The Hidden Hazards of Genetic Engineering? Ho Ho Ho

By: Myles Power Edited by: Hannah

In October of last year I published an article regarding an advert for Proposition 37. What is Proposition 37? It's for the mandatory labelling of genetically engineered (GM) food in California and although I agreed with the proposition itself, I thought the advert was extremely misleading, manipulative and factually incorrect. In my article I talked about the Bt delta endotoxin and highly discredited paper, ‘Long-term Toxicity of a Roundup Herbicide and a Roundup-Tolerant Genetically Modified Maize', which were both mentioned in the advert. I also stated that there have been hundreds of studies comparing GM food and non-GM food in multiple species, and almost every study showed no difference in health between animals fed on either. Nearly all of those which show negative health effects have been highly disproven and shown to be for political or financial gain. However, soon after I published the article a chap by the name of Egemen contacted me via Facebook to give me the link to a post published on a website which suggested possible dangers from horizontal gene transfer and GM organisms (GMO).


The post in question was called 'Horizontal Gene Transfer - The Hidden Hazards of Genetic Engineering.' The author of the article is a Dr. Mae-Wan Ho who has a PhD in Biochemistry from Hong Kong University, was Postdoctoral Fellow in Biochemical Genetics at the University of California San Diego and was a Senior Research Fellow in Queen Elizabeth College. She is also director of special interest group the Institute of Science in Society (ISIS), of which this article is published. ISIS campaign against what it sees as unethical uses of biotechnology and believes that it is "providing input into the GM debate that would have been conspicuously lacking otherwise". Ho's credentials are intimidating but her work published on the ISIS website are a embarrassment to anyone who has studied science to her level. Her claims include that the HIV virus does not cause AIDS, which she then contradicts in another post by claiming that the simian-human immunodeficiency virus (SHIV) causes AIDS - more deadly than HIV. She believes that the release of radiation from the Fukushima nuclear power plant is on the same scale as the Chernobyl disaster and that people are covering up the truth. One of the strangest posts she published was called "DNA Sequence Reconstituted from Water Memory?" It claimed that bacterial and viral DNA sequences dissolved in water causes electromagnetic signals to be emitted at high dilutions. She then goes on to say that the DNA sequence itself could be  reconstructed from these homeopathic electromagnetic signals. In this article I am going to discuss some of the claims made by Ho (pictured below) in her post sent to me by Egemen.


Ho is best known for her highly discredited paper, “Cauliflower Mosaic Viral Promoter – A Recipe for Disaster”, which was published in the journal of Microbial Ecology in Health and Disease. The paper is a precursor to her horizontal gene transfer post, which starts off with a paragraph calling itself the abstract. However, instead of being a summary of the research below, it simply states that horizontal gene transfer of transgenic DNA has the potential, among other things, to “create new viruses and bacteria that cause diseases and spread drug and antibiotic resistance genes among pathogens.There is an urgent need to establish effective regulatory oversight to prevent the escape and release of these dangerous constructs into the environment, and to consider whether some of the most dangerous experiments should be allowed to continue at all.”

There is a distinct lack of references to back up Ho’s claims in the abstract. In fact, there is a lack of references which aren’t just links to other posts by Ho. I for one would like to know what she considers to be the most dangerous experiments, as it is also never mentioned again in the post. However, the claim that there is no regulation in the field is repeated:

“What makes it worse is that there is currently still no legislation in any country to prevent the escape and release of most artificial vectors and other artificial constructs into the environment.”


This is simply incorrect. For example, here in the European Union we have some of the strictest GMO regulations in the world. All GMOs are subject to extensive case-by-case, science-based evaluation by the European Food Safety Authority. Ho then states – without giving a reference to a peer-reviewed paper – that “viral genes incorporated into transgenic plants have been found to recombine with infecting viruses to generate new viruses.”  She claims that in particular, the 35S promoter from the cauliflower mosaic virus (CaMV) used in some GMOs is a “recipe for disaster”, as the the promoter has a “hotspot” for recombination and that it can function in a wide range of organisms. CaMV can infect a wide range of crucifers and is commonly found in cauliflowers, cabbages and other brassicas. Here in the UK, a survey of a local farmers’ market found that over 10% of the cauliflowers and cabbages on sale were infected with CaMV. The virus, which is transmitted in nature by aphids, infects most cells of the plan and produces about 10×5 viral particles per cell, each containing the 8Kbp double-stranded viral genome.


At this point, it is important to remember that the CaMV genome is different from the 35S CaMV promoter. The promoter simply drives high levels of expression of the gene directly down stream in the GMO. If there was any danger of the 35S promoter recombining with dormant viruses in the host genome, then naturally a CaMV-infected plant would pose a considerably higher risk, as they contain a considerably larger number of copies of the 35S promoter than a GM plant that would only contain one or two copies. The irony of this is that a GM-cauliflower containing a pesticide gene under the control of the 35S promoter would less likely to be infected by CaMV and therefore contain less of the promoter.

I was finding it increasingly difficult to read Ho’s article, as it is written in a way to fool the reader into thinking there are real dangers. She purposefully brings together unrelated facts and technical jargon without explanation and leaves the reader to connect the dots. A perfect example of this is when Ho talks about how closely related CaMV is to the human hepatitis B virus. She then goes on to imply that both can recombinant in a host and it has been shown that recombinant viruses are more infectious then the origin. As before, Ho gives no reference to peer-reviewed papers, nor does she explain the mechanism of action. For this to happen the 35S promoter DNA in the GM food would somehow have to be perfectly spliced out of the genome and survive being denatured if cooked. The DNA would also have to survive nucleases from both the plant cells and within a humans gut. On average, less than 5% of DNA survives beyond 7 hours after ingestion. The DNA would then need to pass (intact) through the gut, into an infected cell without the help of any proteins, and insert itself in a precise location in the 3 billion base pair code. Even if by some miracle this happened, it would be useless, because although both CaMV and the hepatitis B virus are paraetroviruses, their replication cycles differ significantly.

bad science 3

Ho later goes on to say that in the past, soil bacteria have acquired kanamycin resistance marker gene when grown with GM plants. She fails to mention however, that the experiment in question was performed in the lab under a highly-specialized environment. She also fails to mention that the whole experiment is designed to be a novel way to detect the kanamycin marker and the bacteria was genetically modified to sense it.

So in closing, I don’t believe that someone with Ho’s background and qualifications would not look at the research presented here and come to the same conclusion. It is obvious that she is using her knowledge of the subject to manipulate the evidence and back up her predetermined views, and if you ask me, that is not very ethical.

About Myles Power (544 Articles)
My name is Myles Power, and I run the educational YouTube channel, powerm1985. I spend what little free time I have sharing my love of SCIENCE! through home experiments, visiting sites of scientific interest, and angrily ranting at pseudoscience proponents. I am also one of the founding members of the podcast 'The League of Nerds' - which I co-host with James from 'The History of Infection'.

3 Comments on The Hidden Hazards of Genetic Engineering? Ho Ho Ho

  1. Mats André Olufsen Moe // February 14, 2013 at 12:14 pm // Reply

    I’m sorry, but are you saying that horizontal gene transfer isn’t a real danger? Or just the case you presented.


    • I am saying that even in the most extreme case that Ho can think of it’s not a danger. I probably should have been more clear. Sorry :( will try harder next time :)


      • Mats André Olufsen Moe // February 14, 2013 at 12:32 pm //

        I don’t want to sound like a douche here, but i’ve learned that horizantal gene transfer actually might be a danger. Or am i mistaken?


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