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Hot potato: New genetically modified tater approved by USDA, loathed by GMO critics -- science roundup (photos, links, video)

Hot potato: New genetically modified tater approved by USDA, loathed by GMO critics -- science roundup (photos, links, video)
16 Nov

A newly approved genetically modified potato may have growers and food purveyors who embrace the spud asking: Would you like RNAis with that?

RNAi, or RNA interference, is the technique used to produce the GM potato, also known as Innate. It was created by J.R. Simplot Co.of Boise, Idaho, which is a major supplier of frozen french fries to McDonald's.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture approved Innate on Nov. 7. Come the morning of Nov. 8, reactions to the news were already starting to spread on social media. They seemed to be mostly the not-favorable kind, such as the GMO Free USA image below that made the rounds on Facebook. (Note: The statement made in the photo regarding the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's scientific panel could not be verified with EPA as of deadline.)

GMO Free USA describes Innate as a nonbrowning potato, but that's half the story. Besides conveying a resistance to bruising, the new potato also has been modified so that less of the chemical acrylamide is produced when the potato is fried, such as in french fries or potato chips.

This image circulated on Facebook after the U.S. Department of Agriculture approved J.R. Simplot Co.'s Innate potato on Nov. 7.

Acrylamide has been shown to increase the risk of cancer in lab rats and mice, but studies in humans so far have not shown a clear increase in cancer risk in humans who eat acrylamide-containing foods, according to the American Cancer Society.

Even so, Innate is considered to be part of a new wave of genetically modified crops aimed at providing benefits to consumers (e.g. nonbruising, lower content of something that may or may not be a human carcinogen) and not just helping farmers (e.g. herbicide- or pest-resistant crops, such as the Roundup Ready or Bt types), according to The New York Times.

Why the potato is called Innate has to do with fragments of DNA from potatoes being inserted into, well, potatoes: It's based on a natural genetic mechanism and does not involve genes from foreign organisms, such as bacteria, which is the case for Bt crops.

The inserted genetic fragments are extra copies of DNA already existing in potatoes, and the presence of the duplicate copies triggers the natural mechanism to turn down, or silence, the expression of genes — hence where the "interference" part of RNAi conceptually comes from.

The mechanism occurs not only in plants but also in fungi, some bacteria and animals, including mammalian cells, which means yours, too. It basically serves a regulatory role, such as turning off genes when the products they code for are temporarily or permanently unwanted or unneeded in a cell.

In Innate potatoes, the duplicate copies lead to the silencing of genes that yield proteins involved in acrylamide formation and discoloration from bruising.

And RNAi techniques are not limited to genetic engineering of crops. They've been useful in cell biology research and may hold promise for treating human diseases, such as hepatitis C and leukemia.

For more about RNAi, check out the Nature video at the end of this post, and for more about the science of genetically modified organisms from the perspective of an Oregon State University scientist, read my Oct. 26 Q&A with forestry professor Steve Strauss.

And, of course, the comments section below is open for you to debate whether you think Innate is worthwhile or not (or genetically engineered crops in general ... and odds are good that someone will mention labeling ... and maybe Monsanto ... ).

In other science news (from Nov. 6 to Nov. 12, 2014):

— In case you were preoccupied worrying about Northwest Oregon's snowpocalypse forecast on Nov. 12, you might have missed that this happened about 8 a.m. PT that day: Really smart members of our primate species, whose genus only started making projectiles a couple hundred thousand years ago, LANDED A PROBE ... ON A COMET. It was a feat 10 years in the making and a scientific endeavor that's already yielding results in the form of photographs. It also yielded a series of cute and funny cartoons on xkcd, a webcomic drawn by Randall Munroe that often includes math and science humor. You can click through them in flipbook fashion online. The whole event — sending a spacecraft (Rosetta) out into the universe to rendezvous with a comet (67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko) and then drop a lander (the Philae probe) safely on its surface to photograph it and sample its composition — reminded me of a certain moment from a "Star Trek" reboot a few years ago: It's "like trying to hit a bullet with a smaller bullet whilst wearing a blindfold riding a horse ... " Yes, and in this case of hitting a comet with a lander, we humans TOTALLY NAILED IT. (Smithsonian Institution's Human Origins Program, PLOS One, European Space Agency, Associated Press, xkcd,, YouTube)

