A new kind of Frankenfood: the tomato vaccine

Korean scientists have performed some promising tests using GM tomatoes that grow their own edible vaccines. In this case, against Alzheimer’s disease. And why not – the idea’s not a new one (although this guy notes a rather important reason why edible vaccines would be “a disaster” – each tomato would produce a variable level of the vaccine).

We already eat specific foods precisely for their purported health benefits. We’ve created other foods that produce desired substances, for example, the golden rice that produces large quantities of beta-carotene.

Still, something about it makes me leery. Kind of like “meatri” – synthetic meat. I’d know it was real meat, grown by the same biochemical mechanisms that animals use to grow their own meat. But I’d feel kind of hesitant to eat it, at least the first time. There’s a yuck factor.

From my own perspective of course, I also wonder how might this be used as a threat. A vehicle for biowarfare? Well, I imagine there are all kinds of toxins and such that food could be engineered to express. But there would be no reason to go to all that trouble when there are far more productive, established methods to crank out and deliver weapons. So this will no doubt remain in the realm of sci-fi for the foreseeable future. Could make for a great short story, though.

UK foot-and-mouth disease outbreak

One of the biology blogs I like, MicrobiologyBytes, is posting about FMD and the current outbreak. (Strangely, a rather tenacious Asian shrimp farmer has monopolized the comments. Weird.)

A few months ago in one of my endless progression of WMD terrorism courses, I was tasked with writing a (needlessly long) paper detailing every single step of how I would carry out my ideal CBRN terrorist attack. For a long list of reasons, I chose FMD.

UPDATE: Commenter Jonathan, who has spoken out rather testily activist-ishly rudely on MicrobiologyBytes, clearly believes keeping livestock alive at all costs trumps economic considerations of dealing with FMD and maintaining the highest export status. I was about to don my tinfoil hat when I first noticed his post about the Pirbright site (where the UK’s Institute of Animal Health and the company Merial Animal Health perform FMDV research) being the likely source of this outbreak, but my skepticism appears to have been premature. In the just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they’re not out to get you category, it seems Jonathan may be proved right.

If this FMD outbreak originated from a laboratory, how will that affect the discussion in the U.S. about funding more BSL-3/4 labs, and moving the U.S.’s FMDV research lab on Plum Island to a new mainland site? (Answer: It can affect the discussion any old way, but it won’t affect the outcome—that train has already left the station!)

A selection of quotes about the issue here.

UPDATE 2: Initial report on potential breaches of biosecurity at the Pirbright site 2007 indicates a strong probability the site was the source of the virus. How? Transmission via air was judged very unlikely, by water a possibility, and by human movement a “real possibility.”

UPDATE 3: Possibly due to this article, there’s a growing buzz about the FMD outbreak being bioterrorism. However, the initial report (above link) only mentioned the possibility of human movement, not whether that would have had to be accidental or intentional. If animals were in fact intentionally infected, there’s a small pool of suspects to question. So unlike in the Amerithrax case, I think they’ll be able to get to the bottom of this in short order. I’m not jumping to conclusions about bioterrorism on this, though. There is just so much room for plain old human error.

UPDATE 4: Sunshine Project‘s Ed Hammond notes in New Scientist today that lab accidents are commonplace and predicts there could be a rethinking of the new National Bio and Agro-Defense Facility. As I mentioned above, I’m sure the thought is crossing many minds but I don’t think this event will change the momentum. But like commenter enigmafoundry below, I expect to see candidates for NBAF jumping through hoops to prove they’ll be the most secure site evaaaaar!

Doomsday seed vault designed

Norway has designed a “doomsday” vault that will open in 2008 and house up to 3 million seeds from all known varieties of food crops. The Svalbard International Seed Vault will be built 120m into a mountainside on Spitsbergen, a remote island near the North Pole. The vault aims to safeguard the world’s agriculture from future catastrophes, such as nuclear war, asteroid strikes and climate change.

Dr. Cary Fowler, director of the project, said Svalbard, 1,000km (621 miles) north of mainland Norway, was chosen for its remoteness and stability both geologically and in the face of rising sea levels.

“We also modelled climate change in a drastic form 200 years into future, which included the melting of ice sheets at the North and South Poles, and Greenland, to make sure that this site was above the resulting water level.”

“One example happened in September when a typhoon ripped through the Philippines and destroyed its seed bank,” Dr. Fowler recalled. “The storm brought two feet of water and mud into the bank, and that is the last thing you want in a seed bank.”

The seeds will remain viable in the frozen vault for different lengths of time, depending on species. Some crops, such as peas, may only survive for 20-30 years. Others, such as sunflowers and grain crops, are understood to last for many decades or even hundreds of years.

There are quite a few limited seed banks in operation today. Many focus on maintenance of a particular species. With the lofty goal of preserving all food crops worldwide, the Svalbard project appears to be the most comprehensive seed bank to date.

Let’s hope they’re right about that prediction that the island will survive a sea level rise. Here’s a tool you can use to create maps showing the results of selected increases in sea level. And come to think of it, in a real global disaster, who’s going to be able to get to this island to bring back the seeds and start growing crops again? And where are the doomsday vaults for people?

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