Experts in the biotechnology field say that genetically modified (GM) wheat currently in development could potentially silence human genes if ingested, resulting in premature death and risk of passing the defect on to future generations.
The wheat, developed by the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization (CSIRO), is engineered to turn off undesirable genes permanently.
However, the wheat genes intended to be silenced are a match for the human GBE gene sequence, according to Professor Jack Heinemann of the University of Canterbury’s Centre for Integrated Research in Biosafety, who published a report on the experimental wheat in Digital Journal.
Through ingestion, these molecules can enter human beings and potentially silence our genes,” says Heinemann.
GBE dictates glycogen storage in humans. Children who are born with this enzyme not working tend to die by the age of about five. Adults with malfunctioning GBE genes can experience cognitive impairment, pyramidal quadriplegia, peripheral neuropathy, and neurogenic bladder.
The real danger behind this genetically modified variety of wheat is that scientists used double stranded RNA, or dsRNA, to achieve their desired results. Heinemann describes the dsRNAs present in modified wheat as “remarkably stable in the environment.”
The dsRNA is able to withstand processing and cooking, and can also survive the human digestive system and enter into the blood stream. It then circulates through the body, where it amplifies into more and different dsRNAs and alters gene expression.
These altered genes can be passed on to later generations, assuming the consumer doesn’t die of cancer or liver damage before procreating.
Using dsRNA to silence genes is not without precedent. Monsanto, the world’s largest manufacturer of bioengineered seeds, has published research in the past about how to commercially exploit the fact that dsRNA survives digestion in insects.
The company genetically engineered plants to produce a dsRNA, which insects ingest when they eat the plant; the dsRNA survives digestion in the insect and then silences genes in the insect to stunt its growth and kill it.
While not yet commercialized, the GM wheat is currently undergoing field tests in Australia. If approved, it will likely be grown alongside conventional wheat and sold unlabeled to consumers.