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The Gene Gamble

"In the first time in our history we have created a self-reproducing biological system that we cannot control and whose consequences are uncertain, unpredictable and potentially dangerous."
Arpad Pusztai, Ph.D., FRSE, Biochemist and Nutritionist

When researching the infinite complexity of divine Mother Nature, after the human race, the honeybee is the most studied creature on Earth. As recently as the last two decades, science has uncovered some exquisite truths about both species; not the least of which is the barriers which separate us are thinner than we like to believe.

The Bee Genome
In 2002, in support of the ongoing struggle to better understand the complexities that surround human health, an international consortium of scientists and universities decided to sequence the honeybee’s DNA. Called the Bee Genome Project (BGP) over 170 investigators representing 100 groups from 16 countries were involved in an attempt to gain insights into human disease like allergies, immune deficiencies, antibiotic resistance and genetic disease. Assigned to the public realm and funded by the National Human Genome Research Institute of the National Institutes of Health and the US Department of Agricultural, by 2006 the four-year project was complete.

Honeybees captured scientific musings because their social behaviour is so closely related to our own. Like humans, honeybees exist in a complex social community. From infant to worker to queen, every honeybee has a job. While the queen lays her eggs 24-7, adolescent honeybees clean the colony’s homestead. Older more experienced honeybees repair the nest and forage for food. Nurses tend the brood. Undertakers remove the dead and the honeybee police keep law and order. It's this advanced ability to self-organize into productive societies that made honeybees such ideal candidates for scientific study.

The gene mapping project revealed the honeybee genome consists of 10,000 genes with approximately 236 million base pairs. By comparison, the human genome has roughly 30,000 genes with approximately 2.9 billion base-pair. The hypothesis goes humans and honeybees are genetically connected sharing a common ancestor. Estimated to have lived 600 million years ago, our primordial sludge evolved into the fish family and moved onto land. Honeybee sludge evolved from crustacean-like ocean dwellers to flying insects.

Apis melliferaApis melliferaThe Flying Sisterhood
During their 100 million year stay on Earth, they started out on the great evolutionary highway as a predatory wasp living alone in a nest in the ground. The vast majority of the other 20,000 bee species still live that way. But as the genus Apis moved through time, honeybees transformed themselves into one of the most advanced species living on Earth today.

In order to make such a complex transformation, every system of the honeybee’s body required alteration including their ability to assess and change patterns of behaviour when in evolutionary peril. This means honeybees not only needed to invent new functions, but they also needed to refine the old ones to fit new purpose. In part, it’s this flexibility that makes them so highly adaptive. They are one of the few species that survived the great Cretaceous-Tertiary event which occurred over 65 million years ago. Known as the K-T extinction, this large scale mass extinction wiped out the dinosaurs. But the intrepid flying sisterhood just kept on making the necessary adjustments whenever an environmental hardball headed their way.

Aside from the discovery that honeybees perfected their existence by riding in and out of the ages with wisdom on their wing -- the BGP also put an end to an age old argument. Size really doesn’t matter; it is what you do with it that counts. A honeybees’ sophisticated behaviour is governed by less than one million neurons contained in brain tissue that is smaller than a single cubic millimetre. That’s a neural density 10 times higher than our own cerebral cortex. Honeybee neurons are so advanced we have neither the skill nor the imagination to understand how they are interconnected.

The BGP pinned down some interesting gene and cell functionality which honeybees share with humans. For example, we share the same AT Rich ARID3B family of genes. A gene family refers to any similarity between characteristics or traits. The ARID gene family plays an important role in embryonic development. Think of a honeybee’s black and yellow stripped jacket. These genes are responsible for a range of cellular functions that helps to characterize the sentient being we are about to become. Acting like pieces of an intricate jigsaw puzzle, they establish groups of cells in the proper relationship to each other during embryonic growth. Honeybees also use the same family of genes as humans to sense time. But theirs are considerably powered up. Honeybee circadian rhythm doesn’t need to rely on light or the position of the sun to follow the day’s 24-hour cycle. Their genes sense time in total darkness and in different time zones.

