Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Mutants, mama's milk, and probiotics

"With the broadening of patents to life forms, patents do not just regulate technology they regulate life.  They regulate economy.  They regulate basic needs."  
Vandana Shiva, "The Role of Patents in the Rise of Globalization"

Bacteria is a life form.  And the biotech industry is certainly making, using and offering for sale mutant variations of bacteria for use in probiotics.  Where do we see probiotics?  Industry has found some creative uses for its "novel" probiotics:  in foods such as yogurts; supplements; infant formula; pharmaceuticals.  They are genetically modified, unless the company specifies organic on the label.  When these mutant bacteria are used in baby formulas, it would seem that there should be more stringent regulations in place.  Babies are one of our more vulnerable populations.  Their immune systems are not fully developed and if they are being formula fed they are even more vulnerable than the breastfed infant.  Yet it doesn't seem that our industry that plays and mutates bacteria for our foods has such regulations.  People seem unaware of how our probiotics are created.  Fermentation is an age-old tradition.  But we are living in a new age where novelty is the priority.  Fermentation is enhanced by creating genetic variations of bacteria.  So you don't believe that is happening?  Well let's take a peak at some patents.

Mead Johnson has a patent called, "Probiotic infant products,"  patent #8137718 that was filed in September of 2008.  The "technical problem solved to provide infant formulas and children nutritional products containing novel probiotics."  They state, "In another embodiment, the infant formula or children's nutritional product contains B. longum strain AH1205 or a mutant or variant therof.  The mutant maybe a genetically modified mutant..."

Filed in 2008, do you want to guess if its in baby formula?  Skeptical?  I know hard to believe.  Well here is another patent from a company well-known in the food industry called Chr.Hansen A/S of Denmark.  It's from a patent filed in April of 1999 called, "Food-grade cloning vectors and their use in lactic acid bacteria," patent number 7358083

"Presently used methods of stably maintaining (stabilising) vectors in a host cell include insertion of relatively large DNA sequences such e.g. antibiotic or bacteriocin resistance genes into the cell. In the art, such genes are also referred to as selection markers. However, it is well-known that the insertion of large DNA sequences involves the risk that other sequences are deleted from the vector. Furthermore, the use of resistance genes for maintaining the plasmid in the host cell implies that antibiotics or bacteriocins must be present in the cultivation medium. This is undesirable in the manufacturing of food and feed products. In addition, it is undesirable that live bacteria comprising antibiotic resistance genes are present in food products as such genes may be transferable to the indigenous gastro-intestinal microflora. "

As they say in the Space Industry, "Houston, we got a problem."  Hm...antibiotic resistant genes in food products are undesirable.  Yes, yes but we now have Nestle to the rescue.  Nestle (Nestec S.A.) filed a patent in August of 2007 called, "Genetic remodeling in Bifidobacterium,"  patent #8071353.  They had noticed a recently discovered problem with a commercially available strain, Bifidobacterium animalis subsp. lactis strain NCC2818, CNCMI-3446.   The strain was generally recognized as safe.  It carried a tetracycline resistance gene tetW.  Oops.  So now we are going to remodel that problem and hopefully solve that problem.  Hopefully we won't be creating more problems.

"Use of any bacterium that possess or has acquired antibiotic resistance in food processing or agricultural production poses a potential theoretical risk of transfer of the resistance fostering genes to other bacteria in the food, the gastrointestinal tract (GIT) of a person or animal after consumption of the food, or the environment at some point before or after consumption at some point before or after consumption."

Hopefully, when our genetic engineers play with bacteria and use it for food they disable any virulence of that bacteria.  They say they do but one might wonder since it took our scientists 20 years to find out that a strain that was recognized as generally safe carried a gene resistant to the antibiotic tetracycline.  And we wonder why our antibiotics don't work.  Blame it on the patients for always asking for antibiotics, or blame it on the massive cattle feed lots contaminating the environment  or perhaps we might consider that the food we are ingesting carries antibiotic resistant markers.  Hm...and we feel comfortable giving this to babies fed infant formula or babies that are breastfed.  You know sometimes when I wake up in the morning, I just wonder about the sanity of the world.  Lets play with bacteria, rearrange the genes, add antibiotic resistant genes, subtract antibiotic genes, and then feed it to babies.  Sometimes I wish I would wake up on Mars and join the LandRovers.  Then I could be a mutant LandRover and live happily everafter...
Copyright 2012 Valerie W. McClain

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