Engineering the new millennium

Engineering the new millennium
March 1, 2000


From today’s cheese to tomorrow’s cures, biotechnology is supplying new answers to old problems. Far from the enemy it is often made out to be by anti-progress environmentalists, genetic engineering has been largely a friend to humans and their environment.


Smile and say “cheese”

“Any person who eats cheese in Canada and the U.S. has been eating a food whose processing involves a transgenic food product,” said Ralph W.F. Hardy, president of the National Agricultural Biotechnology Council (NABC), a consortium representing most of the leading not-for-profit agricultural research and education institutions in the U.S. and Canada.

According to Hardy, “the premier story and major consumer experience base in food biotechnology is cheese making. Cheese making until 1990 used mainly rennin, a preparation from animal stomachs, to coagulate the milk proteins. The lack of a consistent and reliable supply of this crude product encouraged the isolation of the animal gene and introduction of that gene into bacteria and yeast. The generic name for this product is FPC, or fermentation-produced chymosin.”

FPC, approved by the FDA in 1990, is chemically identical to rennin in the calf stomach, said Hardy, but it has the advantages of being pure, consistently available, and highly effective in cheese making.

Said Hardy, “I personally like to think that my cheese is being made with a highly pure product, made under highly controlled conditions, rather than an extremely crude product obtained from a slaughterhouse source.”


Engineering for health

Cheese is just one example of today’s biotechnology. Clinical trials of a hepatitis vaccine were initiated earlier this summer, according to Dr. Hardy. He noted that the ability to engineer vaccines into food products would especially benefit people in less-developed countries, where access to refrigerated vaccines is difficult.

Dr. Charles Arntzen, CEO of the Ithaca, New York-based Boyce Thompson Institute for Plant Research Inc., has developed plant-based vaccines and conducted clinical trials at two medical schools in the U.S. Three studies have been completed. According to Dr. Arntzen, those studies “found a human immune response when volunteers simply ate raw potatoes which were engineered to contain a vaccine.” Although the idea is in the early stages of research, such “prototype plants” may in the future offer a unique and highly effective mechanism for delivering vaccines.

Other research is being conducted into the possibility of enhancing vitamin levels through transgenic plants. Oil seeds with elevated vitamin E may help reduce heart disease. Rice with extra vitamin A could help reduce blindness for children in Third World countries where good nutrition is often difficult to achieve.

Dean DellaPenna Ph.D., associate professor at University of Nevada - Reno, believes “we are entering an era that will allow us to address longstanding nutritional deficiencies in the food supply.” He is developing plants with increased vitamin E levels and says, “if this technology is applied to agricultural crops, the U.S. could virtually eliminate vitamin E deficiency in this country.”

Studies show that supplemental vitamin E can reduce the risk of coronary artery disease by 40 to 50 percent.

Dr. DellaPenna adds, “a normal diet with 50 grams of engineered oil would significantly decrease the risk of heart disease and some cancers in the population, the two major causes of death in this country.”

Molecular biotechnology techniques may soon provide hypoallergenic staple food products, such as rice and milk. Scientists are investigating ways to reduce lactose in dairy products. Others are trying to modify the shape of allergenic proteins in foods such as wheat and peanuts, ridding these products of their ability to trigger allergic reactions and making them easier to digest. Some work also has been done on making a product that has the desirable taste of fat without the calories.


Engineering a better environment

The next phase of plant engineering may make it possible to produce viable substitutes for petrochemicals and other petroleum-based products.

“Biologically produced products can also provide the chemical industry with much greater diversity than available from the comparatively limited, highly reduced hydrocarbon structures found in crude oil,” Dr. John Ohlrogge told Environment & Climate News. The Michigan State University professor added, “my laboratory is working closely with industrial chemists to develop plants which will provide the feed stocks for new types of polyurethanes, nylon with stronger and more flexible fibers, and biodegradable lubricants.”

The development of such plants could reduce the country’s need for imported petroleum and stimulate new demand for U.S. crop production. According to Dr. Ohlrogge, “to produce in crops the monomers for current U.S. nylon manufacture would involve 10 to 20 million acres and create over $2 billion annually in new farm income. Farmers will benefit and the chemical industry will benefit. More of our products will be based on renewable and biodegradable resources that do not contribute to landfill overflow and higher atmospheric CO2 levels.”


For more information

Visit the Web site of the Boyce Thompson Institute for Plant Research (BTI), a private not-for-profit organization dedicated to the study of plants and associated organisms for the betterment of society. Point your browser to http://birch.cit.cornell.edu/research/biotech/biotech.html. The Natural Agricultural Biotechnology Council also has a Web site, at http://www.cals.cornell.edu/extension/nabc/.