During the mapping of the bee genome,it was discovered honeybees have smaller sized gene families. Basically, honeybees have evolved to do more with less. Microbiologists believe small gene families reflect a selective elimination of genes whose functions became expendable once specialized lifestyle choices are set in evolutionary stone.

For example, scent is essential to honeybee survival. Pheromones play a central role not only when honeybees forage for food but their keen sense of smell directs them quickly to their place within a very large and complex social order. Micro biologists tallied 170 olfactory genes, compared to the multigene family consisting of over 900 genes in humans. Even royal jelly, a unique genetic feature of honeybees, requires only ten gene traits to produce. Manufactured from the honeybee’s top chakra, the royal jelly is specifically formulated to only serve the nutritional needs of the next queen.

Scientists were also interested to learn we share particular support systems that control genes. Unlike other insects, the honeybee has a vertebrate-like set of enzymes which methylate or modify genes. In both honeybees and humans, these cells cap certain genes with clusters of atoms called methyl groups which switch genes on or off. This implies that methylation plays an important role in silencing genes whether in honeybees or other vertebrates like humans. [pagebreak]

Building Blocks of Life
When molecular biologists began analyzing the human genome in 2001, we discovered Homo sapiens have one-fifth as much genetic material than wheat and we share one quarter of our genes with fish.

Shared Nucleotide Sequences

  • Genetic similarity is called homology.
  • Most critical genes are the same in basic pathways in living organisms.
  • Genes code for the proteins.


Setting aside any illusion of evolutionary superiority for a moment, only 300 human genes have no counterpart in the mouse genome. We also have 113 genes that we borrowed directly from bacteria. Our shyness is related to two dozen genes and cancer to more than a hundred. We share 35% of nearly 7000 protein families with algae and flowering plants, including trees. Apart from being just out of the fish league, as it turns out, we have fewer than 30,000 genes to do the job of building and maintaining the cells in our bodies -- as opposed to the 100,000 science originally thought when genetic engineering first made it big on the bio-molecular scene.

In biology, the cell is the smallest unit of life. Yet it’s the functional unit for every living thing on Earth. The cell nurtures the genetic material of who we are and who we’ll become. Often referred to as the building blocks of life two different ‘cell families’ control all living matter. Both experience cellular division and both have DNA. Each cell family interprets signals from light, heat, water, odor, touch, or sound. Both have early warming systems that activate the appropriate protective response when dangerous pathogens threaten. The difference lies in their fundamental structure.

Prokaryotes are the single-celled organisms of our world. Making their entrance on Earth about 3.5 billion years ago, they are unlike any other form of life on Earth. Their DNA is not neatly packed into a nucleus. Prokaryotes have an outer wall that gives them shape and inner fluid cell membrane. Instead of a nucleus, they have a nucleoid with its own specific genetic material. These mighty singled-celled characters come in different colours, multiple shapes and are constantly on the move. They live in thick mucus the viscosity of asphalt. But that doesn’t hinder their progress a single bit.

ProkaryoteProkaryoteProkaryotes have long appendages controlled by a type of motor which gives them complete functional motion. When these motors rotate counterclockwise, prokaryotes swim forward reaching speeds of 48 km/hr (30mph). What’s their hurry? Much like the rush to the dinner table after a long hard day, it seems the closer they are to their energy source, the faster they move along. But when their appendages turn clockwise, all the prokaryote can do is flip in place. Males possess the sexual apparatus for transferring genetic information to receptive females but consummation can be a bit of a challenge since both genders are moving pretty fast. But even as reproduction can be limiting, given ideal conditions, these little guys can accomplish reproductive Nirvana in an alarmingly short period of time. So Mother Nature in her wisdom provided a countermeasure. Prokaryotes only learn during cell division. Their entire educational process must be relearned every time cell separation starts anew.

