"Frankenstein" by Mary Shelley is a powerful cautionary tale. It's a story about man and science - and hubris. The nature of that hubris is attempting to replicate the work of the Creator by artificially bringing life (but not a soul) back to dead tissue. When people think of "Frankenstein" these days (who reads books anymore?) they think of the scary monster, but not the affront to the nature and the madness of Dr. Frankenstein or the immense suffering of his poor soulless creation.
"Jurassic Park" by Micheal Crichton gives us a modern version of Mary Shelley's "Frankenstein", where an inventor, again filled with hubris, is done in by his own creation. In the process many innocent lives are lost, and the disaster wreaks havoc with nature.
With Frankenstein, it was man's use of electricity to artificially bring life into a dead body. With Jurassic Park, it was man's manipulation of fossilized DNA. Both are works of fiction, and both are powerful cautionary tales about tinkering with things that we barely understand.
The harsh lesson warned about in one of these cautionary tales has already come to pass.
Which finally takes us to the first deaths caused by genetically modified organisms (GMOs). That's right - people have already died from GMOs.
In the mid to late 1980's, there was a surge in popularity of Amino Acid supplements. Amino Acids, as you might recall from high school biology or chemistry class, are the "building blocks of life". What that means for practical purposes is that amino acids are used to build most of the tissue that you are made of. The human body can manufacture 12 types of vital amino acids, which are called "non-essential". The remaining nine amino acids cannot be made by the body and are called "essential amino acids"
These "essential amino acids" are in supplements aimed at fitness buffs and bodybuilders. They are Histidine, Isoleucine, Leucine, Lysine, Methionine, Phenylalinine, Threonine, Tryptophan, and Valine. It makes sense if you are a body-builder to ensure your body always has enough raw material on hand to build muscle. Readers are probably familiar with Tryptophan. It's the amino acid that is supposed to make you sleepy after eating a big Thanksgiving turkey dinner (actually what makes you sleepy is the carbs). Tryptophan is also the subject of today's post.
In the late 1980's the US experienced an epidemic of Eosinophilia-Myalgia Syndrome (EMS), which led to 1500 cases of permanent disability and 37 deaths. EMS is a an incurable and sometimes fatal neurologic condition. The single outbreak of EMS was traced to the Japanese manufacturer Showa Denko. Although the EMS outbreak wasn't recognized until 1989, there were EMS cases 2-3 years prior to that recognition. Epidemiological studies led authorities to Showa Denko, who sold most of the amino acid supplements under various brand names in the US.
Tryptophan is manufactured by a fermentation process that starts with a couple of simpler amino acids. Showa Denko decided to speed up the fermentation process by genetically modifying the bacteria that did the fermenting. They also modified their filtration process to purify the Tryptophan after it came out of the fermenter. After the EMS outbreak was recognized, samples of the Tryptophan were analyzed, and over 60 impurities were found, of which two are thought to be the toxins responsible for EMS.
Of interest here are the responses of the company Showa Denko, and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), both of which I consider unethical.
Showa Denko destroyed the GMO bacterial stocks when the nature of the EMS outbreak became known.
The FDA banned all Tryptophan supplements from 1991 until 2001. Tryptophan, however, was not the problem. Showa Denko's process was.
The FDA has since acted as if Showa Denko's filtration process were the cause, although it has no evidence to prove that. It has assumed the GMO process was not the cause, although it also has no evidence to prove that. And since Showa Denko decided to destroy the evidence, I would tend to lean toward GMO as the cause.
Lastly, please note that the Tryptophan that Showa Denko produced still met the USP purity requirements of 98.5% purity. So a tiny fraction of a 1.5% impurity lead to 37 deaths and 1500 permanent disabilities. Thats some pretty toxic stuff.
Here's some good reading on the 1989 EMS outbreak while you munch on your GMO corn chips. Hopefully the genetic engineers and regulatory agencies are more worried about our health and safety than they are about getting their next blockbuster GMO seed to market or protecting the biotech industry... Oh who am I kidding?