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'Frankenfoods' and the battle on GM crops


'Pusztai affair' and genetically modified crops
Aaron Klug Scientist
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The first GM crops to be made... the first vegetables to be made were tomatoes, they were made by ICI quite a long time ago, and in the early nineties there were tomato paste on sale in British stores made of GM tomatoes, but the point about the GM tomatoes was that they were made for a special purpose. They prolonged the ripening period, and they also... the consistency of the tomato was also less... it was much harder, so you could in fact, it was picked with less damage and there were many other things you could build in. Tomatoes... people had studied what are called quantitative loci in genetics where you have something like the shape of a... or the solidity of tomatoes is governed by about seven different genes. People study these things, they're called quantitative trait loci, T-R-A-I-T, QTLs, this is a branch of genetics where they try to measure the amount of contribution of given genes are to different things. It is now being applied, but it has been studied in plants a great deal, with a great economic incentive in plants. Oddly enough, I discovered there is more done in plants than in humans, but now it's being done in humans.

So now what happened is that the... Monsanto, the American company, originally chemical, had bought Calbiogene one of the American GM plant companies, which were using GM crops, and these were pesticides which they introduced into crops so that you could destroy insects. There were other uses as well, where you... other... other things you could do, where you killed weeds, where you introduced something which stopped a certain pest... what's the word? Something you put on the ground to kill weeds, certain weedkillers, certain weedkillers from acting, so you put in a defence against the weedkiller and you could spray the ground, and kill the weeds. So there were different kinds of GM crops. And the thing about the GM crops is that these are done under very controlled conditions, you understand very much what these are, and indeed conventional breeding where you haven't much control, during my time when I went into this, I think in the middle nineties, the American Department of Agriculture at Beltsville, actually pulled out of production two varieties of potato because they had high... and they were produced by conventional breeding, and they had high alkaloid contents. So you see, these are under control. There are many examples of this.

I used to know a great deal about this through knowing all the details which you have to use in these arguments, and I can't remember them all. So Monsanto launched a publicity campaign in this country for their GM crops. They'd being going in America... they'd been going for ten years in America, without any adverse effects, nobody had seen these things. But this one was in the British press and they began to make it public. You know, for two years this tomato paste was on the shelves and I don't think it was labelled that these were produced by... were genetically modified. But then what happened, there was a campaign against it, including led by a lady at the Open University whose name I've forgotten, and also by... by a geneticist who was the wife of a biochemist called [Árpád] Pusztai, of Hungarian origin, and working in Edinburgh. And this is what really set the cat among the pigeons with us, not a very good analogy. He appeared unknown to anybody in a broadcast in which he said he'd done experiments, this is now in Scotland at one of the crop research stations in which he'd put genetically modified insecticides into potatoes and these were poisonous, you see, because when you fed them to animals, the animals... it destroyed their immune system and made them lose weight, and so on, and the argument became that... and he did similar things on... well, potatoes were the biggest thing of all. So it was argued that somehow by his wife, who said that if you put the gene into a crop somehow its action was going to be different, not just producing the protein product, it was going to be different from simply adding the protein product to the plant. And it turned out that the organic farmers are allowed to use this insecticide called Bacillus thuringiensis which Ken will remember. He once took X-ray photographs of the crystals. This is produced by Bacillus and it is an insecticide, it's part of the... well, it's the food for the bacteria, and so the GM people allowed, permitted them to sprinkle these crystals on, whereas you are not allowed to put the gene into the, into the plant. Now this gene is put in under absolutely simple and controlled conditions. You can also see where it's gone in, where it's... and so on.

Born in Lithuania, Aaron Klug (1926-2018) was a British chemist and biophysicist. He was awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1982 for developments in electron microscopy and his work on complexes of nucleic acids and proteins. He studied crystallography at the University of Cape Town before moving to England, completing his doctorate in 1953 at Trinity College, Cambridge. In 1981, he was awarded the Louisa Gross Horwitz Prize from Columbia University. His long and influential career led to a knighthood in 1988. He was also elected President of the Royal Society, and served there from 1995-2000.

Listeners: Ken Holmes John Finch

Kenneth Holmes was born in London in 1934 and attended schools in Chiswick. He obtained his BA at St Johns College, Cambridge. He obtained his PhD at Birkbeck College, London working on the structure of tobacco mosaic virus with Rosalind Franklin and Aaron Klug. After a post-doc at Childrens' Hospital, Boston, where he started to work on muscle structure, he joined to the newly opened Laboratory of Molecular Biology in Cambridge where he stayed for six years. He worked with Aaron Klug on virus structure and with Hugh Huxley on muscle. He then moved to Heidelberg to open the Department of Biophysics at the Max Planck Institute for Medical Research where he remained as director until his retirement. During this time he completed the structure of tobacco mosaic virus and solved the structures of a number of protein molecules including the structure of the muscle protein actin and the actin filament. Recently he has worked on the molecular mechanism of muscle contraction. He also initiated the use of synchrotron radiation as a source for X-ray diffraction and founded the EMBL outstation at DESY Hamburg. He was elected to the Royal Society in 1981 and is a member of a number of scientific academies.

John Finch is a retired member of staff of the Medical Research Council Laboratory of Molecular Biology in Cambridge, UK. He began research as a PhD student of Rosalind Franklin's at Birkbeck College, London in 1955 studying the structure of small viruses by x-ray diffraction. He came to Cambridge as part of Aaron Klug's team in 1962 and has continued with the structural study of viruses and other nucleoproteins such as chromatin, using both x-rays and electron microscopy.

Tags: Monsanto, Árpád Pusztai

Duration: 6 minutes, 24 seconds

Date story recorded: July 2005

Date story went live: 24 January 2008