What do you get when you cross a fish with an elephant? A patent. But transgenic genetic modification is no joke. It has the potential to create new diseases that can jump species. A new study has found a pathogenic virus that has jumped from genetic engineers’ favorite test-bed, tobacco, to agriculture’s most important helper, honeybees.
Honeybees are vitally important to our food supply and are dying off in massive numbers. Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD), first identified in 2006, has been killing about a third of honeybees each year. Possible causes that have been investigated include diseases, parasites, and pesticides — in particular neonicotinoids.
A new joint study from the USDA’s Agricultural Research Service in Beltsville, Maryland and the Chinese Academy of Agricultural Science in Beijing published in mBio, the American Society for Microbiology’s journal, may have identified another possible cause of CCD — a tobacco virus.
Whether or not the Tobacco Ring Virus (TRSV) is the cause of CCD, the fact that a plant virus would make such a radical jump from plant to animal is a cause for concern. It’s not just jumping from one species to another, but moving up 6 levels in the biological hierarchy and jumping from the plant kingdom to the animal kingdom.
Jilian Li of the Chinese Academy of Agricultural Science in Beijing said, “the results of our study provide the first evidence that honey bees exposed to virus-contaminated pollen can also be infected and that the infection becomes widespread in their bodies.” The report concluded, “The increasing prevalence of TRSV in conjunction with other bee viruses is associated with a gradual decline of host population and supports the view that viral infections have a significant negative impact on colony survival.” They found that the plant virus spreads systemically within individual bees, horizontally between bees and vertically from queen to eggs.
It’s even more interesting that it’s a tobacco virus since tobacco has been the go-to plant for Genetic Modification (GM). Tobacco was the first genetically modified plant, first modified in 1982. It has remained the most popular plant for genetic modification research, with GM tobacco plants secreting human proteins, producing rabies anti-bodies, and a plant that can’t stop growing.
And it highlights the concerns that many have had about transgenic genetic engineering. Unlike selective breeding or even cross-breeding, transgenic engineering is what concerns GM critics the most — e.g., splicing genes from an animal into a plant to create bioluminescence. Transgenic engineering is the essence of the label “franken-food”.
It’s ironic that one of the touted success stories of transgenic engineering was to create a virus-resistant papaya in Hawaii. Genetically modified papaya were created to stop the Papaya Ringspot Virus (PRSV). Now the Tobacco Ringspot Virus has jumped from tobacco to honeybees and is thriving on them. This is the nightmare scenario of genetic modification — that transgenic engineering would create, whether or not intentionally, virulent strains of viruses that would wipe out our food supply or even wipe out humans directly with genetic triggers.
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