Screen Shot at PM

GLP Infographic: All GMO research is industry funded? Biofortified analysis sets record straight

Those who follow the issue of genetically engineered crops have heard claims that there is little independent research on their safety for consumption or the environment. A new public database of research tells a different story. The resource is the GENetic Engineering Risk Atlas (GENERA). The results, represented on the graphic below jointly developed by Biology Fortified, Inc. (BFI), an independent tax-exempt non-profit and Jon Entine’s the Genetic Literacy Project, show that independent peer-reviewed research on GMOs is common, conducted worldwide, and based on a random sampling makes up half of the total of all research on risks associated with genetic engineering.GENERA Map

GENERA is a searchable database of peer-reviewed scientific studies on the relative risks of genetically engineered crops. The database includes important details at-a-glance to help people find and learn about the science of GMOs. GENERA has now entered its beta-testing phase with the first 400 out of over 1,200 studies that have been curated.

The mission of BFI, popularly known as Biofortified, is to strengthen the public discussion of issues in biology, with particular emphasis on genetics and genetic engineering in agriculture. Founded in 2008 as a scientist-run information resource and public forum, Biology Fortified does not accept funding from industry sources, and is instead funded by the contributions of readers and grants.

Dr. Karl Haro von Mogel, Chair and co-Director of BFI, said that people are looking for independent information about GMOs. “People are looking for sources that they can trust that can help them find unbiased information about genetic engineering, but in a politically-charged debate, unbiased sources are difficult to find. We’ve been recognized for our independent expertise on this subject, so it was only natural that we should take a project like this on.”

GENERA started as a list of studies to show people how much research has been conducted on GMOs, however the members of BFI quickly recognized that something better was needed. To begin work on GENERA, BFI was awarded a peer-reviewed grant from the American Society of Plant Biologists (ASPB) Educational Foundation in 2012. The Atlas was developed during 2013 and 2014. BFI enlisted the help of a team of awesome volunteers who tracked down and entered the details of hundreds of studies into the Atlas.

Journalists, scientists, public officials, and anyone else can use GENERA to search for research on the effectiveness of using genetic engineering to modify the genetics of plants, and can find studies that compare GMOs to non-GMOs to see if they are equivalent. Studies conducted on the safety of consuming genetically engineered foods and their impacts on the environment are also included in the Atlas.

“We’ve made it really easy for people to find the information they are looking for in the Atlas,” said Dr. Anastasia Bodnar, co-director of BFI. “Every study has a page that tells you all about who did the research and in what countries, what crops and traits were studied, and who funded it.” Each study page also posts the results of the research, said Bodnar. “We read the studies so you don’t have to – and we have links to the studies so you can read them if you want to!”

GENERA also offers users a unique opportunity to look at the results of hundreds of studies at once with a built-in chart feature. After doing a search, users can turn that search into a chart of the selected studies to look at their results, funding sources, or almost any other attribute they want. The site currently includes two tutorials and a glossary of terms to help visitors learn how to use these features.

The team at BFI is already seeing patterns in the research. Out of the first 400 randomly-selected studies available in the GENERA beta test, half of them are funded entirely by government agencies and independent nonprofit organizations. Before the project began, rough estimates placed them at just a third of the research. And the government-funded research is worldwide in scope – concentrated in Europe and Asia, followed by North America and Australia. These findings should turn the heads of people who thought it was skewed to private, U.S.-based laboratories.

“Not all of our results are surprising,” said Bodnar. “Systematic reviews have concluded that genetically engineered crops are safe to eat, and when you look at the results collected in GENERA, it agrees with that conclusion.”

The Atlas is a work-in-progress, and BFI needs help to complete the project. Anyone can volunteer to help the project – you do not have to be a scientist to make a valuable contribution. Tax-deductible donations will help fund the maintenance and development of the Atlas. Even just trying out the resource and answering a brief survey will be a big help to the project.

Visit the GENERA website at

XiaoZhi Lim is a writer/editor with the Genetic Literacy Project.

Gates Foundation, GMO banana face renewed attacks

Among the controversial projects funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation is the development and testing of a biofortified GMO banana developed to boost its iron, Vitamin E and proVitamin A content.

To this end the Foundation, via its Grand Challenges in Global Health Initiative, has so far given $15 million to Queensland University of Technology for the program run by Professor Dr James Dale, with a latest tranche of $10 million handed over this year.

The declared purpose is to roll out nutritional benefits across the tropics, but initially to India, Uganda, Kenya, Tanzania and Rwanda – all countries that suffer from widespread nutritional deficiencies.

And Dale is certainly enthusiastic, telling the Independent that “This project has the potential to have a huge positive impact on staple food products across much of Africa and in doing so lift the health and wellbeing of countless millions of people over generations.”

So what’s so controversial about that?

What Dale has done is to take the high beta-carotene banana gene for his GMO ‘super-bananas’ from an existing Fe’i banana variety from Papua New Guinea, following a study that compared ten cultivars with yellow to orange fruit.

The trouble is, this makes Dales’ GMO ‘super-banana’ a clear case of biopiracy. The original Asupina, collected 25 years earlier from Papua New Guinea and held by the Queensland Department of Primary Industries (Q-DPI), is the rightful property of the nation and the communities that developed it.

Could his real intention be to capture a commercial market in selling a premium, novelty ‘high nutrient’ banana to northern consumers? And in the process pave the way for other GMO bananas with commercially desirable qualities?

Read full, original article: Why is Bill Gates backing GMO red banana ‘biopiracy’?

Millennials support sustainability and biotech

Health and nutrition related information are two important topics for US consumers, but recently there has been an increasing interest in food production and sustainability. This year, the International Food Information Council (IFIC) recently conducted its biannual Consumer Perceptions of Food Technology Survey to gauge American consumers’ knowledge, opinions, perceptions, and behaviors in the context of plant and animal biotechnology, food production, and sustainability. For the first time, the Survey looked at how Millennials’ opinions on these issues compared to other age groups. Many interesting findings indicate opportunities to communicate with this increasingly influential group:

  1. Millennials are more aware of sustainability and are willing to pay more for sustainable foods.
  2. Millennials are also more favorable toward food biotechnology than other age groups. 
  3. Millennials don’t trust conventional sources for information on food and health issues.

Read full, original article: Can You Be in Favor of Both Sustainable Foods and Biotechnology? Millennials Say You Can

Applying neuroscience to poverty may do more harm than good

The idea that poverty can change the brain has gotten significant attention recently, and not just from those lay readers (a minority, according to recent research) who spend a lot of time thinking about neuroscience. Policy makers and others have begun to apply neuroscientific principles to their thinking about poverty — and some say this could end up harming poor people rather than helping.

At The Conversation, the sociologist Susan Sered takes issue with “news reports with headlines like this one: ‘Can Brain Science Help Lift People Out Of Poverty?’” She’s referring to a June story by Rachel Zimmerman at WBUR, about a nonprofit called Crittenton Women’s Union that aims to use neuroscience to help get people out of poverty. Elisabeth Babcock, Crittenton’s chief executive, tells Ms. Zimmerman:

“What the new brain science says is that the stresses created by living in poverty often work against us, make it harder for our brains to find the best solutions to our problems. This is a part of the reason why poverty is so ‘sticky.’”

And, she adds:

“If we’ve been raised in poverty under all this stress, our executive functioning wiring, the actual neurology of our brains, is built differently than if we’re not raised in poverty. It is built to react quickly to danger and threats and not built as much to plan or execute strategies for how we want things to be in the future because the future is so uncertain and planning is so pointless that this wiring isn’t as called for.”

Sered, however, says that applying neuroscience to problems like poverty can sometimes lead to trouble: “Studies showing that trauma and poverty change people’s brains can too easily be read as scientific proof that poor people (albeit through no fault of their own) have inferior brains or that women who have been raped are now brain-damaged.”

Read full, original article: Can Brain Science Be Dangerous?


Canada gearing up to pass law against genetic discrimination

In 2008, the United States Congress passed the Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act (GINA) preventing the use of genetic information in health insurance and employment. And now Canada might soon be joining a handful of countries that have laws against genetic discrimination.

