Gene Cuisine on the Menu

Article excerpt

If Charles Darwin and Gregor Mendel could tuck in their napkins, take up their forks, and enjoy a 21st-century dinner together, they might marvel at how much of their work went into the dishes arrayed before them.

Over salad, they might praise the tomatoes, genetically engineered to stay fresh, firm, and juicy without losing their taste. Or the lettuce, fortified with the genes responsible for broccoli's rich concentration of nutrients. Or the dressing, made with canola oil that was bioengineered to have the low saturated fat content of olive oil.

For the entree, the esteemed biologists might relish pork from pigs dosed with a recombinant growth hormone that reduces its fat content by a third. The corn has been engineered to express a toxin that protects it against borers. Even the bread is made with recombinant wheat, a strain enriched with the genes for gluten proteins once found only in premium varieties.

Dessert is not Death by Chocolate but Bananas Immortalite, which delivers a tasty dose of hepatitis B vaccine.

Sound impossible? It's true that science is not likely to raise Darwin or Mendel from the dead. As for the courses served-geneticists are already setting the table.

Using the new tools of biotechnology, innovative thinkers have usurped the power of genetic recombination from nature and altered in dramatic ways the traits to be expressed by future generations of some food crops. Indeed, they have already produced some of the items on this futuristic menu. By the end of last year, federal regulators had approved recombinant strains of canola, potatoes, soybeans, squash, corn, and both full-sized and cherry tomatoes. Even the vaccine-bearing banana is a reality, on the brink of a preliminary test in 12 volunteers. Thirteen other recombinant vegetables await government approval-a courtesy, not a requirement under federal rules, which view many genetically engineered plants as equivalent to hybrids made by other means.

Although breeders have been genetically improving plants for centuries, the new foods differ from ordinary hybrids. Many products contain genes from other species or genes that did not exist until they were constructed in a laboratory. Consider the MacGregor Tomato by Calgene Fresh of Evanston, Ill. It bears a lab-made antisense copy of the tomato's putrefaction gene. This new antisense gene, which cancels out the activity of the normal version, prolongs ripeness, so the fruit can be harvested late, when it is most delicious. Over brandy, as yet unimproved by biotechnology, Darwin and Mendel might express some reservations about the unearthly bounty they've just dined upon. …