The other night I happened to flip by an episode of CSI Miami and when I saw it included a plot line involving bacteria, I perked up.  The episode, called 'Bad Seed,' had the CSI-ers investigating a woman who had been poisoned by E. coli from some contaminated lettuce she ate.  The investigators traced the source to feces run off from nearby cattle onto the farm where the lettuce was growing.  So far so good.  Then the show takes a turn and the woman's boyfriend gets sick - but not from E. coli. 

Again, with some detective work, the team traces his sickness to the corn he ate.  It turns out the corn was genetically engineered to contain a protein from a bacteria that eats cellulose.  This protein was intended to make the corn more 'digestible' (we can't digest cellulose, a big component of corn).  But the bug, named Clostridium thermocellum, had swapped genes with its 'cousin,' the deadly Clostridium botulinum (that causes botulism).  And somehow that cousin's deadly botulism toxin gene wound up in the corn the victim ate.

Here's where I have a problem - no food company would use a bacteria with a potentially deadly protein to genetically engineer a crop.  And because they use such precise techniques, researchers know exactly what gene they put into a crop - so there's no way a gene for a deadly toxin would 'accidentally' get into a crop (as is suggested by this episode).  Also, that crop would go through so much testing that if such a potentially deadly result came up, it would never make it to market (and certainly not to someone's dinner plate). 

Genetically engineered corn does exist - it is called 'Bt corn' - after the bacterial toxin 'bt' it contains to ward off insects.  This toxin is used by organic farmers as a 'natural' pesticide and the genetically engineered version has had to go through many safety trials in order to be approved by the FDA and EPA.

The topic of genetic engineering is often under debate (check out some viewpoints from this NOVA/Frontline program), but it's important that people understand the science before making up their mind.  This episode of CSI Miami, while entertaining, seemed misleading to me - at least where the science is concerned.

User Comments:

As a senior researcher with NOVA, I should hope that Gaia would know that "bacteria" is a plural noun. Therefore, she should not have written "a bacteria"; instead, it should be "a bacterium". We all make grammatical mistakes that highlight our grammar deficiencies. But, Gaia's grammar error highlights a lack of understanding the difference between a bacterium (singular) and bacteria (plural) and, thus, hurts her credibility as a science reporter.

Interesting that organic farmers use a bioengineered product and call it "natural" to ward off insects. And then call anyone who doesn't eat organic or "natural" as uninformed and hurting our kids. Hmmm, seems to me their definition changes with the market.

So, the goal in reading this report is not for mindless believers of anything to be enlightened and be educated, but to correct the writer on her use of bacteria versus bacterium. The people who understand the singular and plural versions of the word are not likely to be the ones who need to understand that the show's storyline isn't wondering what grammatical/spelling errors I have made that will be dissected instead of getting the point.

A clarification:

BT is used by organic farmers as their "last defense" pesticide. This is different from corn which has been genetically modified to produce bt.

Corn engineered to produce bt is NOT part of organic farming. Organic foods does/should not contain any bioengineered / genetically modified foods.

I enjoyed ranting at the mis-science on NCSI's most recent episode. They "found traces of liquid nitrogen" in an open container days after a murder by said means. Guess someone doesn't know that nitrogen is about 78% of air. many problems with this article...

>Here's where I have a problem - no food >company would use a bacteria with a >potentially deadly protein to genetically >engineer a crop."

That scenario is exactly what is happening with the Bt protein. Data imply that there are significant impacts of Bt on human populations, and it is, fundamentally, a toxic protein produced by bacteria.

>And because they use such precise >techniques, researchers know exactly what >gene they put into a crop

Whether or not biotech engineers know what genetic material goes into their GM species (and where it goes) is not necessarily a predictor for what happens after the process of normal genetic mutation once the plant is used in large-scale farming or cross-pollinates with (and contaminates) wild species. It is extreme hubris for anyone to assume otherwise. In fact, trans-genes are ending up in species and sequences where they were not intended to be with who knows what long-term impact on the food supply, related plant species, and the ecosystem.

>so there's no way a gene for a deadly toxin >would 'accidentally' get into a crop (as is >suggested by this episode).

In fact, accidental cross-pollination of surrounding species is exactly what is happening out in the field. Once again, it is extreme hubris to assume that plants and their pollen can be contained in the wild. They can't be and pollen can easily travel great distances via any one of number of environmental vectors.

