Tuesday, September 27, 2016

#1724: Jack Heinemann

A bit of a stretch, perhaps? Jack Heinemann is a Lecturer in Genetics and Chair of Teaching and Learning Committee at the University of Canterbury, NZ, but he has his whole education from the US and seems to be an American expat (that’s speculation, though). Heinemann is an anti-GMO activist who has been associated with pseudoscience organizations like the Safe Food Foundation & Institute (together e.g. with anti-GMO pseudoscientist and conspiracy theorist Judy Carman). Heinemann thinks for instance that GMOs produce silencing RNAs that not only survive transit through the gut, get into the bloodstream and thereby into the cells to inhibit the expression of specific genes: they even get passed down to the next generation to kill your children. “The findings are absolutely assured. There is no doubt that these matches exist,” said Heinemann. Which actually makes it sound like his evidence is pretty flimsy. Turns out it is as flimsy as you’d expect. Heinemann’s concern is that the siRNA that will be used to silence two genes in wheat called SEI and SEII, and he did an analysis based on the sequence of the SEI and SEII genes, compared them against the human genome and looking for matches, which he found. What he hasn’t shown is that the siRNA survives digestion, is absorbed into the bloodstream, enter other cells, and act on gene expression, and even if it did he hasn’t a shred of evidence that circulating microRNA can not only silence a gene in human cells but actually induce epigenetic changes (“speculative” isn’t quite the right word), or any reason that GM wheat siRNAs are any different or more dangerous than those from other plants. Nor did Heinemann know the actual siRNA sequences that were going to be used, which makes his analysis pointless even if he were correct about the other elements. In short, Heinemann’s report is a beautiful example of politically motivated pseudoscience, designed to spread fear and misinformation.

Diagnosis: Heinemann is a real scientist. That doesn’t meant that his fearmongering based on idle speculation concerning GMOs is remotely based on science. It isn’t. Unfortunately, Heinemann is also the kind of person who possesses some authority and influence, and it is truly sad that he uses his influence to spread fear that might ultimately have a real, negative impact on civilization.

Hat-tip for this entry: Respectful Insolence.

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