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Cooper's Comments About GE Challenged

Scientific reaction has been swift to comments by Oxford University’s Professor Alan Cooper about the implications of a study of ancient DNA on the release of genetically modified organisms into the environment.

Professor Cooper argued that the New Zealand Government should continue its moratorium on the release of GE organisms for at least another five years because a study reported in Science magazine showed persistence of DNA in the soil for many thousands of years.

Scientists who spoke to the Life Sciences Network said Professor Cooper appears to have made a very significant leap of judgement well beyond the evidence reported in the study he co-authored.

“The best interpretation of his study is that it shows DNA has been around for a very long time and that it hasn’t done anything outside the realms of what you’d expect in an evolutionary sense. There’s no reason to expect the future is going to be any different,” says NZ Association of Scientists President, Dr Mike Berridge.

“He’s done some good science on ancient DNA, but that’s as far as it goes. Anything else is mere speculation and is not supported by any of the relevant knowledge we have from other research.”

Dr Val Giddings believes Professor Cooper is “way beyond his expertise. It’s as if we’re being warned about the evils of alcohol because we may be drawn to a pub which may be hit by a meteor!”

“What he appears to be saying,” says Dr David Penny, Director of the Alan Wilson Centre for Molecular Ecology and Evolution, “is that there might be some serious negative impact if we allow GE crops and animals into the environment which will only become apparent in future years.”

“The problem with that scenario is that his science shows we have had clumps of DNA in the soil for thousands of years already, and these haven’t had any significant impacts that we’ve been aware of so far, so its obviously not a serious problem.”

Part of the answer may lie in the fact that ancient DNA has only been found in permafrost and in caves which have provided a very sheltered environment.

Dr Neal Stewart from University of Tennessee says it would be relatively simple task to assay soils from various agronomic fields to establish if there are any ancient DNA sequences of significant length present and then determine what kinds of genes they are.

“But the issue is, so what? Dr Cooper’s flagellations don’t appear to be commensurate with any of the risks I can imagine. There’s no evidence that any of the ancient DNA has caused any harm. The DNA used in gene technology is exactly the same as DNA which has been around for thousands of years.”

“If he’s right, should we be afraid of old pathogenic DNA that is no longer in current living species?” asks Dr Paul Atkinson, rhetorically. “Would it mean old DNA ex-viruses could perhaps rise up and bite us on the bum? Wouldn’t you expect that to have happened already, and be evident for science to see?

“By the same logic this all pre-supposes that broken down DNA from genetically modified organisms would somehow be different in genes, regulators etc than those “natural” DNA components currently found in huge abundance in the environment in various stages of decomposition. It doesn’t really work out. You can’t build active genes from repetitive sequences, or even degraded ones (something Dr Cooper himself has pointed out in his public talks in New Zealand).”

David Penny sums up the illogicality of Dr Cooper’s comments with “if he’s right, cow pats should be banned! They are obviously a haven for soil and intestinal bacteria to meet and mix and therefore this should be stopped instantly.”

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