James Kent on Dangers of the HGP
  James Kent     Biography    
Recorded: 31 May 2003

The pure research I’m not really very scared of it. But genetic engineering is something that we need to be careful with. And I think that people are starting to get a little blasé about it. And I think the biggest danger right now if I was to say a single one was actually the genetic engineering of plants. And, in particular, there was one situation I think that’s going on that’s quite dangerous that I wish that people would think about more. And this is particularly the genetic engineering of soy and corn, because right now the—the testing on this, it is done some and if you talk to the food industry executives, they’ll say that this is more tested than any other food was. And in a way they’re right. This is more tested by people with clipboards and lab coats than any other food was. But that’s not the only way to test things. I mean the real way testing things is by people eating them and people being okay. You can’t test things in a bottle. You can’t test things by feeding it to a mouse even. There’s human reactions, and in particular what makes me concerned about soy and corn is because of the peculiar natures of infants.

We’re mammals. And our young have coevolved so that their initial nutrition is supposed to be breast milk for a very long time. And so there’s been this tremendous coevolution between the baby and the milk. And it works on both sides. I mean like we’re finding breast cancer, all this cancer research, well, if you want to avoid lung cancer, you don’t smoke. If you want to avoid breast cancer, you nurse your baby. You not only have one before you’re thirty. Its concrete things that you can do. I mean for a woman of course it’s a tremendous choice to have a baby, but I’m just saying that in terms of what we know that would actually have an affect on this disease. So it affects the mom, but it also affects the baby. And the baby is—one thing that it does is that the baby has no immune system to begin with. It gets its immune system from its momma for the first year or so. And so in order so that it can get its immune system through its milk it’s digestive system, it’s very, very different from adults.

But not everybody nurses their baby. Not everybody has time to nurse their baby and not everybody wants to all the time. So infants also have formula. And I think that’s generally it’s an okay type of thing, but when you’re feeding an infant a formula that’s based on cow’s milk, it turns out that about one in ten will develop allergies. And so they’re shifted to soy, and they’re shifted to corn, to formulas that are based on soy and corn. And so the net effect is that you have in the United States you have about, oh, let’s see what would it be, it’s in the order of, it’s really on the order of a million babies that are drinking corn and soy formulas, and these are babies that are prone to allergies. And the way the system works now is that ever since the hybrid revolution, ever since they found out that the in the ’70s and the ‘60s there was this revolution where you had hybrid vigor in crops which was a good thing, but that meant that farmers were no longer planting the seeds from their own fields, They were buying the seeds from the hybrid companies. And so what has happened is that you have this particular situation where basically a seed company can put a new thing into corn and it’s going to be grown all over the place the very first time. And so the first human test is going to be on—and the first people it turns out to drink soy, to be exposed to soy as the first humans will be to babies, these allergic babies. And they’ll be like a million of them all at once. And it just seems sort of very strange to me when you look at the level of testing that we have on drugs that are fed to ten thousand people under very careful supervision of a doctor—

I’m not nearly so worried about the human genome. The biggest worry I had about the human genome is actually that they’re growing up in E.coli. And E. coli is one of our symbiotes that lives in our guts. I would have been much happier if—there are two things that are worrisome about sort of working with E.coli: one is that it is a natural symbiote, and the other thing is that they put antibiotic resistance into it first thing to say we’re engineering, but how do we tell our gene is there, well, we’ll hook it up to an antibiotic resistance gene. And people are relatively good about this, but it’s definitely theoretically possible that as you throw in fragments of the human genome into these bacteria one of the fragments that you are going to thrown in is basically something that sort of tells a cell, hi, I’m me. I’m a good guy; let me in. And if you sort of give—you know, it’s theoretically possible that you could give these bacteria’s essentially the key to get into a human cell. And so I’m very glad that they’re good about autoclaving things. As these practices get more and more routine and go to labs and get more casual, there’s still some potential for danger. Now, I know now that we’re living in this time where there are terrorist’s attacks and this and that. And at the same time I don’t know. It plays into people’s fears and there’s—I suppose if you had an evil genius, and there’s no doubt there are Osama Bin Laden was an evil genius that people could use the information in peculiar ways to do damage, but I think there are so much easier ways to do damage that I’m not afraid of it coming from that angle.

Jim Kent is a research scientist at the University of California, Santa Cruz's Center for Biomolecular Science and Engineering. After a stint working in the computer animation industry, he entered the Molecular, Cell, and Developmental Biology Ph.D. program at Santa Cruz. While completing his degree, he became increasingly interested in bioinformatics. Concurrently, the human genome was being sequenced, accumulating in the databases and was scheduled to be released in one month’s time—however, still no technology was in place to assemble its many sequences. In one month, Jim Kent created a computer program called the GigAssembler and computationally compiled for the first time, the entire human genome so that it could be released to the public at its intended deadline.

Jim Kent focuses on understanding the way in which genes are turned on and off to create varying outcomes.