The bill, which makes it illegal to ask that someone disclose genetic information or undergo a genetic test in order to provide services such as insurance or enter into any kind of contract, was first introduced in 2013. Exceptions are made for medical or research purposes with patient consent. The bill also introduces amendments to labor and human rights acts making employment decisions based on genetic characteristics a criminal offence. Reports of bipartisan support are indicating that the passing of the bill into law is imminent.

When the human genome project began, the ethical, legal and social implications of such an initiative were a major concern. A little more than a decade after the human genome was sequenced; it is worthwhile examining what the global stance is on laws that regulate the use of genetic information as it pertains to insurance and employment.

Apart from the United States, only a handful of developed countries, most of them in Western Europe have passed laws pertaining to genetic information. A comprehensive review published in the Journal of Community Genetics indicates that as of 2012,

Five countries have enacted genetic specific laws, and three have comprehensive provisions pertaining genetic testing in their biomedical legislation. Central provisions cover informed consent, autonomy and integrity of the person tested, further uses of tests results, quality requirements of the personnel and facilities involved.

The United Kingdom has taken a slightly different approach, with a voluntary moratorium (set to expire in 2017) being signed between the government and the insurance industry that prevents the use of genetic test results to provide or alter health insurance. It is worthwhile noting that the United States is the only country where private health insurance linked to employment is the dominant adoption model, making the law a lot more relevant.

While most countries that have passed or are considering genetic discrimination laws include health insurance and employment under its purview, a clear divide is emerging, as to how these laws are being applied to life or long-term care insurance which may be exposed to significant risk. Countries like the US, Germany, Sweden, Switzerland and UK allow genetic information to be used in risk assessment for high value insurance purchases such as life insurance.  In contrast Austria, France and Portugal have excluded the use of such information in all types of insurance. In an article earlier this year, GLP contributor Meredith Knight discussed this issue as it pertains to the US version of the law, suggesting that advances in healthcare will make hereditary information less valuable.

As for the Canadian bill, in its current form, is quite broad in its scope and does not exclude life or long term insurance. Yann Joly, a geneticist at McGill University suggests that it is too early to make sweeping changes to Canadian law.

Deciding on the scope of anti-discrimination legislation (i.e. defining what constitutes genetic discrimination) would be a major challenge given the fast rate of scientific progress and the fact that most medical conditions have genetic components – as demonstrated by existing laws in other countries. Even with a Canadian law in place, insurers could find other ways of reaching their objectives through asking rigorous questions about familial history of diseases of applicants.

We are only beginning to see the tip of the iceberg as it pertains to tackling the legal concerns surrounding this issue. In countries that do have laws regulating the use of genetic information, there is too little data to indicate whether they are proving to be useful or not. This is most likely because genetic testing is still confined to a small percentage of the population, despite the attention it gets in medical and science media. As the costs of implementation come down and testing becomes more widespread, we will have to grapple with the strengths and weaknesses of existing legislation in a world of ubiquitous genetic data.

Arvind Suresh is a science communicator and a former laboratory biologist. Follow him @suresh_arvind

Additional Resources

How missing genes can lead to novel cures

Ten years ago, scientists discovered that some people are naturally missing working copies of a gene known as PCSK9. The consequences of the mutation were extraordinary. These people, including a Texas fitness instructor, a woman from Zimbabwe, and a 49-year-old Frenchman, had almost no bad cholesterol in their blood. Otherwise, they were perfectly normal.

Drug companies pounced on the clue. To lower cholesterol, they would also try to block PCSK9. Now two separate drugs that disable the gene’s activity are nearing FDA approval. People taking the medications have seen their cholesterol levels plummet dramatically, sometimes by 75 percent.

Regeneron Pharmaceuticals, the company behind one of these drugs, now says it’s building a giant database of human DNA information in what amounts to a large-scale, systematic search for the next PCSK9. At a new genetic research facility that Regeneron completed last month in Tarrytown, New York, the company says it has begun a five-year effort to sequence the genomes of as many as 100,000 volunteers recruited from East Coast hospitals and identify rare genetic outliers among them.

So far, 13,000 people’s DNA has been partly decoded, and the company is using software to search for deleted genes. By checking against the volunteers’ medical records, or by calling them in for intensive testing, the company expects to learn if these missing genes cause illness or, perhaps, also have unusual protective effects.

Read full, original article: The Search for Exceptional Genomes

gay genes rect x

Gay genes discovery coming soon?

Lots of (largely unjustified) journalistic fuss over that “gay gene” paper published last week. But here’s the reality, which the Associated Press’s Lindsay Tanner summed up best: “A large study of gay brothers adds to evidence that genes influence men’s chances of being homosexual, but the results aren’t strong enough to prove it.”

Let me unpack that for you. One reason to be intrigued by this study, published November 17 in the journal Psychological Medicine, is that it is the largest so far that has looked for genetic factors in male homosexuality, involving 409 pairs of gay brothers.

Another reason to pay attention is that the paper confirmed a much smaller study from 1993 that associated male homosexuality with a particular section of the X chromosome. Although the researchers set out to see if there was anything to that original study, they really didn’t expect to confirm it, according to one of them quoted by Kelly Servick at Science. The new study also confirmed hints in a 2005 paper of a region related to male homosexuality on chromosome 8.

One reason both the early X chromosome study and this one are particularly noteworthy is that they provide an explanation for an evolutionary puzzle about same-sex sex: if it’s partly genetic, why does it persist, since homosexuals have few children to pass on these genetic tendencies? (Remember that the various forms of assisted reproduction that make children more possible for gays than they used to be is quite a recent development. Even with ART, the gay male reproductive rate is still lower than the rate for heterosexual men.)

But if the genetic factor(s) for being sexually attracted to men lies on the X chromosome, that evolutionary question fades, for both cultural and genetic reasons. For one thing, homosexual men, having no family obligations of their own, are still in a position to help pass on their family genes by contributing to the upbringing of their nephews and nieces, their heterosexual siblings’ children. For another, women who inherit that X chromosome may be exceptionally attracted to men too, and may have more children as a result. At least one study has supported that idea. It found that women with homosexual brothers did have more children than others.

Caveats about this new study

And here are the howevers. Because they were trying to replicate the original 1993 study, the researchers used the same study methodology. That approach, known as  linkage analysis, has long since been supplanted. In linkage analysis, researchers are trying to home in on an area of the genome that might influence a trait. But the area is big, containing many genes, perhaps hundreds of them. So it’s not helpful in figuring out just which genes might be involved.

Linkage studies have been replaced by a technique called genome-wide association studies (GWAS), which can identify particular candidate genes worthy of further examination. Which makes this the place to point out that, despite the headlines, scientists don’t ever expect to unearth a single “gay gene.” As Servick notes, twin and family studies have long suggested genetic factors in homosexuality, but researchers who accept those findings believe genetic predispositions interact with environmental factors in developing a person’s sexual orientation.

Another reason for caution: although the data in the new study showed a trend to being statistically significant, most of the numbers never really got there. One of the things that might mean is that the idea of genetic factors in male homosexuality is hogwash, a position with a good number of devotees, including some researchers.

But another thing it could mean is that this area of the X chromosome might figure in homosexual behavior in some men, but it is definitely not a universal explanation for same-sex sex. That would allow for other explanations that have been proposed, such as events in the womb. In short, sexual orientation could be the result of many factors, some genetic and some not, interacting in intricate ways that we have not yet fathomed. Accepting that lots of elements go into sexuality seems pretty reasonable to me, given that sexual behavior is nothing if not complicated.

Furthermore, this research involves male homosexuals only. It says absolutely nothing about female homosexuality or bisexual behavior, where genetic factors have hardly been studied at all. This is a point made in Samantha Allen’s skeptical piece at The Daily Beast; she claims that bisexuals account for half of the LGBT community.

( I suppose you could speculate that perhaps that interesting stretch of the X chromosome influences attraction to females. Males with that DNA might have more children than average and pass on more of the family genes, compensating for the low reproductive rate of their lesbian sisters. Let me emphasize: sheer speculation, with no supporting data that I know of.)