>Also, that crop would go through so much >testing that if such a potentially deadly >result came up, it would never make it to >market (and certainly not to someone's >dinner plate).

In fact, that scenario is exactly what happened with Starlink corn. Starlink was a product not approved for humans that ended up on their dinner tables in the form of taco shells and made people sick.

>genetically engineered version has had to go >through many safety trials in order to be >approved by the FDA and EPA.

The FDA's oversight of GMO's is woefully inadequate and they are actually mostly to blame for the Starlink fiasco. Further, there is substantial evidence to support that GM crops have adverse reactions in humans and there is a paucity of human trials prior to the FDA rubber-stamping the GM crops of Big Biotech, where the FDA pushes the onus of the testing back on biotech with all the associated conflict of interest that implies.

The Agribusiness and Biotech industries, in general, consist of powerful political and financial entities that exert substantial control. It is extreme hubris to imply that the financial and political power these large companies exert has no role in the approval process for or advertising and distribution of their products, despite clear contraindications to human health.

I don't fault your desire to debunk TV crime shows in a pop sci context, but your analysis and assumptions need much more work. Your article is certainly not ready for Prime Time.

However, if this CSI episode raises public awareness of the serious problems with biotech and the egregious behavior of companies attempting to control our food supply, where cash and patent ownership trump human health, then maybe that is the best take-away from the experience. So, despite your naive analysis, you have succeeded, in part.


You are either (A) mentally challenged or (B) ideologicaly bent beyond rationality - one of these kept you from understanding the blog. Gaia said that biotech researchers know exactly what genes they put into crops, not that they can be certain where they go after it goes into the field. Next time read through a second time (or third and fourth, if you need to) before overrunning your headlights.

I apologize to anyone I might have offended (other than Terrified).


Nice write up on the science, but I think you're missing the *storyline*. Sure, no major corporation should/would plant potentially toxic food, but the company on the show knew the risks after testing and planted the crop anyway - that's the "crime", hence the involvement of Horatio's team.

Actually, to be fair, the storyline gets a little philosophical... the testing showed a minute (I forgot the %) risk of toxic food resulting from the crop. The company maintains this is worth the value of feeding so many so inexpensively. Horatio thinks nothing more than 0% risk is tolerable. The story ends with the case going to civil court to decide.

Dr. X -

Thanks for your reply. My post is very clear and *exactly* addresses the source material (by quoted section).

I'm not surprised the only thing you could find to complain about was the minor point you raised (illustrating your apparent lack of comprehension and inability to synthesize).

Yes - Gaia said they know what genes go in, where her conclusion was that "...there's no way a gene for a deadly toxin would 'accidentally' get into a crop." Well...per the real-world evidence, that seems to be *exactly* what happens with GM crops. Genes coding for toxic substances or other designer functions "accidentally" end up in unexpected places with unknown/untested impact and very wide distribution. Subsequently, corporations even use this "accidental" cross-pollination to assert their patent rights against traditional seed-saving farmers not specifically using their products. The goal of corporations is to force the farmers to capitulate and use their GM seed.

As in my post, one aspect of the gross hubris of Big Biotech is that they think they can create GM crops (yes - with known sequences) that will not experience any random mutation or interaction among themselves or with related species in the wild (not to mention the other very clear points I raise in direct response to Gaia's blog).

Her blog and your comments are both in the same categories - poorly conceived and apparently uninformed.

So...try to find meaningful evidence-based arguments to support your critique of the issue and/or my very clear commentary, if you can and are so inclined.


This is posted in response to the balk at a prime time TV show touching on a "real" and "serious" issue. Now that Monsanto themselves have released information that GM corn produces cancer in lab mice, what is your position? I am not a CSI Miami viewer on a normal day but I am glad I caught this episode. After doing my own personal research regarding food safety, organics, GM foods and the differences/problems between all three with big producers, I am glad TV is making people think. Even if it is not laid out correctly and yes extreme, at least people are thinking. The fact that people are thinking, is something to be embraced. Not everyone considers the molecular make-up of their salad or meat. It is time people are becoming responsible for themselves. We need to be careful that we are not being treated as lab animals and experimented on with food choices. So thank you for making me conscious of my choices. Thank you for giving me something to think about.

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