Intrexon, the controversial parent company of GMO mosquito maker Oxitec and owner of the web address DNA.com, bills itself as a “synthetic biology” firm working to bring bio-engineered animals to the forefront of commercialization. Just what are Intrexon’s artificial animals? How successful are they? And is Oxitec’s GMO mosquito experiment in the Florida Keys just a “Hail Mary” play to save the $3.3B company from a portfolio of failed products?
“The programming of DNA and reformatting of genetic circuitry within cell platforms has created a paradigm shift whereby the analysis of biology is being supplanted by its synthesis.”
— Intrexon Synthetic Biology Page [emphasis ours]
The Real Business of Intrexon: Synthetic Life
Intrexon’s home page says the company’s goal is to “supplant” the scientific exploration of biology with artificial, synthetic life forms. The word choice is an interesting one, since it means to supersede and replace. Intrexon’s goal is not the scientific discovery of how nature works. It’s not based on the scientific method of repeatable, open studies aimed at improving our understanding of the universe as it stands today.
Intrexon’s purpose is to create new, artificial animals which have never existed and to sell them to the marketplace. The company doesn’t want to augment or assist the natural world. They want to replace it with their own laboratory products. The goal is to create a dependency on the company’s patented animals and to sell them to governments globally.
Intrexon’s claim to fame is a “DNA platform” which it says can be used to engineer any kind of life.
One Technology: Many Failures
The GMO mosquito is just one model in a range of Oxitec products built from the same core technology. It works by shredding DNA and inserting foreign sequences from other animals, bacteria, and viruses, effectively crippling the artificial animal. The sales pitch revolves around the idea that, if enough crippled animals are continually released, they will mate with natural insects, overtake them, and then die out from their own DNA defects.
Another Oxitec product which relies on this same strategy is the OX3097D genetically engineered fly. In 2015, the company tried to convince Spain to permit a release of the GMO flies in an attempt to control olive grove pests. Despite the assurances that there were “no areas of concern to Oxitec” with regard to environmental safety or human health, the government of Spain was not so easily convinced.
“The costs associated with conducting research trials under containment as deemed appropriate by regulatory authorities are significant. At this stage in the evaluation of the Olive fly strain OX3097D, Oxitec has thus decided to withdraw its current application.”
— Intrexon: Oxitec GMO Olive Fly Product Page
In other words, just assuring the public that there were “no areas of concern to Oxitec,” was not the same as proving they were safe for the crops or the citizens of Spain. When the government wanted proof, Oxitec backed down and cancelled the request for the trial. If the European Union isn’t going to approve a GMO olive fly in Spain without proper scientific trials, why would they approve it any other European country? They won’t, since the whole idea of Europe is unified standards for this kind of stuff. This is an example of how one failed test (or one that never takes place), can shut off Oxitec from selling a product in a whole country, or even a continent.
GMO Salmon: The Fish No One Wants to Eat
Intrexon’s product line isn’t restricted to insects. Another division of the company sells cloned dogs and cats as household pets. The company also sells GMO salmon under the brand name AquaBounty, which has been roundly rejected by supermarkets everywhere. Despite being owned by the multi-billion dollar biotech firm, AquaBounty says on its website that it’s a “small company.”
GMO salmon combines DNA from three fish species. The artificial animals have 3 chromosomes instead of 2 and grow larger and faster than wild salmon.
The salmon story is particularly interesting. In 2010, AquaBounty began petitioning the FDA for approval of its newly engineered animal: the world’s first GMO fish. The artificial salmon had been created by merging genes from three fish species: an ocean pout, a Pacific Chinook salmon, and an Atlantic salmon.
The resulting “Frankenfish” has three sets of chromosomes instead of the normal two and grows to market size in about the half the time. Like the DNA-damaged GMO mosquitoes from Intrexon’s portfolio, GMO salmon are crippled from the outset and do not mate or swim as well as natural salmon. And as with any engineered animal, there is potential for the company’s artificial DNA to leak out into the environment through mating or contamination of the food chain.
“AquAdvantage Salmon [is] descended from wild salmon stocks that once inhabited the tributaries of Canada’s famed Bay of Fundy.”
— Intrexon: AquaBounty GMO Salmon Product Page
Because of the obvious consumer preference for real, wild salmon, the company must make misleading statements such as telling us the fish “once inhabited” river waters. In reality, these fish are farmed on land and must be grown in a tank order to meet FDA requirements. This is because of the inherent risk of GMO salmon mixing with wild types, yet another example of the “leaky DNA” problem common to all genetically engineered animals.
AquAdvantage eggs will be grown in land-based salmon hatcheries and grow-out facilities that will provide high-quality facility management and control.
— Intrexon: AquaBounty GMO Salmon FAQ
Despite years of promotion and a sales campaign designed to convince customers that the tank-raised fish is somehow related to wild salmon, major supermarket chains across the US are refusing to carry GMO salmon. Retailers who will not carry the artificial species include Costco, Whole Foods, Trader Joe’s, Safeway, Albertsons, and Vons.
The Arctic Apple: Rotting in the Market
Another one of Intrexon’s chips on the table in this game of genetic roulette is an apple that’s been modified to start going bad without turning brown, making it easier for fruit growers and shippers to sell old fruit which people otherwise wouldn’t buy.