The best known single cell prokaryote is bacteria. Left unchecked it can become a serious infection. In our modern age, science developed antibiotics and pharmaceuticals patented them telling anyone who would listen that these antibiotics would be the golden bullet to conquer infectious diseases forever. But it seems corporate backed science underestimated the evolutionary power of our little single-celled friends. The single-celled bacteria fought back. As overuse of antibacterial drugs in factory farming operations contaminate our food source worldwide, they became stronger and drug-resistant. Today the overuse of antibiotics have put humans at risk of catching bacterial infections which can no longer be fought off with conventional manufactured pharmaceuticals.

EurkaryoteEurkaryoteHumans, honeybees, animals, plants and fungi all share roots in the second cell family. Eukaryotes are multi-celled organisms with a nucleus firmly anchored within its roundish cell structure. The nucleus is enclosed by a double membrane. It has pores through which material enters and leaves. Eukaryotes cells are about 10 times the size of our single-celled kin and can be as much as 1000 times greater in volume. Humans have somewhere between 50- 75 trillion cells in our bodies which actively contribute to the making of 200 different kinds of tissues building our bodies from the inside out.

Hypothesis has it that we all started out single celled. So how did we get from a single cell life form to a multi-celled organism? A belch. The supposition goes a couple of billions years ago a primitive bacterium was chowing down on a lovely piece of something and folded inward after eating. That’s our big bang. A burp. Supposedly, it caused the single cell to break off from its source to become the first membrane-bound cell to pool its talents. But for all our perceived scientific wisdom, it’s still a theory. [pagebreak]

Gene Expression
In our multi-celled, membrane-bound compartments, specific metabolic activities take place. A complex organization of cooperating cells communicates all kinds of survival information using subtle low electromagnetic signals to ensure the mystical vital source can jump-start the whole thing. To simplify, whether human, honeybee, animal, plant or fungi, we of the multi-celled family rely on two types of cells. One divides to produce two genetically-identical cells. These somatic cells eventually form our internal organs, skin, blood, bones and connective tissue. Germline cells require sexual reproduction to pass along genetic information. Somatic cells divide 30-50 times. But germline cells are immortal. They reproduce ad infinitum passing along vital genetic information that spans generations.

The guide to all this activity is firmly located within the cell. Deoxyribonucleic acid, more commonly referred to as DNA fits into a cell nucleus the size of a pinpoint. That's no minor feat. If DNA were a reference book it would be over one billion words long; covering 5000 volumes; each with 300 pages.

Structurally, DNA is composed of two strands that intertwine to form a long, spiralling ladder called a double helix. All animals and plants share the same DNA. The two DNA strands are held together through chemical structures which create base pairs much like the rungs of the ladder. Basically four 'letters' or bases code the same amino acids from which all proteins are made. The bases spell out the genetic code. Adenine (A) can only bond with thymine (T) and cytosine(C) can only bond with guanine (G) but the sequence of these bases can be arranged in infinite ways. In the human genome there are roughly 2.9 billion base-pairs wound into 24 distinct bundles, or chromosomes. The chromosomes hold all the genes that express life-forming genetic patterns or traits.

So how do the cells know which traits to build upon? Just like a computer, the chemical machinery of life is governed by a central DNA processor. DNA determines which enzymes a cell will manufacture. Each enzyme is a protein and each one needs to be coded for in DNA. There are many enzymes involved in the replication of DNA itself. The enzyme signals characteristic chemical patterns to the Messenger RNA (mRNA). mRNA then transports that genetic information along the life form’s internal circuitry to tiny mitten shaped ribosomes. The ribosomes receive instructions for each unique protein by ‘reading’ or translating the mRNA templates. That’s when the building starts.