We may know more soon about what (if anything) about sexual orientation is going on on the X chromosome, and on chromosome 8 too. The same researchers, fully aware that there are now better tools for gene identification than linkage studies, have already launched a GWAS. It will include data from the men in the recent study and DNA from an additional 1,000 gay men.

Geneticist Razib Khan, the well-known blogger at Gene Expression, is confident that clarification will be forthcoming. “[A]at some point in the next ten years I’m pretty sure we’ll localize the genes which carry variants which do result in a higher than typical likelihood of an individual exhibiting homosexual orientation,” he predicts.

A minefield of ethical and policy issues

If Khan’s forecast comes to pass, what might be the policy outcomes for more precise explanations of how genes play a role in homosexuality?

Dean Hamer, who led the 1993 study of the X chromosome’s role in male homosexuality, thinks a biological answer to that question has been crucial for the speedy cultural acceptance of gays in the the past few years. In an opinion piece that appeared last July in The Scientist, he argued many surveys have shown that, “while most of those who believe that people are born gay agree that same-sex relations should remain legal, nearly 70 percent of people who believe it’s a choice think that antisodomy laws should be reinstated.” To make the point exceedingly personal, he noted that such people believe he himself should be in jail.

One of the authors of the new paper, Northwestern University psychologist Michael Bailey, agrees. “Pro-gay liberals tend to emphasize innate causes, and anti-gay conservatives “choice” and malleability,” he said in another July opinion piece at The Scientist. Samantha Allen, however, argues that acceptance is based mostly on whether a person knows someone who is gay. What matters, she says, is friendship, not belief that gays are “born that way.” She also insists that attitudes are changing among gay men and women, that they are becoming more comfortable in challenging the biological origin story.

Despite many years of research on sexual orientation, Bailey believes the influence of genes on sexual behavior is “modest.” He also says it’s possible this research could lead eventually to knowledge about how to change sexual orientation. Parents, he believes, would have the right to use that knowledge because shaping children is what parenthood is about. He declares, “Changing a baby’s future sexual orientation isn’t harming the baby.” I daresay some would challenge that notion. Loudly.

At the National Review, Wesley Smith wonders if genetic testing can be far behind discovery of genetic factors in sexual orientation. He is thinking especially of prenatal diagnosis and even applications in assisted reproduction, diagnosis of embryos before implanting them. He’s concerned about abortion for possible genetic tendencies toward homosexuality. But as long as we’re speculating, why not speculate about the opposite attitude: abortion for lack of these genetic tendencies, in an attempt make a homosexual child?

Discovery of genes involved in sexual orientation, if any, won’t put an end to these debates.

Tabitha M. Powledge is a long-time science journalist and a contributing columnist for the Genetic Literacy Project. She also writes On Science Blogs for the PLOS Blogs Network. Follow her @tamfecit.


Additional resources:

Screen Shot at AM

Poll shows most Americans buy organic food based on fear, misconceptions

Young American consumers care about their food, but they’re also entirely baffled by what they’re eating. When brand consultancy BFG surveyed 300 shoppers in late September, they found that nearly 70 percent were buying some organic food, but only 20 percent thought they could define what “organic” means. Organic foods are grown or raised without the use of inorganic pesticides or genetically modified seeds.

BFG, whose survey respondents were mostly under 35, found that more than half qualified as “concerned, but confused.”

“What I think we’re seeing in grocery stores is that consumers are ultimately idealists,” explains BFG CEO Kevin Meany. “They desire honesty. They want to believe. They trust the label, and they’re willing to pay more based on that for something like ‘all-natural’ even though they’re not totally sure what it means.”

Read the full, original article: Americans Will Pay More For Organic, But They Also Have No Idea What “Organic” Means


Bee deaths and neonics: Inside story of Colony Collapse Disorder, Harvard’s Chensheng Lu’s crusade

Reports that honey bees are dying in unusually high numbers has concerned many scientists, farmers and beekeepers, and  gripped the public. There have been thousands of stories ricocheting across the web, citing one study or another as the definitive explanation for a mystery that most mainstream experts say is complex and not easily reducible to the kind of simplistic narrative that appeals to advocacy groups.

This analysis examines this phenomenon: how complex science is reduced to ideology, how scientists and journalists often facilitate that–and its problematic impact on public policy, the environment and in this case the wondrous honey bee. Specifically, it examines two controversial studies, both authored by the same researcher, that have become the linchpin for those who argue that bees and potentially the planet are facing a Beemageddon. It addresses:Screen Shot 2014-11-26 at 5.32.27 PM

  • Who is Chensheng Lu, the nutritionist who has become the face of the movement claiming that Big Ag is threatening bees, humans and our food supply?
  • What are neonicotinoids, the supposed time bomb at the center of the controversy?
  • What role have journalists, most prominently Tom Philpott of Mother Jones, played in mis-reporting the bee death story?
  • Do prominent entomologists and beekeepers endorse Lu’s belief that the world faces a “bee crisis” as Lu’s research, held up by activists as seminal and groundbreaking, contends?
  • Will—or should—’neonics’ be banned as a precautionary measure?

Note that all of the quotes included in this piece–and the written report in its entirety–were reviewed by the entomologists and beekeepers who are quoted. The quotes are in context and approved.

Chensheng Lu was in his element last week at a speech at Harvard Law School. The School of Public Health professor was lecturing on his favorite subject–his only subject these days, as it has become his obsession. He is convinced, unequivocally, that a popular pesticide hailed by many scientists as a far less toxic replacement for farm chemicals proven to be far more dangerous to humans and the environment, is actually a killer in its own right.

“We demonstrated that neonicotinoids are highly likely to be responsible for triggering Colony Collapse Disorder in bee hives,” claimed Lu. The future of our food system and public health, he said, hangs in the balance.

Lu is the Dr. Doom of bees. According to the nutritionist–but not clear to most other experts in the field– colony collapse disorder (CCD), which first emerged in 2006, can be directly linked to “neonics”, as the now controversial class of pesticides is often called, and also to genetically modified crops. Phased in during the 1990s, neonics are most often used by farmers to control unwanted crop pests. They are coated on seeds, which then produce plants that systemically fight pests.

To many environmental activists, the pesticide does more harm than good, and they’ve found their champion in Chensheng Lu. It’s been a busy fall for the professor, jetting back and forth between Boston and Washington, with forays around the United States to talk to adoring audiences. He presents himself as the defender of bees, and this fiery message has transformed a once obscure academic into a global “green” rock star, feted at events like last week’s lunch talk at Harvard.

The sudden abandoning of hives by honey bees known as Colony Collapse Disorder has emerged as one of the hottest science mysteries in recent years. Lu has authored two extremely controversial papers on CCD: one in 2012 and a second published this past spring. He and his two beekeeper colleagues – there were no entomologists on his tiny research team – contend that neonicotinoids present a mortal threat to bees. Not only that, Lu claims, neonics endanger humans as well, accelerating Parkinson’s Disease.

Lu reached folk hero status among environmentalists last May when the Harvard School of Public Health launched a promotional campaign touting his latest, controversial research: “Study strengthens link between neonicotinoids and collapse of honey bee colonies,” the press release claimed. Before the study was even circulated, stories in some mainstream publications including Forbes ran the release with only a pretense of a rewrite.

The story exploded on the Internet. Many environmental and tabloid journalists painted an alarmist picture based on Lu’s research: “New Harvard Study Proves Why The Bees Are All  Disappearing,” “Harvard University scientists have proved that two widely used neonicotinoids harm honeybee colonies,” and “Neonicotinoid Insecticide Impairs Winterization Leading to Bee Colony Collapse: Harvard Study” are three of thousands of blog posts and articles.

Behind the headlines

Although public opinion has coalesced around the belief that the bee death mystery is settled, the vast majority of scientists who study bees for a living disagree—vehemently.

How could a “Harvard study” and a sizable slice of the nation’s press get this story so wrong?.

The buzz that followed the publication of Lu’s latest study is a classic example of how dicey science can combine with sloppy reporting to create a ‘false narrative’—a storyline with a strong bias that is compelling, but wrong. It’s how simplistic ideas get rooted in the public consciousness. And it’s how ideology-driven science threatens to wreak public policy havoc.

