Last month, the scientific journal Nature Biotechnology came out with a highly unusual editorial explaining why it had published a certain study in the same issue. The study had so-called “negative” results, essentially meaning nothing out of the ordinary occurred.
And yet the study caused a stir not only in the scientific community but in the mainstream press. That’s because there were big implications for the safety of GMOs--in particular the type of relatively new method used to create the Arctic apple, the subject of this week’s cover story.
The study was motivated by what Nature Biotechnology called “an extraordinary claim.” In 2011, a team of researchers in China had published findings from experiments involving feeding rice to mice. They discovered small fragments of the rice RNA, called microRNAs, in the rodents’ bloodstream. This in itself contradicted conventional scientific wisdom, but what really got people’s attention was the Chinese scientists’ observation that one type of rice microRNA affected the rodents’ ability to get rid of cholesterol.
To be clear, the rice was the regular kind, not genetically-engineered. Alarm bells went off anyway, at least among GMO skpetics, because microRNAs are somewhat similar to another type of RNA fragments that are used to create some transgenic foods. These “small RNAs” are used to silence targeted genes; in the Arctic, it’s the browning gene, so that the apple stays white long after it is cut.
What the Chinse study suggested, though, was that these small RNAs might unintentionally affect other genes--ones perhaps not even in the plants but in the animals and humans consuming them. What genes of ours might be turned off by eating GMOs?
That was the question suggested by an Atlantic piece about the Chinese study entitled “The Very Real Danger of Genetically Modified Foods.”
Yet the study “went against a large body of research,” according to Nature Biotechnology. Scientists were skeptical. Amid the controversy, the Chinese team was compelled to admit errors in the way it handled its controls. It published a “corrigendum,” the science world’s version of a correction.
So a new team of scientists set out to replicate the Chinese experiments to see if they would get the same result. In short, they did not. While they did see a high cholesteral level in the mice, as did the Chinese scientists, they did not see the microRNAs that were the supposed cause. Through additional experiments, the scientists deduced that it was instead the rodents’ all-rice diet that was causing the cholestorl effect.
“Mystery solved,” wrote Forbes columnist Jon Entine, who criticized The Atlantic and others who jumped on the anti-GMO bandwagon after the Chinese study came out.
And yet, it’s questionable whether the new study will put an end to the controversy. Among the scientists that did the experiments were researchers at Monstanto, the huge GMO producer and symbol of evil among genetic-engineering foes.
Fortunately, other studies will no doubt follow to settle the question. Meanwhile, the Environmental Protection Agency has scheduled a hearing for January to consider whether GMOs using the same method as Artic apples—but which have insecticidal properites--are safe.