A video from Intrexon shows how their GMO apple hides the age and freshness of the fruit.
Even the name of the division, Okanagan Specialty Fruits, conjures up images of a Harry & David catalog with bountiful baskets of farm fresh produce. The reality is that company is not a fruit grower but a genetic laboratory that’s intentionally switched-off an important gene — one that indicates when a particular piece of fruit may no longer be good to eat.
Okanagan’s public-facing website tries hard to convince people that somehow non-browning apples would be more desirable than real ones. But the industry website is noticeably more honest. Intrexon is marketing this product in order to allow farmers, fruit packers, and supermarkets to sell older, lower grade fruit while passing it off as fresh, first-quality produce. The biggest benefactors are large agribusiness companies who can produce huge quantities of apples and ship them long-distance, along with processed food makers who can buy lower grade apples at a lower cost and hide the switch from their customers.
Intrexon’s artificial apple species works a bit differently from their other products. Instead of inserting genes from other plants, the company uses a technique which overloads the fruit with multiple copies of a gene it already has. When it detects multiple copies of the same browning gene, the organism shuts all the copies and the fruit doesn’t brown.
While DNA editing seems as easy as choosing paint colors from the hardware store (two parts yellow, one part blue!), the reality is not so simple. The PPO genes responsible for browning are also involved in pesticide resistance and susceptibility to disease. As with all GMO products, there will be new discoveries down the line as these modified genes enter the environment and our bodies. If Monsanto could predict that glyphosate, the active ingredient in Roundup pesticide, would wind up in feminine products made with Roundup-ready cotton, they certainly didn’t disclose it.
The agriculture business is slowly catching up to the fact that the public prefers non-GMO food and would like to avoid chemical pesticides whenever possible. The idea of an apple that rots without telling you goes very much against that trend. Perhaps that’s why the company has pushed so hard to keep the Arctic Apple from being labeled as GMO.
“Labeling the fruit as genetically modified would only be ‘demonizing’ it.”
— Okanagan President Neal Carter
Like other GMO produce, current regulations do not require labeling the apples as containing altered DNA. If buyers really did want GMO fruit, surely there would be little risk in telling them you’re selling it. Instead, numerous fast food and grocery chains have refused to carry this Intrexon product. McDonald’s, Subway, Burger King, and Wendy’s (hardly paragons of public health) have all rejected the Arctic Apple, along with baby food manufacturer Gerber.
“In the marketplace we participate in, there doesn’t seem to be room for genetically modified apples now,” said John Rice, co-owner of Rice Fruit Company in Gardners, PA, which bills itself as the largest apple packer in the East.”
Oxitec: A Taxpayer-Funded Bailout for Intrexon?
Since buying Oxitec, Intrexon’s stock has lost nearly half its value. Investors are understandably worried. The investor forums are chock-full of thrilling reports of Zika outbreaks, concerns that the company is not doing enough to sell its own products, and ugly personal attacks on the citizens who don’t want to be their guinea pigs. And if elected officials and regulatory agencies don’t agree to shove GMO mosquitoes at the citizens as fast as these investors would like, they’ll complain about that, too.
Intrexon stock has fallen by nearly half since taking over Oxitec in August, 2015.
Everyone knows that a monopoly means you can only buy something from one place. Intrexon is in the monopoly business since they’ve patented all of their DNA sequences, making them the only vendor until the patents run out. The US-based parent company acquired Oxford Insect Technologies (Oxitec) in 2015 as a spin-off of public research at Oxford University in the UK. The insect division is also an example of monopsony, which is a business with only one buyer.
Oxitec sells GMO mosquitoes to the elected officials who control mosquito district funds, whether on a local level as here in Key West, or nationally as the company did in Brazil. In any region where Oxitec wants to do business, there is only one committee who need to be convinced. Sometimes, a handful of people are enough to push through the sale using public funds. The company does not operate on a free, open market principle where its products could be chosen or rejected by the people who are supposed to pay for it (or even benefit from it). By having only one customer in any region and only one supplier, Oxitec is both a monopoly and a monopsony businesses.
By the same token, a rejection from any country, state, or municipality could have far reaching consequences for the company’s bottom line. Objections to the proposed Key West test, for example, have held up Intrexon’s ability to sell Oxitec mosquitoes anywhere in the United States for several years now. Many other countries, too, with less stringent regulatory requirements are looking at the United States to accept or reject the risky technology. This has Intrexon’s investors very worried and there is constant pressure to “hard sell” Key West, Miami, and Tampa on the desirability and supposed safety of the product.
Oxitec’s GMO mosquito will be a market failure for the very same reasons that Intrexon’s other products are undesirable. They pose unnecessary risks to the environment and to human health. For each of these products, more natural solutions exist — from sprinkling apples with Vitamin C to prevent browning to using Wolbachia bacteria to control mosquito populations and the diseases they carry.
In the 70’s, comic books sold “Sea Monkeys” (brine shrimp) with a fake list of magical powers.
Just this month, news reports say Intrexon’s investors are concerned about the downtrend, as they should be. They’ve been swindled into buying stock in a company that claimed to be on the frontiers of science, health, and public safety. At the end of the day, these products aren’t the result of good science or concerns for the public. They’re solutions in search of problems, artificially engineered lifeforms created in laboratories who now want somebody to buy them. Don’t let it be you.