Stem cell breakthrough as a research reminder

by Morton Sosland
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It’s not far-fetched to hope that all the hurrahs, and even hosannas, that greeted the recent disclosure that two teams of scientists had turned human skin cells into embryonic stem cells, without having to make or destroy an embryo, would also spark awareness in the worldwide grain industry of the great possibilities of science. Even though it’s true that the debate on the use of human stem cells in medical research sharply divides nations and populations, and that the apparent result of the science announced in November may be to remove that hugely contentious issue from political debating, the global grain industry faces any number of similar issues that could also be resolved by such outcomes. If it does anything for the grain industry, the breakthrough on stem cells should strengthen the hands of those who contend, often against tough odds, that grain and food research, including the most basic sort, has much to contribute to the industry’s well-being.

As is often true with scientific research that is looking to solve problems that appear intractable, the stem cell solution is remarkably simple. It involves the addition of four genes, which reprogram the chromosomes of skin cells to make them into the blank slates that have the potential of being turned into any of 220 cell types in the human body. Credit goes to independent research teams in the United States and Japan. These teams have expressed confidence in the outcome of their research, including the resolution of a few remaining questions about how effective their approach will be when compared to the controversial work with stem cells obtained directly from human embryos.

It may be questionable, but it’s also realistic, to compare the confrontations created by the stem cell debate with the scientific and public questions that are at the center of similar arguments about grain. Is it unreasonable to wonder if a similar breakthrough could eliminate the global debate that currently rages about the "value" of genetic modification of grains? This debate flares up with a frequency rivaling any other food issue. It centers on the attitudes of Europeans toward production as well as imports of grain modified by biotechnology. Whenever an opinion is rendered that modified grains are perfectly safe for human consumption, as witness their dominance in American crop production, a protest is mounted in Europe that draws Page One attention and portends fierce public rejection. One can only wonder if there isn’t some finding that will end this debate, leading to the broad acceptance genetic modification deserves.

Similarly, a great deal of research is under way on ways of making alcohol for motor fuel from plant sources other than the grains themselves. Without such a breakthrough, the whole question of using grain in making alternative fuels is smothered within a debate of food versus fuel, the need for governmental involvement, and of balancing the desires of one sector of the population and economy against others. One hopes that a scientific finding that would provide an answer as simple as that attained with stem cells would have the power to transform this debate to the point where all in the global grain industry would be enthusiastic about possibilities, free of the disagreements that currently rage about how best to find agriculture a central role in meeting global energy needs.

No industry, except perhaps pharmaceuticals, is more aware than grain of the benefits of successful research. From the Green Revolution that bolstered the production potential of wheat and rice to the tremendous advances made possible by genetic modification, even with all of its controversy, the industry has progressed on the strength of research. Yet, it is something like the stem cell findings, which came like a bolt from the blue, that should raise expectations about resolving many difficult issues, while continuing to open exciting new avenues for grain’s expanding role in the global economy.