Bees are important to our food supply. They help pollinate roughly one-third of crop species in the US, including many fruits, vegetables, nuts and livestock feed such as alfalfa and clover. That’s why the mystery of CCD is so troubling.

One of the central problems with Lu’s central conclusion—and much of the reporting—is that despite the colony problems that erupted in 2006, the global bee population has remained remarkably stable since the widespread adoption of neonics in the late 1990s. The United Nations reports that the number of hives has actually risen over the past 15 years, to more than 80 million colonies, a record, as neonics usage has soared.

Country by country statistics are even more revealing. Beehives are up over the past two decades in Europe, where advocacy campaigns against neonics prompted the EU to impose a two-year moratorium beginning this year on the use of three neonics.

Last February, the government of Australia, where neonics are used extensively, reaffirmed that “honeybee populations are not in decline despite the increased use of [neonicotinoids] in agriculture and horticulture since the mid-1990s.” Its central finding was just the opposite of what many in the media have reported: The APVMA (Australian equivalent of the EPA) concluded, “[T]he introduction of the neonicotinoids has led to an overall reduction in the risks to the agricultural environment from the application of insecticides.”

According to statistics Canada honey bee colonies have increased from 521,000 in 1995 to 672,000 in 2013, a record. North American managed beehive numbers have held stable over the last two decades.

:Screen Shot 2014-09-26 at 4.29.28 PM.png

Sources: USDA and Statistics Canada

So how did the narrative that the world faces a beepocalypse become settled wisdom? The media have widely conflated two parallel but different phenomena: Bee deaths related to CCD and bees dying from other causes.

Bee health took a sharp hit in the 1980s and has been struggling during the winter months for decades coinciding with the global spread of the parasitical Varroa destructor mite and the sub-lethal effects of miticides used to control the parasite. But these overwinter losses, while troubling, haven’t translated into declines in the overall bee population because bees reproduce rapidly in warmer months.

The bee health issue erupted into the public consciousness in 2006, when bee die-offs mysteriously spiked—in California to as high as 80%.

GMOs and cell phones did it?

The event was dubbed CCD by a team of entomologists because of the unique characteristics of the deaths: the unusual abandonment of hives by the oldest bees leaving behind larvae, the queen and food stores.

Advocacy groups originally pointed to cell phones and genetically modified crops as the likely culprits, and some fringe organizations, like the Organic Consumers Association, still do. But CCD gradually subsided.

Dennis van Engelsdorp, a University of Maryland entomologist who was part of the research team that named CCD, has written to me that there has not been a single field CCD incident in the last three years, except cases linked to the Nosema fungus. Confusing the picture, overwinter bee deaths also increased in the years after the CCD scare, reaching 30% or more in the US and in some European countries. Confounding doomsayers, losses plummeted to 21.9% over the winter of 2011-2012, jumped again during the following year’s frigid weather, then settled back into the low 20s.

In some states, like North Dakota, which is the largest honey producer in the US, the number of bee colonies has hit an all-time high.

The recent trend in Europe is also encouraging. In April, the EU released a report called Epilobee that surveyed bee health in 2012-2013. Seventy-five percent of bees suffered overwinter losses of 15% or less, a level considered well within the acceptable range in the US. Only countries in Europe’s far north, home to 5% of the bee population, and which suffered through a bitter winter, experienced losses of more than 20%.

In short, most entomologists scoff at media references of a beemageddon.

But that’s exactly what Lu claims.

Hyping the “Harvard” studies

Mother Jones, in its coverage led by food reporter Tom Philpott, has been particularly relentless in its promotion of Lu’s controversial views. It’s run more than a dozen articles about the alleged mortal threat posed by neonics. Upon the release of Lu’s most recent study, Philpott titled his article, “Did Scientists Just Solve the Bee Collapse Mystery?”

There were no “scientists” behind the Lu study, of course—only Lu himself. But rather than seeking out views of established experts in the field, he had Lu and only Lu answer the question he posed.

“[C]oming on the heels of a similar [study] he published in 2012, the CCD mystery has been solved,” he wrote. Philpott now unqualifiedly refers to neonics as “bee killer chemicals.”

Who is Chensheng (Alex) Lu, the Dr. Doom of honey bees? He is an environmental researcher with the Harvard School of Public Health with no formal training in entomology. His two bee papers are “Harvard studies” only in the sense that the only scientist who conducted the studies has a Harvard faculty appointment; his co-authors are local beekeepers. Both studies appeared in one of the most obscure science journals in the world, a marginal Italian journal.

Lu emerged out of academic obscurity two years ago with the publication of his first study on bee deaths. He promoted a simple explanation, the kind that energizes activists: A new class of pesticides, promoted by large chemical companies as a safer alternative to older chemicals, was a hidden killer.

“I kind of ask myself,” Lu told Wired in 2012. “Is this the repeat of Silent Spring? What else do we need to prove that it’s the pesticides causing Colony Collapse Disorder?”

The second coming of Silent Spring? Almost from the day his first study was published, Lu was making grandiose claims. By his own admission, he is the definition of an activist scientist. He is on the board of The Organic Center, an arm of the multi-million dollar Organic Trade Association, a lobby group with strong financial interest in disparaging conventional agriculture, synthetic pesticides and neonics in particular—a conflict of interest that Lu never acknowledges and to my knowledge no other journalist has reported.

Earlier this month, OTA announced it had hired Lu to tout the benefits of organics, including promoting the dangers of neonics.

Many of the world’s top scientists have challenged his research. Dennis vanEngelsdorp called Lu’s first study “an embarrassment” while Scott Black, executive director of the bee-hugging Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation, characterized it as fatally flawed, both in its design and conclusions.

University of Illinois entomologist May Berenbaum, who chaired the National Academy of Sciences 2007 National Research council study on the Status of Pollinators in North America called it “effectively worthless” to serious researchers. “The experimental design and statistical analysis are just not reliable,” she said.

Beekeepers have been skeptical as well. Lu’s findings contradicted what they witnessed in the fields. If neonics were a mystery killer, then not using them should translate into healthier bee stocks; but that’s not what has happened.

“In places where neonicotinoid pesticides have been banned, such as France and Italy, there’s no evidence that honeybee populations have rebounded,” noted Hannah Nordhaus, beekeeper and author of the bestseller The Beekeepers’ Lament.

Lu has been defiant since the stinging expert rejection of his first paper. He suspects the fingerprints of a Big Ag conspiracy of chemical companies, USDA and entomologists who he believes are ignoring the dangers to bees. Those are damning charges if true, but Lu had yet to present any evidence to back them up—until the publication of his newest paper last May.

Lu monitored 18 hives, a small number for such a complex study, comparing two different pesticides in different locations. He fed bees high fructose corn syrup laced with two neonics, imidacloprid and clothianidin, for 13 weeks. It was an odd choice because bees in fields usually only feed for as few as two weeks. Six of the 12 colonies fed neonics eventually ended up showing substantial deaths over the winter, as did one of the six control colonies.

According to Lu and his beekeeper co-authors, this proved that neonics cause CCD.

To seasoned observers of the bee controversy, the “new” study looked like more of the same. “Lu’s sample sizes are astonishingly small,” May Berenbaum told me, ticking off a litany of problems. ”He never tested for the presence of pathogens, so his conclusions dismissing other likely causes don’t follow from his data. The whole study just doesn’t hold together. And I’m not being a fusspot here. It’s unfortunate this was presented as a Harvard paper because it gives this credibility that it doesn’t deserve.”

Twitter lit up with critical comments, starting with Nordhaus:Screen Shot 2014-11-25 at 12.11.51 PMMany other critical posts followed, including by Brian Ames, a prominent apple grower, artisanal honeymaker and beekeeper:Screen Shot 2014-11-25 at 12.12.18 PM

Even rudimentary digging by reporters would have turned up the revealing fact, unreported by the adulatory environmental press, that first study was rejected by Nature, as Lu himself has acknowledged, before ending up in the Bulletin of Insectology, a marginal “pay for play” publication that is known to publish research often rejected by mainstream peer-reviewed journals.