— A shark-carrying van is about to roll into Portland and surrounding communities Nov. 18, 19 and 20, but fear not. It's actually Oregon Coast Aquarium's Aquari-van, and the "shark" it'll carry will be a life-sized, inflatable great white shark model. The visit is part of an outreach educational program the aquarium does for kids in kindergarten through fifth grade. Aquarium staff will give elementary school students in Portland, Boring, Oregon City, Gresham and Clackamas a chance to learn about sharks, the ocean and marine science through interactive presentations that feature animal sounds or videos, touchable shark teeth and skin, costumes that help kids compare their own size to that of wild animals, and sing-alongs that teach lessons in animal anatomy and adaptations. For more information about OCA's education programs, call 541-867-3474 or visit its education website. [Oregon Coast Aquarium (2)]

— Ancient, fossilized bones meet new technology: For their senior project, a pair of students at Hillsboro's Century High School have made models of the skull from an unclassified marine reptile found in Oregon. The team used 3-D printing technology to do it. The specimen may be thalattosaur, which hails from the Triassic period and is similar to ichthyosaurs. [The Oregonian, Oregon Museum of Science and Industry, University of California Museum of Paleontology (2)]

Hello, kitty! Humans have been working to domesticate cats for thousands of years, and new research into the genomes of domestic and wild cats suggests that to do it we've exploited cat genes relating to memory, fear and food. 

— In the Nov. 2 science roundup, I talked about cats, dogs and domestication, including how our Felis silvestris catus, or domestic cat, friends are probably only about halfway domesticated*, as compared to our fully domesticated dogs, or Canis lupus familiaris. Well, the results of an analysis of house kitty and wild cat genomes published the week of Nov. 9 in the Proceedings of the National Academies of Science reveals that our efforts to tame wild felines have hinged on genes that relate to memory, fear and food. One of the PNAS paper's authors also linked house cats' state of semi-domestication to their recent split from wild kitty populations. Humans, of course, started working on taming dogs a few thousand years or more before we went for the mouse-catchers. And, well, it takes time to achieve full domestication and feline purr-fection. (The Oregonian, UniProt, Animal Diversity Web, PNAS, IFLS)(*Wording edited from original post to remove reference to evolution and avoid confusion about intent or direction in artificial selection versus the intent or direction that does NOT exist in evolution and natural selection.)

— There once was a time in biology where the function and evolutionary benefit of milk in mammals was hypothesized to be all about nutrition. More recently, scientists have found mother's milk includes factors that help build or boost an infant's immune system. Now, researchers have found another layer in the fruit of lactation: hormones that convey messages about a mother's condition to her nursing offspring. More specifically, new research in monkeys found the stress hormone cortisol in milk, and it can trigger changes in how an infant grows and behaves. For example, in the study, infants of monkey mothers who delivered high-cortisol milk tended to put on weight faster and display a more nervous temperament. Variations in the amount of cortisol in milk also tended to vary based on the age of the mother and how many offspring she'd had previously. Young, new monkey mothers have a harder time producing a lot of high-energy milk, and in the study, monkeys who'd already had several offspring tended to have lower cortisol levels, suggesting that higher amounts of cortisol in newer moms' milk may induce their babies' bodies to prioritize growth because it signals there may be less milk or lower-quality milk available. (The New York Times, Behavioral Ecology)

— Would you take a one-way trip to Mars? Much as I'd love to be an astronaut (seriously ... I am not kidding) and do science on the International Space Station, help revisit the moon or maybe even venture to the red planet, there's just something about a one-way, possibly suicidal mission that makes me say, "Nah, I think I'll pass." However, the co-founders of the Mars One project have found thousands of people willing (or crazy enough) to give it a go. (Popular Science) 

— And, finally, for something else batty. No, seriously, this one's about bats. You probably already know that bats use a type of biological sonar, called echolocation, to navigate and hunt prey, but did you know they also can use it to jam another bat's signal and steal his or her meal? Yep, researchers just found that happens among insect-hunting Mexican free-tailed bats, and it's analogous to what sonar and radar engineers do for military purposes. Call it a little bat-beat-out-bat warfare. (, Los Angeles Times) 

— Susannah L. Bodman, This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.,, Twitter: @Sciwhat(Speaking of the Oregon Coast Aquarium, you can read about my recent adventures meeting its giant Pacific octopus and snorkeling with its "Passages of the Deep" fish in a post on my Sci-what?! blog.)