The Power of Proteins
Much like following a complex blueprint, the protein that forms the organism is based on the receipt of a complete set of specifications. DNA doesn’t actually make the organism. Its main purpose is to enable the manufacture of the proteins. Proteins can’t exist without DNA and DNA has no purpose without proteins. Proteins are vital to living organisms. They are the main component of the physiological metabolic pathway of cells. In other words, protein molecules regulate the cells internal environment making them responsible for daily function. These metabolic pathways create complex networks within each single cell to stabilize the series of chemical reactions necessary to physical well being.

To maintain and keep its host healthy, the keeper of all this information needs to recreate itself with lightening speed to help fix damaged cells. In seconds, each strand of DNA becomes a template for the other half. Just before the cell divides, the two strands separate; each strand a new identical of its ‘other half’. Written in the DNA of fewer than 30,000 genes, our cells rely on those templates to make proteins.

As different cells have different activities, regulatory proteins are in charge of the language exchange which includes the enzymes’ instructions to carry out specialized jobs. By controlling all the activity and participating in every process within cells proteins guarantee that the genes that make up DNA control the life of the entire organism. But for all this positive productivity, there is a downside. If the DNA sequences changes, genes undergo mutation.

The Selfish Gene
In the study of genomes, the word 'selfish' takes on a whole new meaning. The human-describing adjective of self-centered behaviour doesn’t apply here. In totally non-scientific terms it’s the blind tendency of specific genes to insist they that want to continue their existence into the next generation. Sort of like the bully in the gene pool. This gene doesn’t want to live in community; doesn’t want to selflessly sacrifice its own life; and really isn’t interested in contributing to the common good. Much like the Agra-corps worldwide, it only looks to itself to survive.

While scientists worldwide hypothesized the self gene exists, The Human Genome Project proved it. Some mutations have no impact on the physical body. Others provide advantages. Some cause disease. One frequently occurring, damaging class of mutation is the premature "stop reading" signal (stop codons) within mRNAs. Called "nonsense" mutations, they order the proteins to stop reading part way through the genetic instructions which results in premature termination and/or incorrect processing. Mutations of this type can cause genetic syndromes and contribute to many diseases, including cancer, diabetes and other cellular immune deficiencies.

Interestingly, there is nothing intrinsically unique to a specific gene when stripped of its genetic padding. When a gene is outside the cell there is no distinction between a bacterial gene, a plant gene or a human gene. Science cannot say on examining an isolated gene what species it came from. Ref:

The Gene Gamble rDNA
In the early 1930s, the world's wealthiest philanthropic organization, the Rockefeller Foundation, began supporting the exploration of a new type of biology. Dr. Linus Carl Pauling, the son of a self-taught druggist, was about to become the most important scientist of the 20th century, in any field. This peace activist, author and winner of multiple Nobel Prizes would change our world forever when he turned his attention to the world of bio-molecules.

It was Pauling’s interest in proteins that led to a scientific breakthrough that changed the world. The discovery of the spiralled coil (alpha helix) of DNA. Pauling’s work opened the door to biological understanding at a molecular level. Three scientists, Rosalind Franklin, James Watson and Francis Crick applied his strategic approach to their work and in 1953 the team discovered how DNA reproduced itself without changing its structure. For the first time in human history, science believed it could explore the mysteries of our past and plan a better future. But there was more to come.

In 1972 the world of biology was about to undergo yet another epochal transformation. While studying the actions of isolated genes, noted biochemist and Nobel Prize Winner Dr Paul Berg and his team successfully split a DNA molecule. They then reattached the segments to an entirely different strain of DNA. When the foreign DNA was incorporated into its host, it caused a synthesis or blending of proteins that were not ordinarily found in the original host. Christened Recombinant DNA (rDNA) the host cell expresses the protein or traits from the recombinant genes and emerges from the test tube as an entirely different manufactured species.

