Unraveling DNA fear-mongering

Published April 1, 2002

Managing Editor’s note: Dr. Jay Lehr, science director for The Heartland Institute, wrote the following letter to the editor of Harper’s magazine on February 15, in response to an article by Barry Commoner.

Dear Editor,

There are exceptionally serious flaws in Barry Commoner’s article, “Unraveling the DNA Myth,” which appeared in your February 2002 edition. Before describing them, however, it must be said that Dr. Commoner exhibits a unique brilliance in his capacity to precisely distill the essence of genetics and genetic engineering in the introductory tutorial that greets your readers.

Unfortunately, much as a broken record continuously exhibits its flaw, Dr. Commoner eventually lapses back to his long-held bias against advancing technologies, man’s propensity to capitalize on these advances, and finally his inherently gloomy outlook which rarely holds out hope for mankind.

All of us involved in biotechnology understand that we have only scratched the surface of this advancing science, just as cosmologists know they have far to go in verifying or even truly understanding string theory. But in the meantime, string theory has been successfully used to puzzle out once seemingly impossible dilemmas. Likewise in genetics we are safely using the little we do know to aid humanity now rather than waiting till all knowledge of the human genome and proteome is unraveled.

Unlike Commoner’s claims of inherent doom emanating from current work, the simplest knowledge is solving the simplest problems. Francis Crick may indeed have been arrogant in his claims for DNA and RNA, but certainly not nearly so much as all those who believe that man, not the sun, controls our climate.

Crick’s claims for DNA led geneticists to follow a path which has been amazing in its ability to uncover exponentially expanding knowledge, even if it leads to the undoing of some of his own ideas.

Dr. Commoner, on the other hand, ultimately shows his cards to be those of a gloomy obstructionist using his unquestioned genius to restrain rather than advance the human condition.

An excellent example of this is his complaint that the “central dogma” of genetics dictates the ability of the DNA molecule to faithfully duplicate its 3 billion nucleotides in their precise order. In fact, for this to occur it does indeed require the assistance of certain special protein enzymes to maintain an error rate of one in ten million nucleotides and then a few “repair” enzymes, also proteins, to repair those errors, bringing the accuracy to one error in 10 billion nucleotides. Most of us in genetics marvel at this incredible result, but Commoner simply uses this marvel to criticize Crick and his legion of co-workers.

Commoner’s accurate description of the impact of protein folding on the potential capability of the individual proteins is the basis for much of the study of the new field of Proteomics. We certainly do recognize that any one of the individual 30,000 known genes will likely produce 100,000 protein capabilities in the control of life. We are quite confident that these variations will be subtle rather than having the capacity to create some human plague.

It is the latter scenario Commoner wishes the public to embrace. He can then deter biotechnology from properly feeding the world the nutritious diet all people need as well as the vitamins to stave off childhood blindness and the iron to eliminate vast iron deficient populations. He would also eliminate crops that resist the pests which destroy 40 percent of the stored grain in the third world leaving behind microtoxins which account for 25 percent of premature death in those locations.

Commoner’s real goal is to scare the world away from helping its least fortunate, thereby kicking them off the bottom rung of life’s ladder and thus reducing the world’s population. He correctly states in his article that genetically enhanced crops now account for 68 percent of U.S. soybean production, 26 percent of our corn, and 69 percent of our cotton. Contrary to Commoner’s misguided desires, and happily for the rest of the world, these numbers will rise dramatically during this decade to the benefit of all society.

Commoner and his colleagues in the more strident environmental groups are in business today in competition with the biotechnology industry. The average biotech company’s goal is to provide better nutrition for the citizens of this planet while making a profit for its stockholders. Commoner’s business is to package and sell fear. He does it very well, as he describes in his Harper’s article things not fully understood as likely to “give rise to unintended, potentially disastrous consequence.” In fact, we have little record in science of small variation of knowledge producing Frankenstein monsters, yet the visual image continues to be used effectively by those who trade in fear.

Had they been around a little over 100 years ago, you can be sure there would exist no electricity and no internal combustion engine. We would be a world traveling on horseback eating a diet compromised by the fact that most land would be farmed to produce fodder for those horses, each of which produce 45 pounds of vermin-infested manure each day. There would be no forests left because we would have used every last stick of wood to burn or build. The term “natural habitat” would not even be recognized by a population subjected to the dark ages by the fear-mongering of Dr. Commoner and his fellow travelers.