A Lot to Chew On

Complex layers of science, policy, and public opinion surround the things we eat and drink.

Jun 1, 2014
Mary Beth Aberlin

ANDRZEJ KRAUZEIn his very funny 1973 sci-fi film Sleeper, Woody Allen plays a health-food store owner who is revived after 200 years of cryopreservation. His request for a breakfast of “wheat germ, organic honey, and tiger’s milk” bewilders the doctors who supervised his thawing: “Those are the charmed substances that some years ago were thought to contain life-preserving properties,” says one doctor, to which the other queries, “You mean there was no deep fat? No steak or cream pies or . . . hot fudge?” “Those were thought to be unhealthy—precisely the opposite of what we now know to be true,” explains the first medic.

Food provides organisms with the vital energy and nutrients they need to survive. But for humans, food is far more than simple sustenance. This issue of The Scientist peels back layers of complexity to report on the science that is revolutionizing nutrition and agriculture from the inside out. What we’ve uncovered is a cornucopia of technical progress in plant breeding spurred by advances in genomics and gene editing—advances that could feed many more people and counter climate-change threats to food crops.

In “Putting Up Resistance,” associate editor Kerry Grens documents crop scientists’ growing worries that a fungal attack on wheat plants could spread around the world, decimating a crop with insufficient defense mechanisms before breeders can develop a more resistant variety. She outlines the progress toward genetically engineering wheat plants and the factors that make bringing such products to market so difficult.

When it comes to producing genetically modified (GM) animals, the hurdles may be even higher, reports senior editor Jef Akst. In “Designer Livestock,” scientists describe how they have engineered pigs whose poop contains less of the phosphorus that drives algal growth fueled by farm runoff; salmon that grow nearly twice as fast and consume 25 percent less food; animal milk with antibacterial properties to stanch diarrhea; and meat enriched with omega-3 fatty acids.

Most researchers believe that if GM foods are ever to help relieve world hunger, improve poor diets, or fight diseases, the hope lies in precision gene-editing techniques, such as TALENs and CRISPR/Cas9, which can make tailored changes to an organism’s genome without the introduction of genetic material from a radically different species. Fine-tuning existing genes or adding genetic diversity from close relatives—such as the wild kin of today’s food crops, as discussed in an opinion article—may finally win over the general public. I hope so.

Forty years after Allen’s cynical quip, press releases from respected journals about new scientific findings echo the confusion about what’s good for you to eat. Recent studies report that coffee confers health benefits and that the antioxidant resveratrol—found in red wine, chocolate, and grapes, and long touted as healthful—provides none. Dozens more appear each month. In a Thought Experiment Christopher Gardner and Michael Stanton address contradictions of this nature and discuss how to design nutrition studies to find clear, reliable answers.
The entire Notebook section is devoted to food-related subjects: controlling invasive Asian carp by putting them on the menu; using spoiled milk to produce eco-friendly textiles; brewing beers using barley that is devoid of a barf-inducing fungus; and detecting food pathogens with microcantilevers. And three recent scientific papers focus on how the bacteria that roundworms ingest affect their longevity; how green tea spurs DNA repair; and how neurons sense nutrients. In a Reading Frames essay, Robert Dudley explains primates’ relationship with alcohol.

Scientists profiled include octogenarian Bruce Ames (designer of the eponymous test), who describes his research on the importance of micronutrients, and Haley Oliver, who studies the spread of food-borne pathogens.

So strap on the feed bag. We’ve served up quite the smorgasbord!

Mary Beth Aberlin  Editor-in-Chief

September 2018

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