When Somebody Else Achieves Your Life’s Goal and It Still Comes to Nothing
For fifteen years, from my submitting applications to fund my postdoc through my first faculty position, through political change leading to nonrenewal of grant funding (despite outstanding ratings) and denial of tenure, and through an attempt to rig an existence as a scientist without federal grants, my science career had one overriding goal: to enable agriculture without the use of chemical disease control. Another fifteen years later, an excellent scientist I met numerous times at conferences has used the identical system I was working with to achieve exactly this. And because of world politics and capitalist economics, it will come to absolutely nothing, and the consequent famines will lead to starvation.
Had I learned of this publication a decade and a half ago, I’m not sure whether I would have been despondent—scooped in a life quest—or excited for a colleague who absolutely deserves this success. Perhaps I’d have been ready to vandalize the offices of the most reprehensible corporation on his behalf. (It no longer exists—see below.)
At this point, I feel detached and analytical, so it seemed like a good time for a blog post. Let me back up: one of the major ways plants defeat viral, bacterial, and fungal pathogens is called systemic acquired resistance (SAR). Infection at one site in a plant causes the production of hormones and other messengers that travel to other parts of the plant and heighten defenses against these invaders, preventing or mitigating disease. Plant disease is a significant cause of crop failures, leading to famine in the Global South and high food prices in the Global North. Many decades of progress in this field have elucidated the genes, small molecules, and other components plants use to get this system to work. (My lab made minor contributions to understanding SAR, but our focus was on a different part of the disease resistance signaling.)
It turns out SAR is sensitive to temperature. As temperatures go up, it stops working. This did not bode well for a world amidst a climate crisis.
The lab in question (that of Shen Yang He, who did much of this work at the Department of Energy Plant Research Labs—so in the envious position of not having to apply for funding—and then moved to Duke University) used Pseudomonas syringae bacteria and a weed in the mustard family called Arabidopsis. Suffice it to say that this is the best-characterized system for studying host-pathogen interactions (probably of any type) with the broadest array of available tools to use in these studies. (I’d focused most of my lab’s efforts on the same system.) Ten years ago, his lab observed that if Arabidopsis was grown for one day at elevated temperature (28 °C, rather than 23 °C, so well within the range of temperatures during the growing season in most of the US), SAR didn’t work, and the plants succumbed to bacterial (and other) diseases.
His lab looked at what genes didn’t turn on at the elevated temperature. Most of these turned out to be dead ends, but when he genetically engineered Arabidopsis to make a lot of one of them, it rescued SAR and disease resistance at the higher temperature.
SAR is thought to have evolved to be inducible because of a tradeoff—a cost of defense paid in less plant growth. To overcome this problem, He’s lab used a system worked out by a different lab that assured the protein encoded by this gene was only made under conditions of infection. His strategy succeeded. Moreover, the same thing worked in important crop plants.
Just ramping up the important genes tended to kill the plants, but restoring the activity of a gene that would optimally have been there but wasn’t (due to global warming in this case) should be more benign. And it was. I can’t underestimate how huge this result is as a proof of concept. I’d had a similar idea, so had lots of other scientists in the field, but He’s lab got it to work.
Brilliant: the solution to a coming crisis, global warming causing plant disease infestation and famine. What’s the rub? The only way to do this is to make transgenic plants.
Here’s where economics and politics come in. A brief history lesson: 1987—Monsanto contributes to developing a method whereby foreign genetic material can be introduced into plants, making them transgenic. The court battle drags on forever, they get the patent, and it’s well into the new Millennium before a court finally recognizes that patents on enabling technologies are a bad idea because they destroy innovation. In the meantime, virtually every small and mid-sized company trying to save the world from famine (as well as those pursuing other laudable goals) go bankrupt because of the uncertainty over whether they’d be able to market their products. Then, the big companies retrench and only pursue transgenic products likely to make them at least $100 million (that’s the number DuPonters quoted me at the time) because of the cost of getting the product through the regulatory hurdles and to market.
The big companies consolidate. One of them, Monsanto, decides it wants to dominate the world’s food supply. They begin buying up all of the small hybrid corn producers and many other companies.
Greenpeace decides having most of the world’s food supply in the hands of one of the world’s most evil companies would be bad. (It would have been.) They decide to demonize transgenic technology by putting out blatant lies about it. They knew they were lying—suffice it to say that after I debated Greenpeace’s spokesman for genetic engineering issues on national radio (back in 2002), he admitted it to me in private correspondence. They thought their lies were justified by their goal. Unfortunately, other environmental organizations didn’t realize what was going on. They believed the lies. (Again, I cite personal experience with leaders of Friends of the Earth and other groups.)
The environmental groups won the battle for public opinion in Europe. As a result, other countries dependent upon sales to Europe also pledged not to use GMOs. There was an especially sad case where the government of Zimbabwe chose to let its people starve rather than risk European markets for their exports. Greenpeace very publicly told them to just take the damn American GMO food, but it was too late—they couldn’t get Pandora’s box closed at that point.
In the US, savvy businessmen took advantage of the situation: they pushed for the USDA to issue regulations on what a food product must do to be considered organic. Molecular tests must prove that the produce is GMO-free (or less than 0.5% contamination, I believe). Organic is not better for consumers or for the environment than non-organic food. It’s a label like halal or kosher, which means something to a particular group but does not make the food superior.
Once the regulations were in place, public opinion followed. Now, every major food company makes megabucks selling organic produce that is no better for you than the non-labeled food that is half the price.
More recently, scientists believed they had solved this ridiculous situation. New technology (CRISPR being the first, but there are competing technologies) allowed the introduction of changes in single DNA base pairs. Those could have been introduced by the totally natural methods (note intense sarcasm) approved since the early part of the 20th century, like exposure of seeds to dangerous mutagenic chemicals or high-intensity nuclear radiation. Or, given enough time, they could have appeared as random variation in nature. In a still-untested regulatory strategy, these scientists think they can convince Americans that this gene-altered food is not “genetically modified.” Yeah, I’ll believe it when I see it.
Regardless, the breakthrough He’s lab made in creating plants that would help feed the world during heat waves can’t be implemented in this way. Long stretches of foreign DNA are introduced, not single point mutations.
At this point, most of the world sees genetic modification as problematic. It’s not surprising; hell, most of the US thinks Bill Gates is microchipping them when they get vaccinated. The number of people in the US with sufficient scientific literacy to read the literature and come to independent judgments is close to nil, so they rely on whatever arguments they find on the Internet.
With no groundswell of protest in favor of these approaches, the American food companies will continue making the big bucks, buying politicians as needed. And famine will become more and more likely in the Global South.
Those of us pushed out of science (and even those who coast toward retirement and decide they want to get their lives’ work to mean something in the world outside of academia) have three choices: politics, science communication, and education. I’ve dabbled in all three. If you’ve read this far and learned something, I’ve done my job as a science communicator.
If I wanted to be pedantic (mea culpa; I often do), I’d defer to my buddy Maximilien Robespierre, who once said, “The secret of freedom lies in educating people, whereas the secret of tyranny is in keeping them ignorant.”
Max got his head cut off with a guillotine. So far, nobody’s threatened me with the same, likely because I haven’t been effective. The average American seems dumber, more propagandized, and less scientifically literate with every passing year.
The situation does not bode well. This beautiful science is unlikely to benefit anyone.