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What I've been thinking about...

Arctic Apples

This is the name given to a genetically engineered apple developed by Okanagan Specialty Fruits, Inc.  As promised in the above blurb from arcticapples.com, these apples don’t appear to brown, at all, after being cut or bitten.

As we can see from the second image (from a Globe and Mail article), not everyone is excited.

This easy-to-imagine super-apple may be a perfect case by which we in the public can examine our feelings about genetically engineered crops, and wonder “do we really know what we’re doing?"  The questions are relevant, as these apple trees could appear in orchards in Canada’s Okanagan Valley within a couple of years.  Does it matter?

Engineered How?

What do you picture when I say the phrase genetically engineered?  First, I’ll tell you what not to picture.  Don’t picture dog breeds bred over generations.  Don’t picture planting pear trees within pollination distance of apple trees and waiting to observe the fruit.

In the case of these apples, an enzyme involved in the oxidization was isolated.  A gene necessary for creating that enzyme was found in the apple’s genome.  Using a virus wrapper, this gene was targeted and replaced in individual fruits, and then seeds from these fruits were allowed to grow into trees.  The result in a few of the trees?  Arctic Apples.  They appear normal in all ways, except they don’t brown.  At all.

What might make this a little more alarming is that apple trees “breed” by polinating nearby apple trees.  Trees that have a certain gene “turned off” may beget a next generation that is also without that gene, and this may travel out of controlled orchards.

Spokesman Neal Carter argues that this is still the perfectly natural apple, just with one specific enzyme removed or “turned off”.  Does this make it okay?

My Take

This idea does scare me, because I have a healthy respect for human ignorance.  Our tendency to label genes as the “blue-eyes gene”, or the “apple-browning gene” is, to say the least, an over-simplification.  Translating genotype into phenotype is a famously untangleable problem!

From a more macro-perspective, I’d argue from the view of natural selection.  If apples have this enzyme, it is because they outcompeted some earlier version that did not.  Is this enzyme used for something else?  Is the non-browning apple less attractive to scavengers that might spread the seeds, for example?  I just don’t think we know.

Possible advantage: apples that last better, and a specific company makes lots of money.  Possible disadvantage: all apple trees lose a genetic trait that turns out to be vitally important to their survival (either with or without human intervention).

Weighing the possibilities, I give this one a thumbs down!