(The Bulletin of Insectology has an “impact factor” (IF) of 0.375, which means that the average paper from that journal is cited by another journal approximately once every three years; in contrast, Nature, which rejected Lu’s first paper, has an IF of 51).

The second study faced the same fate. Unable to get his work published by credible journals, Lu returned to the same publication that put out his first piece—perhaps the only journal in the world that would publish it.

“Anyone at this point in time who wishes to make a contribution to the study of potential effects of neonicotinoids on honey bees—or any other aspect of honey bee health—and publishes this data in the extremely obscure journal Bulletin of Insectology is very hard to take seriously,” Colorado State University entomologist Whitney Cranshaw emailed me.

A week does not go by without one advocacy group or government official or activist scientist making sensational claims about the supposed catastrophic dangers that neonics supposedly present.

Just last week, for example, advertisements began appearing across Ontario in Canada warning, “neonic pesticides hurt our bees and us,” accompanied by a young boy gazing sadly at a dead bee. They were placed by a fringe advocacy group, the Canadian Association of Physicians for the Environment; its primary funder is David Suzuki, a once prominent but now long retired geneticist who more recently has become known for rants against GMO foods.

That kind of hyperbole, scientists say, obscures the complex story of what’s really happening to bees and why—and the risks of advocacy groups and activist journalists driving science and agricultural regulations into a policy ditch.

Which brings us back to the curious case of Alex Lu.

Although Lu’s most recent paper, published last spring, was not clear on this point, the nutritionist has publicly maintained that neonic seed treatments are the driving cause of CCD. Let’s be clear. Neonics are an appropriate subject for serious research. They are neurotoxic pesticides. Because they rely on a complex set of behaviors, bees exposed to high volumes could conceivably become drunk and ill. Scientists are and should continue to examine this chemical and all agricultural chemicals.

But the emphasis of many popular articles, and Lu’s study, is way out of whack with the potential dangers that scientists believe are presented by neonics. The pesticide is applied to seeds sparingly—only about 1-3 ppb is commonly found in pollen or nectar after application, levels way below safety concerns. Plants grown from a treated seed often need no further insecticidal treatment, unlike many competing chemicals. And in contrast to earlier generation insecticides that required multiple applications, when infestations are severe a single additional spraying generally suffices.

Lu steadfastly claims that bees that died in his studies were fed field realistic levels doses—statements echoed by reporters without, it turns out, cross checking with beekeepers or entomologists. “Chensheng Lu and his team treated 12 colonies with tiny levels of neonics,” Mother Jones maintained.


As Randy Oliver, a well known beekeeper, wrote on his Scientific Beekeeping blog, Lu fed his test colonies a pesticide brew of about 135 parts per billion (ppb). That’s 100 times higher then the 1-3 ppb commonly found in pollen or nectar, a level far below safety concerns. Rather than citing the chemicals’ ppb, some reporters touted the physical size of the dose, a worthless measurement. Lu also fed bees every week for 13 straight weeks when the real world application is just a few weeks at most.

“It’s hard to imagine anyone even reviewed this paper,” Oliver concluded.

What’s remarkable, numerous scientists and beekeepers told me, is that Lu’s bees didn’t just keel over in the first few weeks after sucking down what amounted to a lethal cocktail every day.

“It’s surprising those colonies lasted so long given the stratospheric quantities of insecticide [Lu] pumped into them for 13 weeks,” wrote Jonathan Getty on Bee-L Chat, a discussion forum for bee experts. “Lu has convincingly demonstrated, again, as in his previous study … that a high dose of an insecticide will kill an insect. Has anyone learned anything from all this? Looks like junk science at its worst.”

There was also scant evidence to back up Lu’s central claim that he had solved the mystery of CCD. “His description of the hives just didn’t show that,” University of Maryland entomologist Dennis vanEngelsdorp told me. Bee die offs, he said, have occurred mysteriously and periodically since at least the mid-19th century but became the focus of widespread public concern only in 2006. It’s clear that what Lu observed—bee deaths—“was not CCD. Looks like a typical bee colony death over the winter—which often includes bees abandoning the hive—but it’s a slow dwindle not a sudden collapse.”

Joe Ballenger, an entomologist writing for the independent sustainability site Biology Fortified, outlined how little Lu appears to know about CCD. “There are very important differences between the colonies Lu poisoned with insecticide and those which have been affected by CCD,” Ballenger wrote. “Despite these differences, Lu claims he has replicated CCD. However, his data demonstrates that he did not replicate CCD.”

Ballenger drew up a chart of his mistakes.

Are there any prominent entomologists who endorse Lu’s findings? I couldn’t find any. Mother Jones quoted Jeffrey Pettis, an entomologist and research leader at USDA’s Beltsville’s Bee Laboratory, as appearing to be supportive. “Pettis told me that he thought Lu’s study ‘adds to the list’ of studies showing that pesticides pose a significant threat to honeybees,” Tom Philpott wrote.

I emailed Pettis about that quote:

I was trying to be diplomatic when I talked to Philpott but the Lu study should not have been published. It is not good science. I was trying to say that it adds to the list that pesticides and bees don’t mix but it is not a paper that shows that neonics cause problems simply because it was poorly replicated with high dosages used.

So what was going on in the hives that Lu monitored? The bee deaths that Lu found suggest a quite different cause, said vanEngelsdorp; the bees appear to have been killed by Lu himself—entirely expected if hives are overdosed during a frigid winter.

Are there potential advantages to using neonics to control pest infestations?

A telling fact emerges when you view the landscape of studies about neonics: on the whole, those done in a laboratory or that use unrealistic high doses (e.g. Lu’s studies) raise precautionary concerns. In contrast, field observations show few if any serious problems.

The latest example? Four Canadian scientists led by Cynthia D. Scott Dupree, an environmental biologist at the University of Guelph, undertook a large-scale study of honey bee exposure to one neonic, clothianidin, which is applied as a seed treatment. The study was centered in southern Ontario, which advocacy groups have contended has been particularly hard hit by neonic-related bee deaths.

Designed in cooperation with the US Environmental Protection Agency and Health Canada, it was industry funded, but executed under Good Laboratory Practice Standards.

The scientists observed bees foraging heavily on the canola. As numerous other studies have suggested, they found, “Although various laboratory studies have reported sublethal effects in individual honey bees exposed to low doses of neonicotinoid insecticides, the results of the present study suggest that foraging on clothianidin seed-treated crops, under realistic conditions, poses low risk to honey bee colonies.”

Assertions by entomologists that neonics play a limited role in bee health infuriates some environmentalists convinced this mystery is solved: Let’s just ban neonics, they say, and move on.

“For its part, the pesticide industry is doing its best to shroud the phenomenon in uncertainty,” Mother Jones wrote in its article hyping the Lu study, “promoting a ‘multifactorial’ explanation that points the finger at mites, viruses, and ‘many other factors, but not…the use of insecticides,’ as neonic producer Bayer puts it in its ‘Honey Bee Health’ pamphlet.

But it’s not Bayer making those claims, as Philpott seemed to suggest; it’s independent and government scientists. Noting the complexity of the phenomenon, the US Department of Agriculture and the Environmental Protection Agency took a cautious, science-based approach to the emerging controversy three years ago, commissioning a broad-based assessment of the evidence. This panel, reflecting views by most commercial beekeeping and academic experts, concluded that neonics were unlikely to be the major driver of bee deaths.

Rather, the experts identified instead a complex set of causes likely linked to a surge in pathogens, such as Varroa mites that feed on the bodily fluids of bees and which first surfaced in the US in the 1980s and began infesting beehives in California in 1993; and Nosema, a common parasite that invades their intestinal tracts; and the use and perhaps misuse of miticides to control them. Other issues include the stress put on bees by large commercial beekeepers, particularly to service the agri-business demand for bees needed for the California almond crop in late winter before bees normally repopulate, as well as climate change and breeding issues.

Few experts or practitioners believe banning neonics or GMOs would improve bee health and could in fact result in farmers going back to spraying insecticides known to harm pollinators and humans.

