In Context #12 (Fall, 2004, pp. 11-12); copyright 2004 by The Nature Institute
Genes Are Not Immune to Context
One of the most widespread misconceptions concerning the nature of genes is that they have a defined and fixed function that allows them to operate the same in all organisms and environments. We have the picture of the robust gene determining all the characteristics an organism has. And this gene will do the same thing in a bacterium as in a corn plant or human being. It doesn't care where it is. The gene carries its set of instructions with it wherever it goes and strictly carries out its duty.
This picture informs genetic engineering. Take a gene from bacteria and put it into a plant and the plant will produce its own pesticide or become resistant to a herbicide. Since such transgenic plants exist, the proof is evidently in the pudding. Genetic manipulation works; genes are faithful workhorses. But does genetic manipulation work the way we imagine with our schematic pictures? What else may be occurring that doesn't fit into a neat mechanistic scheme?
It's somewhat ironic that precisely within the last ten to fifteen yearsthe period in which genetically modified crops have be