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It's a story of unintended consequences, the story of a rock climber and his dog, attacked and killed on Friday by a disturbed colony of Africanized Honey Bees. I immediately thought of the growing threat of genetically modified organisms in our environment.  

The ancestors of today's Africanized Honey Bee in the New World did not cross the ocean voluntarily any more willingly than did most of the ancestors of today's African-American citizens in the USA and rest of the Western Hemisphere. Those bee ancestors from Africa were brought to the New World as instruments in a commercially motivated enterprise trying to improve honey production by European honey bees, which thrived poorly in the tropics, say, of Brazil. Those old style genetic meddlers in Brazil never meant to unleash a fatal threat into the World. Nevertheless, as reported by the Smithsonian Institution:

In 1957, twenty-six African queens, along with swarms of European worker bees, escaped from an experimental apiary about l00 miles south of Sao Paulo. These African bee escapees have since formed hybrid populations with European Honey Bees, both feral and from commercial hives. They have gradually spread northward through South America, Central America, and eastern Mexico, progressing some 100 to 200 miles per year. In 1990, Killer Bees reached southern Texas, appeared in Arizona in 1993
So now, just decades later, 1000 people die in attacks by swarms of AHB's in Brazil, alone, hundreds elsewhere, including the poor guy in Arizona. And his dog.

When I mentioned "old style genetic" meddling, I was talking about the time tested methods of artificial selection by selective, human directed, breeding and hybridization that have so very much reshaped the World inhabited by humans, a world where a wild mustard plant becomes broccoli, cauliflower and kale and the wild wolf becomes a French poodle, and, of course, Africanized Honey Bees.  

Now, though, the genetic meddlers have tools never before imagined. Well, here is something to imagine -- private, freelance, hobbyist genetic engineers creating DNA for organisms and creating GMO's in their garages, basements, backyard sheds and attics. Unfortunately, imagination is not required to visualize this. It already exists.

Follow me out into the tall grass to learn more.

It's bad enough that the fat cat industrial agrochemical complex is all for newer, better and more genetic modification of food crops. There are lots and lots of reasons to be wary about and sensitive to this phenomenon, well covered by The Center for Food Safety, which says that

The genetic engineering of plants and animals is looming as one of the greatest and most intractable environmental challenges of the 21st Century.

Currently, up to 85% of U.S. corn is genetically engineered (GE), as are 91% of soybeans and 88% of cotton (cottonseed oil is often used in food products). It has been estimated that upwards of 75% of processed foods on supermarket shelves – from soda to soup, crackers to condiments – contain genetically engineered ingredients.

Gene, schmene. What could go wrong? After all, isn't all of this closely bird-dogged by the government? No.

Not according to the New York Times, which noted that

While the Agriculture Department regulates genetically modified plants, it does so under a law covering plant pests.


A serious look needs to be taken at the regulatory system to see if it can handle the questions synthetic biology is going to raise.

Wow. If your brand new idea for some genetic tinkering doesn't use plant pest genes and isn't aimed at plant pests, the Department of Agriculture isn't interested. Wow.

It looks like this regulatory undersight (who would every have thought it possible) has led to a real Wild West feel to the world of bioengineering. Good guys. Bad guys. Hackers. Freelancers. The aforementioned New York Times reports about a freelance bioengineering project to make plants glow visibly in the dark.

The project is also being financed in a D.I.Y. sort of way: It has attracted more than $250,000 in pledges from about 4,500 donors in about two weeks on the Web site Kickstarter.

The effort is not the first of its kind. A university group created a glowing tobacco plant a few years ago by implanting genes from a marine bacterium that emits light. But the light was so dim that it could be perceived only if one observed the plant for at least five minutes in a dark room.


But part of the goal is more controversial: to publicize do-it-yourself synthetic biology and to “inspire others to create new living things.” As promising as that might seem to some, critics are alarmed at the idea of tinkerers creating living things in their garages. They fear that malicious organisms may be created, either intentionally or by accident.

When I think what the next generation of well intentioned bio-hobbiests may be technologically capable of doing, the prospect seems terribly dire. And if this kind of thing is advancing in the U.S., it surely must be elsewhere in the World, as well.  Sigh.  

The commercial interests and political clout of the agrochemical complex are likely to prevent implementation of even cursory expansion of regulation in this field until a regional disaster or worse occurs. The industry's official position is that regulation is already stifling. Sigh. Nobody intends anything will go wrong, of course. They're just trying to make a buck. They didn't plan to kill anyone. Shit happens. The Parable of the African Bee.

Originally posted to SciTech on Sun May 12, 2013 at 01:31 PM PDT.

Also republished by Community Spotlight.

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