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Dangerous? Not Really

UPDATE: LeVaux has published an updated version of his Atlantic article at AlterNet.

Not everyone is excited by the thought of genetically modified food. But the dangers The Atlantic food columnist Ari LeVaux brings up may not actually be dangerous. In a column, LeVaux discusses a study recently published in Cell Research by a team at Nanjing University in China that shows that when people eat rice, some of the rice miRNAs can end up in their blood. "Should the research survive scientific scrutiny — a serious hurdle — it could prove a game changer in many fields. It would mean that we're eating not just vitamins, protein, and fuel, but gene regulators as well," LeVaux writes. While the study is not specific to GM foods, LeVaux says it could have implications in that area because it "shows a pathway by which new food products, such as GM foods, could influence human health in previously unanticipated ways."

But science bloggers like Emily Willingham at The Biology Files blog are taking LeVaux to task over his "remarkably confusing article." Certainly the Chinese study has many implications, she says, but not the ones that LeVaux says. "It's not news that DNA encodes RNA of all kinds. … There is naught in this study that implies that 'new DNA' can have 'dangerous implications' far beyond the products it 'codes for.' The miRNAs in this paper are not 'new,'" Willingham says

At Scientific American's Science Sushi blog, Christie Wilcox also voices her displeasure over LeVaux's "scaremongering." Every plant and animal produced miRNAs, and while they can alter gene expression, there's no reason to think that the miRNAs produced by GM foods will be any different or more prevalent than in the original foods, Wilcox writes.

"The notion that miRNAs may drive some of the interaction between us and our food is incredibly new and totally cool," she says. "The amazing implications of this research — not some ludicrous and tenuous connection to anti-GMO propaganda — should have been what The Atlantic highlighted. Instead, they made a fool of themselves by allowing Ari LeVaux to expose just how poorly he understands genetics."

The Atlantic has published an update saying that thanks to Wilcox and Willingham's critiques, the magazine has "learned of the scientific inaccuracies made in Ari LeVaux's most recent Flash in the Pan column," and that LeVaux will publish an updated and corrected version.

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