruptive transformation than building charging stations everywhere.

Indirectly: no-till practices and carbon sequestration compliments of herbicide tolerant crops. Roundup Ready technology is one example. For example, weeds in-field are managed by an over the top application of Roundup. The crops planted in the field can easily break down Roundup (they’ve been engineered to do so). Weeds are eradicated. The main benefits are twofold:

  • There’s no need to till (break up the soil) to manage weeds — so there’s significantly less erosion of precious topsoil.
  • That means organic matter (loaded with carbon) can build undisturbed and get locked away in a subterranean soil crypt. Tillage otherwise exposes organic matter to air, freeing up CO2 again, which is exactly what we don’t want.
researcher_joseph_amsili
Lead researcher Joseph Amsili takes core samples of cover crops at the Russell E. Larson Agricultural Research Center. (Image by Jason Kaye Research Group, Penn State)

5. What are some of the major changes you have seen in your work since you first started your career?

The differences between first, second, and “next gen” biotechnology. Kind of like comparing the bulky Zack Morris “Saved by the Bell” brick phone to the iPhone 12. Functionally, we’ve made so much headway. Regulatory agencies are finally starting to catch up with the science. And that’s been the bottleneck for a long time. We have about 25 years of real-world experience with biotech crops. We can comfortably take the training wheels off and let it blossom. We recently started to deregulate the industry biotech to help jumpstart it to its full potential.

Cisgenics is an offshoot of biotechnology that keeps cut and pasted DNA more “in-house” — so only genetic material between a crossable, sexually compatible species is used. For example, between an apple and apple. Or even more distantly related species, like a cabbage and radish (which you can naturally crossbreed)! The idea is that we could arrive at the same endpoint using conventional breeding – sidestepping regulatory concerns that transgenics (cutting and pasting genes between non-sexually compatible species, often spanning different kingdoms) involves.

As mentioned earlier, there’s also the rise of CRISPR — aka gene editing — as a precision breeding tool. Instead of cutting and pasting in a Microsoft Word document, CRISPR is more search and replace.

Gene drive is another innovation. “Selfish” genes — ones that flout conventional laws of probability and inheritance — basically tip the scales and ensure they will be inherited by the next generation. In the case of mosquitoes, gene drive has been used to spread “self-limiting” genes throughout a population. These genes ensure that the next gen doesn’t make it to adulthood, knocking down mosquito populations that vector human diseases.

6. Who do you think benefits most from your field of work?

Everyone, with a caveat. Initially, biotech was really designed to streamline the farmer’s job – Roundup Ready Technology (mentioned earlier) and bt technology (built-in biodegradable pesticides). Did the consumer benefit from these innovations? Absolutely. Less and safer pesticide use reduces our overall environmental footprint.

But consumers understandably need to feel an intimate, day-to-day connection to the technology. Biotechnology has already saved the entire Hawaiian papaya industry from ringspot virus, will next-gen CRISPR save the threatened banana too?

To the industry’s credit, the focus is now becoming more consumer-centric. Some quirky and “designer” in nature, others more functional. For example, Pinkglow Pineapples, blue roses, Arctic Apple, and the Simplot Innate Potato.

Also on the horizon are crops with more energy efficient profiles. For example, roots designed to more effectively mine nutrients. What does this mean? Less need to supplement with fertilizers. Fertilizers are very energy intensive to manufacture, and runoff/leaching has potential environmental consequences downstream.

There’s also more humanitarian applications like neutraceuticals (boosted nutritional content) of staple foods like and golden rice and cassava. The appeal is that they’re de-commercialized, open-source, and free to users, no strings attached.

 

Tim Durham’s family operates Deer Run Farm — a truck (vegetable) farm on Long Island, New York. As an agvocate, he counters heated rhetoric with sensible facts. Tim has a degree in plant medicine and is an Associate Professor at Ferrum College in Virginia.

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