The Seralini paper was retracted for invalid reasons, but plenty of other GM-related studies are being retracted for the right reasons.
It's clear that the Seralini paper should not have been retracted, according to the criteria laid down by the Committee on Publication Ethics (experimental error, researcher misconduct, fraud and plagiarism). But plenty of other GM-related studies are having to be retracted because they meet the COPE criteria.
Retracted papers include two by the public face of GMO science, Pam Ronald. Ronald now languishes in the scientific doldrums after a central aspect of her research was discredited.
Thanks to Retraction Watch (http://retractionwatch.com/) for many of the following stories.
First cisgenic plants may not be cisgenic at all
A 2004 paper authored by employees of the biotech company Simplot announced the “first example of [GM] plants that only contain native DNA” – known as cisgenic plants.
Cisgenic GMOs involve inserting genes from the same or a closely related species as the one to be genetically engineered. Cisgenics are the great hope of the GM industry, which believes that the public and regulators will give an easier ride to GMOs that are claimed not to contain “foreign” genes – even though cisgenic plants are technically GMOs and carry many of the same risks as transgenic GM plants.
The supposedly cisgenic potatoes were developed by Simplot to reduce browning when cut.
However, the authors retracted their paper in April 2013. The problem was that the cisgene (the gene introduced into the host plant genome) was not derived from pooled wild potato DNA, as was claimed in the paper, but a Ranger Russet potato. In addition, the engineered potato contained sequences that were not even present in the Ranger Russet genome.
In their retraction, the authors do not specify where the mystery sequences were from. It could be that they came from the Agrobacterium that they used to genetically transform the potato. If they come from any organism other than another potato, then what is claimed to be the first cisgenic GM plant is not cisgenic at all.
Nevertheless, this dodgy GM potato, or one with similar properties, is in the pipeline for approval in the US.
Will the USDA and FDA even notice that Simplot’s application is based on retracted science?
Chief GMO rock-thrower lives in glass house
The retracted GM potato paper joins a series of other retractions of key GMO studies. Pam Ronald, the public face of GMO science, recently retracted two papers that form the core of her research programme on how rice plants detect specific bacterial pathogens.
Scientifically, the two retractions mean that the molecule identified by Ronald’s group is not after all what rice plants use to detect the pathogen rice blight and neither is it a “quorum sensing” molecule (forming part of a system of stimulus and response), as Ronald claimed.
In addition, German researchers have raised questions about a third Ronald paper.
Ronald’s scientific reputation is in tatters, despite Retraction Watch’s praise of her as a scientist who did “the right thing” – presumably, in jumping before she was pushed.
The retractions will strike some as ironic, given that Ronald has mercilessly attacked GMO critics such as the New York Times food writer Mark Bittman for a supposed lack of scientific rigour. Dr Jonathan Latham, director of the Bioscience Resource Project, certainly thought so, and was prompted to tweet that the “chief GMO rock-thrower lives in glass house”. Perhaps that’s why Ronald seems to have been uncharacteristically silent about the Seralini retraction.
GM cassava won’t feed the world after all
In 2011 researchers from the Monsanto-funded Donald Danforth Center in Missouri published a paper in which they claimed that they had successfully genetically engineered the starchy vegetable cassava to contain a protein called zeolin. The researchers announced that their GM cassava could supply “inexpensive, plant-based proteins for food, feed and industrial applications” – code for “feeding the world”.
By September 2012, the paper had been retracted by the authors, who had been “unable to confirm the presence of the zeolin gene within the transgenic cassava plants in several subsequent studies”. An investigation by the Danforth Center found that significant amounts of data “could not be found”.
The project had received funding from the Gates Foundation, causing an angry response from a group of Nigerian doctors. The doctors demanded that the Gates Foundation be thrown out of Nigeria for perpetrating a “scientific hoax”.
The doctors stated, “The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation aimed at substituting our natural cassava with GMO cassava made by their company (Bill Gates owns at least over 500,000 shares) Monsanto of St Louis MO, USA, which will create dependency on this transgenic variant of Bill Gates’ cassava.”
The lead researcher on the GM protein-enriched cassava paper, Claude M. Fauquet, has been hyping another type of GM cassava, to resist a virus, since 1997, when he told the LA Times that “biotech is our only hope” to solve the coming food crisis. He added that GMs “could double, triple, quadruple production of African crops.” In the case of cassava, he said the typical yield in Africa was 4 tons per acre, but, the LA Times reported, “Fauquet maintains that resistance to viruses could boost that tenfold. A mere doubling of production, he added, 'would represent food independence for the African continent.'"
But Fauquet’s GM virus-resistant cassava failed, succumbing to the virus it was engineered to resist. Interestingly, a non-GM virus-resistant cassava proved successful and is already making a difference in Africa’s fields.
Now Fauquet’s protein-enriched GM cassava is joining his virus-resistant cassava in the dustbin of history. It will not make any contribution to food independence for Africa.
In what Retraction Watch called a “domino effect”, the retraction of Fauquet and colleagues’ GM cassava paper caused two further retractions of papers by other scientists who had relied on materials or data from the team.
Certainty over GM insecticidal chickpea paper premature
In 2011 a group of researchers published a paper in which they claimed to have developed an efficient method for engineering chickpeas to contain Bt insecticidal toxins at a level that would result in “100% mortality” to the corn earworm pest. They concluded, “These findings will certainly accelerate the development of chickpea plants with novel traits”.
But their certainty was premature. In 2013 they retracted the paper due to data that was “not unambiguous”. Like most retractions, this one is sketchy in the information it gives. In the absence of more detail, all we can say is that the original paper can’t be relied upon.
University disciplines researchers who study Bt toxins
In 2012 Mario Soberon and Alejandra Bravo, a husband-and-wife team who study the Bt toxins used in GM insecticidal crops, were disciplined for tampering with images in 11 papers. The incident did not lead to retractions, but the investigating committee at their university found them guilty of “inappropriate and categorically reprehensible manipulation”.
The sheer number and scale of mistakes, oversights, and examples of sloppy or dishonest practice that have led to retractions of GMO papers raises the question of whether something else is going on beyond simple human error. That’s especially so since all the “errors” are in one direction only, presenting GMOs as more effective or more publicly acceptable than they really are.
Could it be that the rush to patents – the goal of every successful GMO research project – and the attendant promise of commercial gain is blinding scientists to basic scientific standards?
Whatever the reason it’s revealing that these multiple retractions have mostly been met with silence rather than the crowing that we have seen over the Seralini retraction.