Fiction to fact with biotechnology

According to the Public Perceptions of Biotechnology Study of 2016, public familiarity with the term “biotechnology” has more than doubled from 21% in 2004 to 53% in 2015. The same survey, initiated by the Human Sciences Research Council and commissioned by the department of science and technology’s (DST) Public Understanding of Biotechnology Programme, revealed that the South African public is more inclined to see the impact of genetically modified (GM) foods as good for the economy and safe to eat. However, it also said that the public were not as informed as their international counterparts.

“I think there is a small proportion of the public that understands what GMOs (genetically modified organisms) are and the potential impact they have, because there isn’t a robust debate on GMOs in South Africa. And when you look at the socioeconomic situation, people are less concerned about GMOs than they are about getting food to the table,” says Dr Vuyo Mavumengwana, Medical Biochemistry, University of Johannesburg. “In Europe, for example, people are more engaged in this debate and the impact of biotechnology on food and what lands on their tables, and make more informed decisions. In South Africa, only a few people are aware of the impact.”

But is there something to worry about? Does using GMOs have an impact? A study by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine states that there is no evidence of adverse health effects from crops that have been genetically engineered. In addition, around 70-80% of US processed foods include GM derivatives, and biotech ingredients populate anything from cookies to salad dressing to the bits that make up dinner on Taco Tuesday.

South Africa has been using GM crops since 1997 with maize, soybean and cotton all containing biotech. The system is managed with rigid biosafety regulatory systems and monitoring, and the South African National Biodiversity Institute is currently undertaking South African-specific research into GMOs and their environmental impact.

“To gain a clear picture of the impact of GMOs there is a need for a long-term study,” adds Mavumengwana. “How will the modifications of certain crops impact on insects, for example, and other aspects of the ecosystem. In many instances, we do know the impact as far as health issues are concerned, but a longer term study should be a priority.”

For Professor Zander Myburg, department of genetics, University of Pretoria, the debate is one which could take up at least two interviews and several features.

“Most people don’t realise that GMO technology has been taken up very quickly compared with other technologies — there are hectares of crops in South Africa that are GMO already,” he says. “Interestingly, there are some plants, such as sweet potato, which are naturally GMO. A lot of public concern is driven by misconception and politics, but as scientists we recognise that we must pay attention to what we do. However, if you look at the lengths the community goes to when they apply for commercial release, you can see it isn’t undertaken lightly.”

An excellent example is the approval of GMO Eucalyptus trees in Brazil, which were approved by the government in 2015. The trees take less time to mature, use less space and deliver a 20% increase in yield, allowing for the industry to cut down on its own ecological impact while improving its deliverables.

“They did trials over a nine-year period, assessing the impact of these trees on insects, honey production, the biome — everything,” adds Myburg. “A lot of work went into ensuring that these trees and their introduction into the environment were both completely safe.”

However, inasmuch as the GMO debate can be held back and forth between every camp, biotechnology is not just GMOs, it is a field that has so much more to offer. It is the application of knowledge gained from biological systems used to advance solutions across the sciences. In South Africa, research is extensive and ongoing, including numerous renowned organisations.

The Universities of Stellenbosch, Cape Town, Pretoria and Witwatersrand — these are just some of the educational institutions supporting biotechnology and its potential. From biomass conversion to biofuels, to harnessing the capabilities of resurrection plants, to biopharming, the applications of biotechnology are widespread and the South African space is not lagging behind.

“In South Africa, we have a broad policy framework through the DST and a Bioeconomy Strategy within which we all work,” says Dr Hennie Groenewald, executive manager, Biosafety South Africa. “It is a priority for government and it supports the development of applications and small companies that are starting up in this space. The CSIR is working on algae biotechnology and enabling solutions for the environment, and the Technology Innovation Agency is funding a variety of projects, including bioprocessing in KwaZulu-Natal and genomic research at UCT.”

At the University of Pretoria, a new programme focusing on synthetic biology is set to start and the institution is also working with the University of Cambridge to support education and insight. Another feather in the African cap, of course, is that at the International Synthetic competition in the US, a student from the University of Pretoria won a silver medal for using artificial synthesis to create electricity. But biotechnology’s other achievements have been somewhat overshadowed by GMO.

“Over the next few years it is very likely that we will see the development of vaccines and antibodies that are quickly produced by plants,” says Myburg. “Already there are companies in the US and Canada that are using tobacco plant leaves to create an Ebola vaccine. They dip the leaves in the solution with the DNA construct and the leaves produce the vaccine in hours. This is what we will see on the horizon — rapid responses to infectious disease and rapid scaling up of food production for food epidemics, just as examples.”

Already there have been some impressive movements towards the development of malaria vaccines using nothing more than biotechnology and scientific genius. Biotechnology is also making inroads into the development of anti-cancer molecules, painkillers and even bizarre fashion. Think of a recently revealed tie made from yeast-derived spider silk. Or perhaps vanilla extract that has only a passing relationship to actual vanilla. While many of these incite outrage and controversy, there are many scientists that are aware of the importance of the work they do, and of ensuring that it adheres to rigid ethical and scientific standards. The wild-haired scientists are not running the show — it is an arena packed with smart minds and astute businessmen who can see the potential of what biotechnology can offer and are open to exploring it.

“Biotechnology allows us to understand genetics in organisms from crops to microorganisms and using it to produce solutions that can change lives,” concludes Groenewald. “Understanding genetics as the blueprint allows us to understand how these things work and can be the stepping stone to resolving many challenges, from crops to disease.” 

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