Biologist Criticizes Media “Paranoia” Sowed by Plant MicroRNA Study
A Slate.com science writer has penned a January 17, 2012, “Medical Examiner”
blog post criticizing media coverage that used recent microRNA (miRNA)
research to erroneously suggest a link between genetically modified organisms
(GMOs) and human health. According to biologist Emily Willingham,
Nanjing University scientists reportedly identified miRNA from rice and other
plant foods in human blood and tissues, raising questions about whether
the foreign genetic material could inhibit normal protein functions. “The rice
results, simply stated, show an effect of one miRNA from one non-GM plant
on one protein in live mice and in cultured human liver cancer cells,” recounts
Willingham, who singles out a January 9 Atlantic article by Ari LeVaux for
mischaracterizing these findings as evidence of GMO health risks and igniting
“a social-media chain reaction” in the process.
In particular, Willingham refutes LeVaux’s implication that GM foods contain modified miRNA and thus should come under more stringent federal regulation. As she explains, the class of molecule examined by the Nanjing study “hasn’t been altered in GM foods” and is not interchangeable with other forms of RNA cited in LeVaux’s argument against “’substantial equivalence,’ the risk assessment tenet that if testing indicates a GM food has the same essential features as a non-GM food… that it should fall under standard food regulations.” Adding that humans have evidently ingested plant miRNAs “for a long time,” Willingham ultimately concludes that the current framework is more than adequate for assessing the safety of GM foods and flexible enough to address a rapidly evolving biotech industry.
To this end, Willingham views the Atlantic story as a cautionary tale about the perils of science journalism. Originally shared “11,000 times on Facebook alone,” the incorrect article later underwent revisions but “couldn’t outpace the lightspeed transmission of misinformation.” The biologist blogger thus urges readers and other researchers not to focus solely on the GMO angle but to ask what role ordinary plant miRNAs might play in development and disease. “That’s the question that shouldn’t get lost amidst the shrapnel of LeVaux’s social-media bombshell,” she opines.