The Washington Post

Gregor Mendel’s naughty peas and our GM future

It started off innocuously, in a garden. These things often do.

On Wednesday, Google celebrated the birthday of Gregor Mendel, the monk whose experimentation with peas resulted, indirectly, in the demonic genetically modified salmon that are currently terrorizing the French. Mendel developed the laws of genetics that still help us understand the way traits are passed down — through segregation, independent assortment and via the mailman.

Gregor Mendel’s discovery of dominant traits (always expressed) and recessive traits (only expressed in the absence of alleles for the dominant traits) and how to make them work for us proved revelatory.

Maybe stop the genetic modification before it gets this far. (FRANK MASI)

And look at our food! It’s twice as large as life and twice as natural, too!

But Europeans may be trying to put a stop to this.

Americans tend to be less queasy about genetically modified food than Europeans. Who knows why. Perhaps it’s something they’re putting in our water.

This is in many ways a logical position — all food is genetically modified. Our wheat is bigger and more wheat-like than it was when our ancestors first harvested it. Our corn is cornier.

But Europe is moving forward with plans to ban genetically modified foods. Never mind that hardy GM crops could help combat famine around the world. Greenpeace disapproves. Such crops might be invasive! They might destroy local species diversity!

This is also true of all kinds of non-GM crops. If such a thing exists. The biggest difference between many GM crops and their less evolved counterparts is that the GM crops have gotten better faster.

Millennia before Mendel began messing around with the pea plants, we had genetically modified foods. Our cave ancestors urged the robust wheats to pollinate each other, sometimes sitting there for hours near the wheat field offering them verbal encouragement and playing the cave equivalent of Barry White music. It just took a while.

Maybe the problem is that we haven’t gone far enough. If it were possible to breed salmon that tasted vaguely of Miracle Whip and despair (but I repeat myself), I’d eat it. I like my food to have weird capacities. Glowing fish? They have already genetically modified mice to make them capable of singing like birds! This was the only thing that mice were missing! Sign me up! I try to stay on the cutting edge. Yesterday I threw away some Jell-o that I had been keeping in my refrigerator for something verging on a month, in the hopes that it would evolve to the point where it could provide me with companionship. It did, but then it wanted to talk about its feelings all the time.

But I digress! Genetic modification has already accomplished fascinating things, and it will likely result in still more, unless Europe pulls it up short. “Don’t play with your food!” it yells.

Why not? Gregor Mendel did.

Alexandra Petri writes the ComPost blog, offering a lighter take on the news and opinions of the day. She is the author of "A Field Guide to Awkward Silences".


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