There was little doubt that rDNA would change the world as we knew it. The new technology promised to be one of the most powerful in the history of biology. At its discovery, the scientific community worldwide immediately grasped the endless potential application of gene manipulation. For the first time in human history, science created a self-reproducing biological system that could become a panacea to all that ills humanity. It could become a new medical aid to fight disease. Food crops altered to control the vagaries of Mother Nature. Drought and crop infestation could be a thing of the past. The possibilities seemed endless. But then a sobering thought. Just as the world of biotechnology can be full of these exquisite truths, so too can it spark diabolic disaster.

While the world’s scientific community saw rDNA as a vehicle which could help the sick and the needy of the world, the community also understood rDNA could induce unpredictable consequence. , occupational and environmental hazards. For all the good gene manipulation held, unpredictable hazards could be unleashed. Left unchecked rDNA had the capability to adversely affect humanity on a very large scale. But that wasn’t the whole story. The new gene splicing science could also produce epidemic pathogens. rDNA microorganisms have human hosts. Most notably the bacterium Escherichia coli, more commonly known as E. coli. Easily grown and genetically simple to manipulate this bacterium is the favoured prokaryotic organism in biotechnology.

E coli are very important partners in the physical health of humankind. They comfortably reside in our digestive tract. When something goes wrong in the digestive tract the chances of our immune system being attacked are also very high. Scientists worldwide felt that of when genetically messing with E coli the potential consequences were uncertain, unpredictable and potentially very dangerous.

Scientists around the world agreed. A set of guidelines were needed to regulate rDNA application in the support of general public’s health. Their concerns led to the 1975 Asilomar Conference, the birthplace of the Precautionary Principle. The central tenet of the Precautionary Principle is first, do no harm. The second is if there is the slightest of suspicion that recombinant technology could harm the public’s health or the environment, the burden of proof falls on those who use the technology to prove different.

Today, genetic technologies are part of our everyday life. Genetically modified foods are everywhere. Corn and soya were approved for human consumption in the United States in 1995 and in Canada in 1997. By 1999 almost 50 percent of the corn, cotton and soybeans planted in the United States and Canada were genetically engineered. By 2009 more than 70% of processed foods consumed in North America contained GM ingredients

The production of GMO food crops is highly controversial worldwide. As well it should be. Within the last 30 years honeybees have disappeared by the hundreds of billions their gut full of parasites that they can no longer fight against. And humans have contracted nutritional diseases that are indicative of a much older population all coinciding with GMO indusrtrial agriculture and processed foods which contain genetically engineered food additives. By enabling business to control science, have we unleashed the greatest human ecology crisis in history? Is there a correlation with the GMO food we are ingesting and the species that are exposed to GMO crops? The evidence is mounting and it’s not a pretty picture.

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Rethink Food

The average consumer believes they are not very powerful - but the exact opposite is true. Corporations deliver what the consumer demands. The average meal purchased from your supermarkets travels 1500 miles to arrive at your dinner table. You can change the industrial food system with every bite.

  • Vote with your purchasing dollar
  • Read the food label
  • Buy only from companies that treat workers, animals and the environment with respect.
  • Choose foods that are in season and locally grown.
  • Buy organic or naturally grown food
  • Shop at farmers' markets
  • Cooking is fun and easy. Make the time to cook a meal
  • Our government agencies are supposed to protect us. Tell them to enforce food safety standards.

Citizen's Science - Be Involved

Wildflower Initiatives
There are over 20,000 species of wildflowers in North America belonging to 300 different families. Kissing cousins to the flowering food crops that end up on our dinner table, their colour and beauty grace our landscapes. From the delightful eye candy of wildflower fields to a groaning board full of culinary delights, honeybees make it all happen. Today half of the world-wide honeybee population has vanished.

Often there appears to be a great divide between ecological problems and probable solutions. Not in this case. Without honeybees diversity rich food sources which are naturally grown are in jeopardy. But we can turn things around using practical applications that are accessible to everyone. We just have to shift perspective - abit. Please join us.