Azure Priest on September 11, 2009, 04:29:33 am
Ike, I'm confused, are you saying the farmers ARE or ARE NOT "useful idiots." To be frank, I have no qualms about selective breeding, or "husbandry" of non-human species. I AM, however, quite concerned about the deliberate introduction of alien (ie not native) genetics to local species, by using retroviruses, direct injection into the zygote or other such methods.

Examples, adding the gene for spider silk into goats. Cloning: "Dolly, the sheep", the "sterile corn." And ofc, "Steakfruit." While I'm quite sure that Tobi's people are experts and do their job right, it is a practical impossibility to create raw plants or animals "from scratch." There has to be some kind of "root plant" that had alien DNA implanted in order to produce "genetically identical" steak, chicken, etc.  Let's assume that "steak fruit" has papaya as the root plant. We have no idea what will happen if a "steak fruit" plant meets an unmodified papaya. There are several practical possibilities.

1.) Nothing. The "steak fruit" is now too genetically different for any kind of cross-pollination to take place.

2.) A mostly sterile hybrid, like crossing a horse and donkey.

3.) Chimera traits from the "steak fruit" cross over into the papaya as listed above.

4.) Some kind of non- sterile hybrid with traits not native to either plant and possibly disastrous consequences as in the accidental cross between an escaped African bee and the native Brazillian bees.

That's just considering the implications of the plants themselves. There is always the possibility that some otherwise benign disease or pest finds something it "likes" in the "steak-fruit" and changes into something else. Then there's always the worry about what happens to the "species barrier" to disease if alien DNA is injected into an organism.

A prime example of the concept is the first smallpox vaccine. Small pox was rampant in the US, until the inventor of the vaccine, noticed that COW pox was VERY similar to smallpox, but was not harmful to humans. Volunteers were exposed to cow pox (including the inventor himself.) He then took samples of his blood and compared it to the blood of people who had already contracted smallpox. In doing so, he noticed that the same antibodies were present in both samples. A mass vaccination program took place and smallpox was all but eradicated in the US.

What traits would the cow pox virus gain from a steak-fruit plant? Could it mutate into an airborne strain? Could it mutate into a form capable of infecting Papayas? Could it engage in "viral sex" with some plant based pathogen to gain completely new traits? (Viral sex is when two different viruses infect the same cell simultaneously and then gain new, sometimes frightening abilities)

The scary part is, we just don't know.

terry_freeman on September 14, 2009, 12:53:02 am
Wouldn't Tobi's people be likely to ask the same questions, and put a steakfruit and an unmodified papaya in the same honeymoon suite, and see what progeny result?

It's so easy to invent fascinating scenarios to frighten oneself with, and testing these scenarios requires getting one's hands dirty; that's why we have so many ghost stories and so few facts to work with.

SandySandfort on September 14, 2009, 07:30:03 am
Wouldn't Tobi's people be likely to ask the same questions, and put a steakfruit and an unmodified papaya in the same honeymoon suite, and see what progeny result?

It's so easy to invent fascinating scenarios to frighten oneself with, and testing these scenarios requires getting one's hands dirty; that's why we have so many ghost stories and so few facts to work with.

Well said.

quadibloc on September 14, 2009, 07:43:47 am
Speaking of ghost stories, I was wondering if Reggie might turn out to be a magician in addition to an actor, given the precedent set by James Randi (and, for that matter, by Harry Houdini before him).

J Thomas on September 14, 2009, 06:27:42 pm
Wouldn't Tobi's people be likely to ask the same questions, and put a steakfruit and an unmodified papaya in the same honeymoon suite, and see what progeny result?

It's so easy to invent fascinating scenarios to frighten oneself with, and testing these scenarios requires getting one's hands dirty; that's why we have so many ghost stories and so few facts to work with.

The problem is that you cannot test for evolution. When you test a population size 1 million for 1000 generations it does not tell you what a population size 1 million will do in a thousand generations. And when you test a population size 1 million for 1000 generations it does not show you what happens with a population size 1 billion.

And nobody tests anything for 1000 generations.

My best guess is that usually transgenic organisms will have little effect. Species have evolved barriers against gene transfer between species because it usually reduces survival. But the rare cases where it helps organisms to occupy brand new ecological niches or outcompete established species for existing niches might turn out very very troublesome.

We cannot collect the data to make a rational decision about this. The data is not available, and if it does become available it will be long after the choices have been made.

So my guess is that there's less than a 10% chance that public hysteria will greatly slow the spread of GMOs, in the absence of real evidence.

And there's less than a 40% chance that corporate sponsors will look at their results and decide that GMOs are just not worth it. That could happen -- existing organisms are highly coadapted, and big changes tend to disrupt lots of little adaptations even if they each provide one big advantage. GMOs are not necessarily superior at survival or production.

Whether or not we continue to make lots of genetic modifications, we will eventually run into problems with destructive new organisms. When it happens it will be difficult to tell whether or not they happened because of the changes we made.

We'll  just have to try to live with whatever we find ourselves facing.

SandySandfort on September 14, 2009, 08:00:26 pm
Speaking of ghost stories, I was wondering if Reggie might turn out to be a magician in addition to an actor, given the precedent set by James Randi (and, for that matter, by Harry Houdini before him).

http://bigheadpress.com/eft?page=261

quadibloc on September 14, 2009, 09:00:56 pm
http://bigheadpress.com/eft?page=261

What I wrote was intended as a comment on that day's strip, which I had seen when I made it, even if I started wondering that after seeing the preceding one.

Ike on September 21, 2009, 08:05:50 pm
Azure Priest:  Sorry for a delayed response; been busy with family stuff.  My reference to "useful idiots" was intended to modify "..the folks at Farmers Alamanac.." rather than farmers generally. 

You're quite right:  we just cannot know all of the potential consequences or their probabilities of occurrance for any of our actions, be it in biology, chemistry, physics ... no human action is free of unforseen and unforseeable consequences of unknown and unknowable probability.  This seems to be a basic consequence of how the universe appears to function.  Yes, I qualified that last sentence, simply because I am not omniscient.  *shrug*  Neither is any other human or group of humans.  What is the implication?  Or are the implications?  We can either hide in our caves and continue to eat bushes - hat-tip to Bill Cosby's old comedy album for that line  ;) - or we can do what we can to reduce the likelihood of drastically bad consequences and carry on with living our lives as best we know how.  Or, we can "regulate" such carrying-on, but that appears to me to lead back to the cave and a diet of bushes, at least for those of us who aren't part of the "regulators" clique.  (I put regulate in quotes because the Constitutional clause empowering Congress to regulate interstate commerce, because  when you read the contemporaneous writings of the guys who wrote the Constitution, it is clear that they didn't mean "regulate" there to mean "to control", but rather "to regularize" and to clear the way for interstate commerce free of the control of individual state laws, rules and limitations.)

That we now recognize and can sometimes quantify give or take an order of magnitude the potential dangers inherent in human action does not change the basic fact that freedom is what happens when people are free of the control of other people, within some basic broad boundaries that protect them.  And as a matter of subjective preference, I prefer freedom and the dangers which accompany it to the slavery of depending upon the judgement and wisdom of folks who claim any unconsented-to authority over me, "for my own good".