“If we took pesticides out of the equation tomorrow, I think there’s no doubt we would have reduced colony losses,” vanEngelsdorp told me. “But even without pesticides, we’d still be seeing significant losses—losses that are unsustainable.”

Neonics present in corn dust at planting have been shown definitively to contribute to bee mortality, but that’s a result of faulty formulation, scientists have concluded. When used properly, there is intriguing evidence that neonics may actually improved bee health in some circumstances. Hints can be found, ironically, in Alex Lu’s own data, of all places.

Lu’s 2012 paper raises red flags because he used two separate dosing regimens as the experiment progressed, noted Richard Cowles, a prominent entomologist with the state of Connecticut, in an email to me. During the first four weeks, the bees were fed concentrations of imidacloprid that, as it turns out, were in fact field realistic. At three weeks into testing using these concentrations, the health of the bee colonies was positively correlated with exposure to imidacloprid, as measured by the number of capped brood cells. The bees appeared healthier. “Rather than continue the experiment with these concentrations, Dr. Lu inexplicably increased the dosages for the last nine weeks of feeding–by 40 times,” Cowles told me.


Cowles couldn’t get an answer from Lu and neither could I. This is one of the many questions that I had hoped to put to Lu in an interview. He at first agreed but then stopped communicating. I contacted him again and also reached out to the Harvard School of Public Health, but got no reply.

Entomologists have volunteered as to what they thought might have been going on when Lu changed feeding tactics. “Dr. Lu probably was trying to hide the fact that he observed an unexpected result contrary to his expectations, which led to him increase the dosages to poison the bees,” Cowles, emailed me. “Whether this sub-lethal effect is actually therapeutic to honey bees is a very interesting question, and one that I’d like to investigate.”

In other words, Lu’s data suggests the opposite of his stated conclusion—bees appear to do fine when exposed to field realistic doses and even increasingly higher amounts of neonics, but ultimately succumb to astronomical levels.

This is not the first time a neonic study has shown that bee health might improve when crops are treated with new generation insecticides. In a 2013 PLOS ONE study, a team led by vanEngelsdorp and Jeffrey Pettis studied the real world impact of 35 pesticides including three neonics—acetamiprid, imidacloprid and thiacloprid—by examining hives from seven major crops. Intriguingly, bee health improved although the results would need to be confirmed with follow up research. This study remains the only lab research to date that has evaluated how real world pollen-pesticide blends affect honey bee health.

The researchers found a striking reduction in the risk from Nosema infection when neonics were used, bee health improved. Why would that be? It seems neonics may suppress the parasite associated with the disease. vanEngelsdorp and Pettis are not yet sure this is a real effect; good science requires that results be confirmed in multiple studies. That said, the intriguing but startling finding directly challenges the belief that neonics pose an unusually unique danger to bees.

What is the future for bees, neonics and agriculture?

Are there replacement insecticides if neonics should be banned? Sure. Those based on pyrethroids and organophosphates some of which are more toxic to bees and humans, are not as effective as neonics for many uses—and are not in the political crosshairs.

That’s not slowed demands for an immediate ban. Advocacy groups recently widened the scope of their concerns, claiming neonics could have an unknown environmental impact, and waterways are being polluted. But evidence for that is scant. A US Geological Society study published in July found the highest levels detected were at least 40 times lower than benchmarks established by EPA to be protective of aquatic life, and most were up to 1,000 times below that level.

What would happen if US officials do institute sharp restrictions, as the White House may be contemplating?

Neonics are not only important to major row crops such as corn, soy and canola, they also remain the most effective weapon against Asian psyllid, an insect that spreads the deadly virus that threatens America’s citrus crop. They are the key pesticide keeping in check whitefly infestations, which could otherwise devastate winter vegetables. They are the primary insecticide used to counter leafhoppers in the grape-growing Northwest as well as thrips in cotton and water weevil in rice. They’ve been hugely successful in combating aphids and beetles in potatoes.

I found scant support among entomologists for the two-year precautionary moratorium adopted by European politicians in the wake of near hysterical media reports in 2012 and 2013, many generated by coverage of Lu’s research. That ban looks like a textbook case of “shooting before you aim,” resulting in unintended but predictable consequences. As Matt Ridley reported earlier this month in The Times of London:

All across southeast Britain this autumn, crops of oilseed rape are dying because of infestation by flea beetles. The direct cause of the problem is the two-year ban on pesticides called neonicotinoids brought in by the EU over British objections at the tail end of last year. … Farmers in Germany, the EU’s largest producer of rape, are also reporting widespread damage. Since rape is one of the main flower crops, providing huge amounts of pollen and nectar for bees, this will hurt wild bee numbers as well as farmers’ livelihoods.

There are now growing concerns that Lu’s studies will carry weight with politicians facing pressure to “do something”. In September, a coalition of environmental groups co-wrote a letter signed by 60 Congressional Democrats urging the EPA to restrict neonicotinoid use citing Lu’s work in arguing that “native pollinators” have “suffered alarming declines.”

Those calls send chills down the back of entomologists concerned that Lu’s claims that he has solved the mystery of the beemageddon that doesn’t actually exist will have a chilling impact on public policy.

“Lu’s work is clearly biased, sensational,” said Richard Cowles. “It is horrendously incompetent. This is just hogwash. We will all pay a price for bad research.”

May Berenbaum was appointed this past summer to chair a major National Academy of Sciences study on the health of pollinators ordered by the White House. I asked her if there is anything of value in Lu’s study to guide scientists and regulators? Do neonicotinoids threaten the health of this beleaguered arthropod?

Berenbaum paused. A dedicated environmentalist, she is known for her understated fairness.

“I’m no fan of pesticides and they are overused in agriculture, but you won’t find any confirmation of that in this study.”

Science is not a set of results; it is a method. If the method is wrong, the results are useless. The uncomfortably high number of bee deaths eludes the kind of definitive but potentially reckless conclusion that could result in precipitous regulations.

“This is a really complex issue with no quick and easy solutions,” Berenbaum said. “I can’t imagine a situation in which I would cite the findings of this paper as rigorous and reliable. This is just not good science.”

Jon Entine, executive director of the Genetic Literacy Project, is a Senior Fellow at the World Food Center Institute for Food and Agricultural Literacy, University of California-Davis and at the Center for Health and Risk Communication, George Mason University. Follow @JonEntine on Twitter.

Swiss GMO potato goes to field trial

The Swiss Agricultural Research Institute, Agroscope, wants to try growing genetically modified potatoes, reports the Swiss website The goal of the test is to be able to grow potatoes that are resistant to phytophthora. Phytophthora is a fungal infection that has caused global crop failure. In field trials these tubers already showed good resistance to the sickness. The use of such potatoes could reduce the use of pesticides.

Read full, original article: Swiss want to grow GM potatoes

Genome of worm removed from man’s brain mapped

For many years, a Chinese man in the U.K. experienced a range of debilitating neurological symptoms with no understood origin–including headaches, memory loss, and seizures. A biopsy found inflammation in the man’s brain, but they were unable to pinpoint the exact cause of his symptoms.

Then in one final biopsy, surgeons unearthed the source of the man’s neurological issues; they pulled out a tapeworm that had been crawling through the patient’s brain for the past four years. The centimeter-long parasite had travelled more than 2 inches from the right side of his brain to the left, before it was successfully removed through surgery. Now, the patient is doing just fine.

Researchers from the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute successfully mapped the genome of this man’s particular tapeworm, revealing it to be an extremely rare species known as Spirometra erinaceieuropaei. It marked the first time this species of tapeworm had ever been sequenced, and researchers hope its genetic information will help clinicians better diagnose and treat this parasite infection and others like it in the future.

The research indicates that the tapeworm is resistant to albendazole, a widely used anti-tapeworm drug. Now with this tapeworm’s genome mapped, researchers can pinpoint new drug targets in the worm that might be effective – both for Spirometra erinaceieuropaei and other tapeworms like it.

