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Godzilla, King of the GMOs

June 4, 2014

When I was a child in the 1950s, one of the few ways that parents could entertain themselves was to prepare the children for bedtime and then pile into the family automobile for a trip to the drive-in theater. The drive-in our family frequented had a waterfall on the non-optical side of the outdoor screen lighted by colored lights. The effect was similar to the nighttime view of Niagara Falls, another popular attraction in the Upstate New York region in those times

Those were the days before the MPAA film rating system, and the hope was that the children would fall asleep from boredom before there were any "PG-13" scenes. One memorable film I saw at age seven would surely have been rated PG-13, but not for any sexual content. This was the 1954 film, Them!, Gordon Douglas, Director.[1]

This black-and-white science fiction film was a story about ants, mutated by radiation from nuclear weapons testing, growing to tremendous size. The world was saved by an aged myrmecologist, played by Edmund Gwenn (Santa from Miracle on 34th Street) and his daughter colleague. Gender equality in the sciences existed in 1954, at least in the cinema.

That same year saw the release of the first film about another creature born from nuclear weapon radiation, the monster, Godzilla. The film, Godzilla (Gojira),[2] Ishirô Honda, Director, was edited for American audiences as Godzilla, King of the Monsters![3] This year has witnessed another Godzilla film, the most interesting aspect of which is that Godzilla got fatter after he emigrated to the US. Tyrannosaurus

Godzilla is undoubtedly based on the Tyrannosaurus, proportioned to allow its being played by an actor in a suit.

This meant short, stocky legs, and a more upright posture.

(Colored pencil drawing of a Tyrannosaurus by Hannes Grobe, via Wikimedia Commons.)


Them! and Godzilla appeared just a year after Watson and Crick's 1953 Nature paper, "Molecular Structure of Nucleic Acids: A Structure for Deoxyribose Nucleic Acid," which revolutionized biology.[4] This paper explained why radiation could mutate life forms, but the fact that it did was known long before then.

An important pre-discovery observation of radiation mutagenesis (pre-discovery, since nuclear radiation was not then known) was that of Paracelsus, who in 1567 surmised that an unidentified substance in mined ore, now known to be radon gas, caused disease in miners. In 1927, Hermann Muller's experiments showed that X-rays can cause mutations in fruit flies.

In 1905, shortly after natural radioactivity was discovered, Dutch botanist, Hugo de Vries, experimented with the affect of radium on plant growth. In 1908, Charles Stuart Gager published the book, Effects of the rays of radium on plants.[5] The United States and the Soviet Union looked at the affect of cosmic rays on seeds and plants as soon as it was feasible to send objects into space for subsequent retrieval. Starting in 1930, gamma rays were used in mutation experiments.

The nuclear arms race at the end of World War II led to the above-ground testing of hundreds of nuclear weapons. These explosions discharged huge quantities of radioactive isotopes into the atmosphere with little thought about the consequence. A novel experiment, called the Baby Tooth Survey, looked at the level of the radioactive isotope strontium-90 (90Sr) in the baby teeth of children in the period before, and after, nuclear testing.[6]

Strontium has chemical properties similar to calcium, and it enters the food chain from water and dairy products to be deposited in bones and teeth. Results of the survey, published in 1961, showed a steady increase in 90Sr in children's teeth from 1950 onwards, with children born in 1963 having fifty times the isotope level than children born before nuclear testing.

A public outcry, led by chemist, Linus Pauling (1901-1994), among others, led to a nuclear test moratorium, followed by the ratification of the Partial Nuclear Test Ban Treaty in 1963. Pauling was awarded the 1962 Nobel Peace Prize for his activism for this cause. Pauling was previously awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1954.

Linus Pauling Autograph, 1981

When publications become all electronic, we'll miss having mementos such as this. Linus Pauling kindly autographed a reprint of one of his papers for me in 1981. Linus Pauling, "The structure and oscillational motion of 57Fe atoms in interstitial sites in Al as determined from interference of Mössbauer γ radiation," Journal of Solid State Chemistry, vol. 40, no. 3 (December, 1981), pp. 266-269.


Radiation mutagenesis is a hit-or-miss technique, since you don't know what mutations will appear. All this changed when scientists became capable of selective modification of DNA, leading to the new field of genetic engineering and genetically modified organisms (GMOs). This ability also led to the realization that it might be possible to accidentally release some nasty new organism into the wild. Scientists are generally good futurists, so they decided to act promptly on safeguards. Of course, something similar could have happened with random mutation, too.

Principal participants in genetic modification assembled in 1975 at the Asilomar Conference on Recombinant DNA to draft safety recommendations for such research. This allowed a more reasoned rule making by government agencies such as the US Environmental Protection Agency and Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in subsequent years. This was followed in 2003 by the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety, an equivalent international safety effort approved by 157 countries who use it as a basis for their own domestic regulations.

This brings us back to Godzilla, who was "King of the Monsters" in the 1950s, but could have been called "King of the GMOs" if genetic modification was better known at the time. There's reason to be cautious about GMOs, and we can only hope the government regulators are doing their job in that regard. Some of the non-scientist public, however, simply equates GMOs with something like Godzilla, not knowing the benefits of GMO research.

Probably the most important GMOs are genetically modified bacteria used in the production of pharmaceuticals. As early as 1978, Herbert Boyer at the University of California, San Francisco, inserted a gene for production of human insulin into E. coli. Bacteria have subsequently been used to produce pharmaceuticals such as human growth hormone.

Rumford baking powder

Non-GMO baking powder?

This brand of baking powder, a mixture of monocalcium phosphate and sodium bicarbonate, has cornstarch added to prevent caking.

The cornstarch is derived from non-GMO corn.

(Photo by Lou Sander, via Wikimedia Commons.)


References:

  1. Them! (1954) on the Internet Movie Database.
  2. Godzilla ("Gojira," 1954) on the Internet Movie Database.
  3. Godzilla, King of the Monsters! (1956) on the Internet Movie Database.
  4. J. D. Watson & F. H. C. Crick, "Molecular Structure of Nucleic Acids: A Structure for Deoxyribose Nucleic Acid," Nature, vol. 171, no. 4356 (April 25, 1953), pp. 737-738. A PDF file is available, here.
  5. Charles Stuart Gager, "Effects of the rays of radium on plants," New York, 1908, via CiteBank.
  6. Louise Zibold Reiss, "Strontium-90 Absorption by Deciduous TeethAnalysis of teeth provides a practicable method of monitoring strontium-90 uptake by human populations," Science, vol 134, no 3491 (November 24, 1961), pp. 1669-1673.
  7. Adrian McCoy, "60 years of Godzilla mayhem," Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, May 15, 2014.
  8. Tim Martin, "Godzilla: why the Japanese original is no joke," Telegraph (UK), May 15, 2014.

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