AMA Cheerleading for Genetically Engineered Food

AMA Cheerleading for Genetically
Engineered Food

Biotechnology Newswatch
October 15, 2001

AMA backs biotech industry in defense of gene altered foods
BY: By Vicki Brower

The American Medical Association is joining the biotech industry to get the
word out that food biotech is good for our health, world hunger and the
environment. In a half-day briefing on October 4th, the AMA gathered
journalists primarily from the popular press to hear presentations by
researchers working in a variety of aspects of food biotech -- from the
enhancement of nutritional value of foods, to allergen testing of new
genetically engineered foods, to producing vaccines for infectious diseases
in grain, to a newly published study on the impact of genetically engineered
crops on the environment.

Using the same genomic tools used to decipher the human genome, biotech
experts are ''designing'' foods that have enhanced micro- and
macronutritional value, said Martina McGloughlin, director of the
Biotechnology Program at the University of California Davis and the U of
Cal. Systemwide Life Sciences Informatics Program, which spans all nine
campuses and three national labs. ''These crop enhancing tools are very
powerful and they are allowing us to do things that mean we are no longer
dependent on some pretty nasty chemicals we've relied on in the past to help
grow our crops,'' she said.

Genomic progress in agriculture will allow individuals to use foods to
address personalized health problems, said Dr. McGloughlin.

''I think the day will be coming when we can actually customize our food to
suit our genetics and optimize the quality of our lives,'' she predicted. In
the future, all food will contain genes to protect against disease, and
there will also be value-added components such as increased levels of
micronutrients, such as carotenoids, phytoestrogens, phenolics, flavinoids
and tannins to prevent diseases of aging and macronutrients, such as more
vitamin content and higher lysine content in cereals for those who do not
eat meat.

Plants are being developed currently to contain complete proteins instead of
partial ratios of amino acids for those who do not have access to animal
protein. Scientists are also working to increase sulfur-rich amino acids in
soybeans for the same purpose, and to transfer a-amylase, a human milk
protein into rice.

Conversely, biotechnology is being used to eliminate antinutrients that
interfere with the availability of and/or absorption of nutrients, such as
phytate, which is found in animal feed and which makes supplementation of
phosphorus, zinc and iron necessary currently. However, supplementation of
phosphorus in animal feed produces environmental pollution. A gene is being
introduced into corn that breaks down the phytate so that animal feed does
not have to be supplemented, said Dr. McGloughlin.

Modifying crops to contain more nutrients requires scientists to be on the
lookout for safety issues, said McGloughlin. A few years back, Brazil nuts
were being modified to produce more protein, but it was discovered that the
very protein that was being transferred to the nuts was one that causes
individuals to be allergic to that type of nut. The project was shelved.

Other ''antinutrients,'' such as known allergens and toxins, can also be
reduced with food biotechnology, said the next speaker, Steve Taylor, head
of the department of food science and technology at the University of
Nebraska in Lincoln. He focused on safety testing of modified foods to test
for allergens.

''I think that in the long term, we will have food that are less hazardous
because biotechnology will have eliminated or diminished their
allergenicity,'' he said.

The chances of creating a new allergenic food is actually quite small
because of what is known about allergens currently, Taylor asserted. While
virtually all allergens are proteins, very few proteins in nature are
actually allergens, he said. There are about 50-100 known allergenic
proteins in foods, and most allergenic foods contain more than one
allergenic protein, he said.

''We have to date identified half of the major allergens that exist in
allergenic foods but many of the unidentified food allergens are likely to
be very similar to already-identified allergens from other foods. ''For
example, the trout allergen is unlikely to be very different from the salmon
allergen because the two species are cousins,'' he said.

The greatest risk for creating an allergen occurs when a gene is taken from
a source known to be allergenic. Such a gene could produce a novel protein
in the new food that contains the allergen from the original source. But it
is easy to determine whether a known allergen has been introduced by testing
the blood serum of subjects who are allergic to the source material to see
if the allergen has been transferred, said Taylor.

Scientist also compare the structure of the novel protein produced by gene
transfer to the structure of known allergens; if similarities are found,
they should throw it out because it will be expensive to develop.

But if a new protein passes these tests, Taylor believes it is safe to add
them to the food chain. If it fails, the food should be banned from human
and animal food supplies, he said. Ultimately, Taylor does not believe that
known allergens will be introduced via biotechnology.

''There are good ways of predicting the potential allergenicity of a
genetically modified food, and these methods have been subject to
considerable discussion around the world,'' said Taylor. ''Some agreement
is being reached on approaches that can and should be taken.

''As a participant in those discussions, I am an advocate for commercial
enterprise undertaking appropriate allergenicity assessments using
approaches discussed internationally and agreed upon,'' he added.

Research is being conducted also to reduce allergenicity of known allergens.
At Alabama A&M University scientists are working to decrease the
allergenicity of peanuts by removing one of the three known major peanut
allergens. ''While this would not render peanuts hypo-allergenic, it would
decrease the likelihood of infants becoming sensitized to peanuts,'' said
Taylor. ''Biotechnology can also be used to alter food allergens, like eggs,
in a way that they can be used to make vaccines that could lead to cures for
food allergies,'' he said.

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