Read full original article: Worm living in human brain gets its genome mapped

Wisconsin police department to expand felon DNA collection program

The state Department of Justice has hired nearly 20 more workers and begun a pricey renovation of its Madison crime lab so that it will be able to handle tens of thousands of additional DNA samples when new collection requirements take effect next year.

Wisconsin currently takes DNA samples from anyone convicted of a felony and certain sex-related misdemeanors. A Republican-backed law set to take effect on April 1 dramatically expands the grounds for collection.

The measure requires local police to take DNA from anyone arrested for a violent felony and to ship the samples to the DOJ, although the agency won’t be allowed to process them until a judge finds probable cause that a crime was committed in each case. The law also requires anyone convicted of any misdemeanor to submit a DNA sample.

The law’s supporters say collecting DNA samples will help solve more crimes. Civil rights advocates, though, contend the expanded collection is an invasion of privacy.

The law means the DOJ will have to handle tens of thousands of additional samples. The agency already collects about 12,000 DNA samples from convicted felons annually and expects to receive 25,000 samples from felony arrests and 40,000 samples from misdemeanor convictions next year.

Read full, original article: Wisconsin agency preps for big jump in DNA testing

Axing of European science czar over GMO issues: 1 step forward for Greenpeace, 2 steps back for EU and science

Since 2012, the distinguished Scottish biologist Anne Glover has served as chief scientific adviser to the President of the European Commission. When José Manuel Barroso, who was then president, appointed her to the post, he described the job as one that should “provide independent expert advice on any aspect of science, technology and innovation.”

Last week, Jean-Claude Juncker, the man who has just succeeded Barroso, announced that he would not reappoint Glover. In fact, Juncker, the former Prime Minster of Luxembourg, abolished the position of chief scientific adviser entirely. The decision was a clear victory for Greenpeace and its hidebound allies, who had long sought Glover’s dismissal.

The complaint against Glover was simple: when providing scientific advice to the commission on a range of issues, from nanotechnology to GMOs, she invoked data rather than rely on politics or whim. Last year, at a conference in Scotland, for example, she said that there was “not a single piece of scientific evidence” to support critics’ claims that food produced from GMOs was less safe than food grown in any other way. “No other foodstuff has been so thoroughly investigated as GM,” Glover said, and described the opposition as “a form of madness.”

This kind of talk from a public scientist was too much for European activists to bear. In July, several groups, led by Greenpeace, expressed their displeasure with Glover in a letter to Juncker: “The current CSA presented one-sided, partial opinions in the debate on the use of genetically modified organisms in agriculture, repeatedly claiming that there was a scientific consensus about their safety.… We hope that you as the incoming Commission President will decide not to nominate a chief scientific adviser.” Score one for the Luddites.

Glover has been dismissed at a time when there has never been a broader scientific consensus about the safety of agricultural biotechnology or better data to support that consensus, including from a meta-study from the University of Göttingen, the World Heath Organization, Britain’s Royal Society of Medicine, the European Commission and, in the United States, the National Academy of Sciences.

Read full, original article: European Science’s Great Leap Backward

San Juan Islands’ 2012 ban on GMOs: Incubator for debate

In 2012, a humble farmer in the off-the-beaten-track archipelago of the San Juan Islands fired a shot in the form of a citizen initiative.

The subject: GMOs, or genetically modified organisms, and the crops grown from them. Little San Juan County, with its 12,019 registered voters, passed the initiative banning the growing of GMO crops on its islands.

The topic stokes passions. Depending on who’s talking, either GMOs will save the world from climate change and feed humanity — all 9.6 billion of us, as projected by 2050 — or they’ll corrupt the natural order and bring the “Silent Spring” that much sooner. Both sides have their street cred.

When Lopez Islander Ken Akopiantz filed his San Juan County initiative in 2012, he just wanted to protect the purity of bucolic spreads such as his Horse Drawn Farm, reached down a long, wild rose-lined gravel drive off lonely Port Stanley Road.

He doesn’t rant about GMO foods causing two-headed babies. He worries about practical issues, such as what happens if GMO crops are grown next door and spread into his field, corrupting foods he aims to sell as natural or organic?

He has reason to worry. Akopiantz drew his inspiration from Saskatchewan canola farmer Percy Schmeiser’s 2011 visit to Lopez. Schmeiser became a crusader for anti-GMO independent farmers when he locked horns in the late 1990s with Monsanto over patent infringement when he saved seed—likely cross-pollinated with his neighbor’s seed—from his crop and replanted it.

In San Juan County, as the GMO-ban election approached, one challenge was finding anybody to write the “con” message for the local voter’s guide.

“The county had to advertise to find someone,” Akopiantz says.

But it turned out this retirement haven was a natural incubator for debate on the subject. Two former CEOs of genetic-engineering companies co-authored the “con” message. One, Roger Salquist, was CEO in the 1980s and ’90s of a biotech pioneer called Calgene, the firm that produced the first commercially grown genetically engineered food to be granted a license for human consumption: the rot-resistant Flavr Savr tomato, brought to market in 1994.

The other “con” author, Larry Soll, headed a pharmacology-oriented biotech absorbed by Amgen in the 1990s.

Their statement said “virtually no” GMO species are grown in the county, noted that sophisticated DNA analysis to distinguish GMOs can’t be performed on the islands (their opponents challenge that), and extolled the virtues of GMOs, including pest resistance, nutritive value, drought tolerance and adaptability to saline or alkaline soils.

The citizens, unswayed, delivered a 62 percent “yes” vote.

But there are what you might call forward thinkers among the ban’s backers.

Read full, original article: Little San Juan County takes on the GMO goliaths

Newly discovered ancient mammal had some surprising traits

Mesozoic mammals were fascinating little beasts. They burrowed, climbed, glided, and swam through the Age of Dinosaurs, not as underdogs waiting for their moment to be free of the great reptiles, but as varied, successful creatures. And they keep getting stranger. Mammals previously known only from their dentition are starting to come into view thanks to the discovery of skulls and skeletons. The latest to debut is Vintana sertichi – what looks like a Mesozoic muskrat with some evolutionary tales to tell.

Vintana was a lucky find. The mammal’s skull was hidden inside a 150 pound chunk of sandstone collected from the 72 to 66-million-year-old rock of Madagascar by then-graduate-student, now Denver Museum of Nature and Science paleontologist, Joseph Sertich. A CT scan of the block is what gaveVintana away and allowed paleontologists a rare look at a lineage of prehistoric beasts previously known from teeth and bits of jaw.

What makes Vintana so remarkable isn’t what we know about it. It’s what we don’t know just yet. While Vintana shows some specialized traits not seen among Mesozoic mammals before, Krause and coauthors point out, aspects of the mammal’s ear and braincase more closely resemble those of protomammals that lived over 130 million years earlier. That makes Vintanaof “mosaic” of archaic and derived traits that point to an unusual evolutionary history. Isolation on islands may explain why.

Read full, original article: Lucky Find Uncovers a Marvelous Fossil Mammal

Debating ethics of new human reproduction technologies

Welcome to the brave new world of technology-enhanced human reproduction with its promise of alleviating the heartache of infertility, and its dangers of crossing ethical and moral lines.  At a time when more options are available for women to conceive on their own timetable, perhaps hone their embryos to be free of disease and defects, and postpone childbirth until it fits their schedule, human reproduction is veering into a future that doctors, scientists, and philosophers aren’t entirely prepared for.

The New America Foundation, a Washington-based think tank, assembled a series of panels last Thursday to explore the frontiers of reproductive technology from the routine-though-still-expensive IVF (in vitro fertilization) to PGD  (pre-implantation genetic diagnosis) where parents can screen embryos for potential defects, and mitochondrial intervention that produces sensational headlines like “Meet the Three-Parent Baby.”

A panel titled “Where Babies Come From” explored the three-parent dilemma created when a second woman donates an egg to provide the future baby’s mitochondrial DNA. Even though there are then three genetic parents, Dieter Egli, a senior research fellow with the New York Stem Cell Foundation, hastened to assure people there are still just two parents, that the additional DNA is “not necessary nor sufficient to claim parenthood.”

