Professor discusses genetic modification

Genetic engineering can give plants and animals qualities they don’t normally have.

Mike Enright

About 70 people sat under the disco-ball-littered ceiling of the Varsity Theater in Dinkytown Tuesday evening – not to hear a concert, but to listen to a University professor talk about genetically modified plants and animals.

Café Scientifique, a monthly lecture series sponsored by the Bell Museum of Natural History, is designed to take science out of the classroom and bring it to the public. The museum began its version of the worldwide series in 2004.

At Tuesday’s event, a University researcher discussed genetic engineering, touching on how organisms such as nutrient-enriched crops can be altered, and the potential payoffs and pitfalls of the practice.

Genetically engineered organisms result from combining DNA from one species with another, said Jennifer Kuzma, a professor at the Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs’ Center for Science, Technology and Public Policy.

Researchers create the modified organisms, she said, by using enzymes to cut out a segment of DNA, transferring a desired trait from an organism that naturally possesses it to one that doesn’t.

“With genetic engineering, you can take a gene from virtually any species and put it into virtually any other species,” Kuzma said.

Products created so far include crops infused with genes to make them healthier to eat, and to strengthen their resistance to insects or drought. For instance, researchers have engineered plants such as vitamin-enriched corn and allergy-free soybeans, Kuzma said.

Scientists have even added a protein to crops that comes from a bacterium, which pokes holes in the guts of insects when they try to eat the plants, she said.

Between 1996 and 2004, worldwide use of pesticides decreased by 14 percent due to genetically engineered crops, Kuzma said. In that same time farmers saved $27 billion in chemical costs, she said.

“There have also been fewer reports of health effects from pesticides,” Kuzma said.

While most scientists believe genetic engineering is safe, it is not without its risks, Kuzma said. There are issues with cross-contamination, when a plant modified for one purpose gets mixed in with one created for another. There have been isolated incidents of this.

Kuzma focused mostly on genetically engineered plants in her discussion because they most directly affect consumers. These days, 70 to 75 percent of processed food in grocery stores is genetically altered, she said.

While research animals have also been genetically modified, Kuzma said, current laws in the United States do not allow such animals to be used as food.

University students Ayla Mitchell and Lindsay Adams both attended Café Scientifique for the first time Tuesday in order to get extra credit for a class.

Adams, a cultural studies and comparative literature senior, said she learned quite a bit from listening to Kuzma.

The lecture made “it clear how complex this issue really is and how genetic modification is mostly framed in economic terms, which is not going to work for most people,” she said.

Not enough people understand the issue, said Mitchell, an elementary education sophomore.

“A majority of society needs to know about it, but the only ones listening are those who are interested,” she said.

Adams said she isn’t necessarily against genetic engineering, but thinks more research is needed.

“It has to be slowed down and studied because I can’t afford $8 pineapples,” she said.