Science Isn’t Scary

December 16, 2014

I wasn’t particularly surprised when my nine-year-old daughter came home from school one day and asked, a bit terrified, “Mom, what’s a GMO?”

By Allison Bloom

Editor, Food, Nutrition & Science

I write about agriculture for my job, and occasionally, current events in this wheelhouse end up sparking conversations around the dinner table. At one recent – and particularly spirited – dinner party at our home, some of the issues I write about – how to feed the world’s billions, the politics of organic versus conventional produce, the question of food fortification – turned into a full-fledged debate. So I wasn’t particularly surprised when my nine-year-old daughter came home from school one day and asked, a bit terrified, “Mom, what’s a GMO?”

Lucky for me, I had recently interviewed a panel of experts on the topic of GMOs (genetically modified organisms) about common GMO misperceptions, and other hot topics surrounding the issue. But rather than stick my fourth grader in front of a food blog for her reading pleasure, I called up one of my experts, Dr. Robert (Bob) Goldberg, a plant molecular biologist at UCLA, and asked for a more hands-on experience. He kindly obliged, and invited us to check out what they do every day at the Molecular, Cellular and Developmental Biology lab at UCLA.

As we walked into the lab, we were greeted by an enthusiastic team of dedicated young scientists in white coats, who led my nine-year old daughter and six-year old son over to a row of test tubes. They were instructed to pour tube B (ethanol) into tube A (a solution of DNA), do a little mixing and report their results. Like magic, the solutions combined, thickening to reveal a stringy, goopy, almost mucus-like strand of visible DNA. Yes, DNA. The stuff that makes you, well, you. This was the perfect experiment to segue into the lab’s work with genes because DNA, the hereditary material that exists in most organisms, is the carrier of all genetic information.

Dr. Goldberg’s lab has been investigating the molecular processes and controlling the development of specialized cells in higher plants to find out, among other things, how genes are organized in the genome, how the genes express themselves during development and how genes differentiate into different plant cell types. This is just a fancy way of saying that by studying plant genes, Goldberg and his team of scientists can learn more about the basic processes that all plants have, and in doing so, they can they apply what they learn to other plants. By understanding gene technology, we can better understand, for example, why some seeds are big (Scarlet Runner Bean) and some seeds (tobacco) are small. Or why some tolerate drought, and others don’t. And so on.

My kids and I took a tour of the UCLA experimental greenhouse and got to touch, feel and see a GMO tobacco plant at various stages of development, from embryo to tiny sprout to flowering, adult plant. One member of Dr. Goldberg’s team, Dr. Kelli Henry, explained to us that by inserting a gene that turns blue into the plant, she can then look at gene markers and discover what genes are active at different stages of development. Why tobacco? Tobacco flowers can each contain close to 500 tiny seeds, which gives her plenty of seeds to experiment with. Additionally, it is easy to put a foreign gene into a tobacco plant, and the plant is hardy and grows quickly. We also looked at some similar experiments on the Arabidopsis plant (a plant that is similarly easy to insert a gene into and has a good genetic system to work on and study), and on soybeans. In fact, Goldberg started studying the soybean genome almost 40 years ago, and has been studying soy from a whole-genome point of view since 2005.

For soy, one of the biggest crops globally, the science is especially interested in how to manipulate genes to make seeds bigger (produce more food) and more nutritious (more protein, better oils).

This technology may seem simple, and yet it is this same technology that can teach us how to turn genes on and off in ways that are beneficial to the farmer and to agriculture. My daughter thought about this some and said, matter-of-factly, “So, in theory we could turn off a gene that makes a plant smell good to bugs to keep the bugs away.” And she’s right. If we modify a plant to be bug resistant, then that plant doesn’t need to be soaked in pesticide. If we modify a plant to produce larger seeds and crops with the same resources, then perhaps we can conserve water and energy. The list of possibilities goes on. So why is all this research so controversial?

Earlier this year, a study from The Australian Department of Industry Ipsos Social Research Institute set out to explore differences in awareness, perceptions and attitudes in regards to biotechnology. The study found that when looking at support for genetically modified (GM) foods over time specifically, the bulk of the population feels slightly positive about them. Half of consumers believe that the benefits of GM crops outweigh the risks, while one in six feel that the risk outweighs the benefits. Perhaps most telling, 60% of those opposed to GM crops would change their mind if the crops could demonstrate positive outcomes to the environment and health. 

Generally, there was a strong agreement that “science is such a big part of our lives that everyone should take an interest”. Moreover, there was a high level of agreement that “new technologies excite me more than they concern me”, and that the “benefits of science are greater than any harmful effects”. There is also a strong correlation between support for science and technology and doing well at science in school. Those who do poorly in science at school, on the other hand, tend to have negative attitudes towards science. 

As my children ended the tour taking turns writing their names on a poly-membrane using a Laser Capture Micro Dissection Microscope (the same microscope they use to cut out tiny vascular tissue from a single seed) – it occurred to me that the only thing standing between fear and feeding our world’s growing population with ever-decreasing resources is a true, hands-on science education. Were we to reduce fear, and instead focus on teaching and learning and innovating, perhaps an important modified crop like Golden Rice, which has proven potential as an additional intervention for vitamin A deficiency in the developing world, would be made available to those who need it instead of being blocked by anti-GMO politics.

My kids had a great time expanding their knowledge about how genes work in the Molecular, Cellular and Developmental Biology lab at UCLA. They got to hold DNA in their hands and live to tell about it. Because, guess what? Science isn’t scary.