Genome Sequencing and Covid-19: How Scientists Are Tracking the Virus – The New York Times
A few days ago Kevin Folta, a colleague whose main research focuses on strawberry genetics and crop improvement, tweeted a link to an interview he did with HuffPost Science. The video sums up a lot of the same ideas I try to communicate in my classes about genetically-modified foods, both their risks and their benefits. The post on HuffPo Science has received almost 2000 comments as of this writing, so it clearly struck a nerve.
One of the points he makes is that humans have been doing genetic modification for tens of thousands of years. All of our crop plants are the result of mutation, selection, natural hybridization, and in some cases, deliberate hybridization. There is no such thing as ‘natural corn’ — it is the product of human civilization and could not survive without us. And when genetic modification happens naturally or through traditional plant breeding, whole genomes are scrambled. Modern genetic engineering allows targeted access to a single gene at a time, either by inserting a new, well-studied gene into a plant, or regulating the expression of an existing gene. But for some reason, the backlash against the modern, targeted approach is far beyond that of other techniques.
Sometimes the backlash is motivated by a disdain for the large companies that control so much of our food supply (and our politicians). But there is also a genuine fear that scientists are messing around with things they don’t understand and it will kill us all, or at least seriously mess up our lives and environments. I am all in favor of testing new crops for human and environmental safety. I believe crop biotechnology deserves neither a free pass nor impossible regulations. To hold transgenic crops to a standard that they be proven to do no harm to an ecosystem (an effectively impossible claim to uphold) when no other crop has ever been held to such a standard is hypocritical.
I’ve been casually following the litigation related to the patent mess surrounding BRCA1 and BRCA2 (see here and here for my previous comments). In short, those are two human genes linked to an increased likelihood of developing breast cancer. Their sequences were patented some years ago by the University of Utah, where they were identified, and exclusively licensed to a private company called Myriad Genetics.
Today, the US Supreme Court ruled on a separate but related case covering a patent for a medical diagnostic test. The Court found the patent invalid because it was not far removed from natural processes, which are not patentable. Experts in biotech patent law suspect that this ruling may set precedent that extends to the BRCA1 case. This would be a welcome development, and a sign of sanity in the fairly insane world that is the US patent system.