Read full, original article: Want Blue Eyes With That Baby? The Strange New World of Human Reproduction


Can GMO corn help Mexican farmers reduce pesticides?

Is there a way to reduce pesticide use? Scientists believe that insect-resistant maize could be the answer. Scientists have found that modified maize could increase yields and decrease pesticide use in Mexico.

In order to combat insects, Mexican famers primarily rely on chemical insecticides. About 3,000 tons of active ingredients are used each year just to manage the fall armyworm. Other chemicals are used to control other pests. Because these pests are so widespread, Mexico uses the highest quantity of pesticides per hectare of arable land in North America.

“However, all of these insect pests can be effectively controlled with Bt corn and integrated pest management programs.” Urbano Nava-Camberos, one of the co-authors of the new study in the Journal of Integrated Pest Management, said in a news release.

While there are those who oppose the introduction of these varieties in Mexico, the use of pesticides may actually be the greater environmental threat in the long term.

“Unfortunately, people who oppose the introduction of this technology in Mexico do not seem to realize that a far greater environmental impact is done by applying more than 3,000 tons of insecticide active ingredient each year,” said Guadalupe Pellegaud, co-author of the study.

Read the full, original article: Mexican Farmers Spread 3000 Tons of Pesticide Over Corn: GMOs the Answer?

Israel warming to GMO crops as eco tech solution

Supplying food to a growing population without destroying the world’s ecological systems is one of humanity’s great challenges. Israel is helping deal with this challenge by developing agricultural technologies and efficient irrigation methods.

Interest in local research and developments related to food security brought several experts from Britain here two weeks ago as part of the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and development program. The visit was organized by the British Embassy, and the Israel-Europe R&D Directorate.

One of those experts was Prof. Pat Heslop-Harrison of the University of Leicester, who is a member of the “optimistic” camp that believes technology and more efficient planning can substantially improve the world’s food production capabilities, and that this can be done without destroying natural systems.

According to Heslop-Harrison, increasing the amount of food is dependent on genetic developments that improve the quality of the crops.

Genetic improvements are based on the enhancing farmers’ traditional ability to cross-breed species and to transfer characteristics of wild species to species being used in food production. For example, research is now being done on how to transfer features like virus resistance from wild wheat to cultivated wheat. This also has an environmental benefit, because today such viruses are fought off with pesticides that harm the environment. But to enable the use of wild species, there’s a need to preserve their ecosystems. Samples of genetic material must also be stored in gene banks like the one set up a few years ago at the Volcani Institute in Beit Dagan.

Read the full original blog: How Israel is making the case for genetically modified food

px Depressed

Depression researchers look ahead for ‘golden age’ of research by drawing on cancer’s track record

When it comes to collective years lost to disability around the world, depression leads the pack. Some 350 million people suffer from it and, for afflicted individuals; it often lasts, for many years, according to the World Health Organization. Yet depression remains widely undiagnosed and untreated and researchers still haven’t developed widely effective treatments for the condition.

If only depression were more like cancer.

Cancer is, of course, terrible. It affects more than 32 million people and of those kills some 8 million a year. In developed countries, most people with recognized cancers receive treatment and, thanks to thriving cancer research over the last few decades, the C-word is no longer a death sentence.

Diagnosis and treatment of cancer seems light years ahead of that of depression, for a disease that has been around equally as long, if not longer. (Physicians in the Persian world were developing their ideas about melancholia—depression’s semantic ancestor—during the Islamic Golden Age in the 9th century.) But by looking to how cancer research has achieved such success, valuable insights can be gleaned for the field of depression—insights that could spark more hope for the future.

Perhaps the biggest discrepancy between the disorders is the available funds to treat them. The U.S. National Institutes of Health pumped about $5.3 billion into cancer research in 2013, yet it spent only $2.2 billion on mental-health research as a whole and a mere $415 million on depression specifically. Similar funding patterns play out in Europe.

So how did cancer clinicians secure such a pot, and what would depression researchers have to do to get similar funding?

Cancer research owes some of its abundant funding to campaigning advocates and federal support. In 1971, the U.S. declared a ‘War on Cancer’ and victims, survivors, friends, and relatives took up the cause and campaigned tirelessly, with confidence and conviction.

This social stigma not only hobbles attempts to rally people to a “War on Depression” – it can actually exacerbate the disease itself. Someone suffering from depression is already prone to crippling feelings of guilt, shame and frustration. If they’re getting messages from friends, family, and society that they should feel like their disease is a character flaw and not an illness, you can imagine how it might create a negative feedback loop. Cancer patients, as a rule, can count on the socially endorsed support of friends, relatives, and employers. A person with depression may be risking their job in talking openly about their condition with their boss.

Many people still do not acknowledge that it is a legitimate condition, says Nelson Freimer, a psychiatric geneticist at the University of California, Los Angeles in an article in Nature News.

A large proportion of people believe depression is just something that we all feel. They think you should pull your socks up and get back to work. It’s hard for crackpots to say that pancreatic cancer or breast cancer is not real. Yet somehow they can say that people with mental illness don’t have a real illness.

Perhaps this has something to do with the tumor, an inarguably physical manifestation of cancer – an illness that might otherwise seem as invisible as depression.

In response to this “branding problem” efforts are under way to change how depression is defined and diagnosed in research. Thomas Insel, head of the National Institute of Mental Health in Bethesda, Maryland, pushed researchers funded by the institute to eschew classical psychiatric diagnoses, which tend to be indistinct and overlap. Instead there is a move toward focusing on well-defined traits, eventually leading to new diagnoses that are grounded in biology. Nestler says:

Ultimately, depression is as biological as cancer and heart disease; it is simply a matter of identifying the relevant molecules.

Credit: Shaury Nash, Cambridge University (Creative Commons)
Credit: Shaury Nash, Cambridge University (Creative Commons)

When it comes to tracing down the biological origins of disease or disorder, cancer has again led the way with its ever-growing stable of genetic research. An influx of funding has helped generate a huge list of mutations linked to cancers, some of which can now be used to match a patient to a therapy. But no such research correlate exists for depression. The largest study so far — a search through the genomes of just over 16,000 patients with major depressive disorder and another 60,000 controls — has turned up just one, as yet unconfirmed, genetic association.

There may be vast untapped potential in genetics research to determine genetic causes of depression and, with recent technological advances, the field is starting to show some hope. Scientists have already started to identify some of the genes that underlie some other mental-health disorders, such as schizophrenia. An international group of researchers known as the Psychiatric Genomics Consortium published an analysis of nearly 40,000 genomes from people with schizophrenia that together highlighted 108 different regions potentially linked to the disorder. The consortium now plans to do the same for depression, aiming to scrutinize up to 60,000 genomes from people with the condition.

Yet Jonathon Flint, a psychiatrist at the University of Oxford, UK, who has been looking for genetic links to depression for nearly two decades, says, in a Nature News article that the difficulty in nailing down depression’s origins stems from the disorder’s fuzzy definition. Grouping everyone with a diagnosis of major depressive disorder into one genetic study is like looking for the genetic risk factors for fever. Our current definition of depression, Flint goes on to say, “lump[s] together autoimmune disease, infection, cancer and a whole set of different conditions.”

So what can be learned from the path of cancer research? Funding is key, obviously, but that funding was more forthcoming for cancer because it was a more specific, more tangible diagnosis, and, being rooted in the biology of the body, it carries little social stigma.

If depression researchers can redefine depression with a definition that is more tangible, more specific and more clearly linked to the biological roots of the disorder, it might be easier to get valuable support for research.

Already some scientists hope that the recent public and scientific interest in brain studies will push mental health research into a new golden age. Looking back to cancer, Tom Foley, a psychiatrist at Newcastle University in England says in a Nature News article:

Cancer’s a great inspiration: they’ve had a lot of investment and they’ve made big breakthroughs. There’s no reason why we can’t see the same things in depression.

Jane Palmer is Gene-ius editor for the Genetic Literacy Project and a freelance science writer and radio journalist based near Boulder, Colorado. Follow Jane Palmer on @JanePalmerComms.

Additional Resources

glp menu logo outlined

Newsletter Subscription

Optional. Mail on special occasions.