Gene Silencing: New Products and New Risks, by Margaret Mellon
The Simplot potatoes were produced through a new kind of GE—gene silencing. Simplot’s version of gene silencing, called Innate™ technology, adds genetic fragments derived from cultivated and wild potatoes, but no genetic material from unrelated organisms.
The industry is hoping that the potatoes will get a favorable reception in the marketplace because the potatoes’ benefits—reduced levels of acrylamide and reduced bruising—appeal to consumers as well as potato producers. They also hope that consumers might be less wary of a GE technique that does not cross species lines, but employs only potato genes.
while some risk-based concern is allayed by confining gene combinations within a species, residual concern based on the complexity and incompletely understood nature of gene silencing and related processes remains. In addition, it appears that gene silencing may pose a previously unrecognized risk of genetic engineering: the risk of turning off non-target genes.
This potential harm, which has been described in a recent paper by Jack Heinemann of the University of Canterbury and colleagues (Environment International 55: 43-55; requires login), depends on one of the many newly recognized kinds of RNA participating in in protein synthesis—double stranded RNA (dsRNA).
DsRNA is an important new topic in food biotechnology and we will discuss it in a later post. But suffice it to say that it represents a potential harm of gene silencing and other forms of GE that merits examination.
So it is too early to say whether the Simplot potato will get a more favorable reception than earlier GE foods based on the all-potato origin of its new genetic material and consumer benefits. But it certainly will become an important test for how well the FDA handles the potential new risk of genetic engineering—dsRNAs.