Q&A with Simplot Scientist Nicole Nichol

It’s been more than 20 years since genetically modified crops (or GMOs) were first introduced in 1994 with the Flavr Savr tomato. In those 20 years a lot has changed – for one, the Flavr Savr didn’t stay on the market (it was discontinued after three years) and now we have eight more commercially available GMO crops. It’s been nine years since the most recent GMOs (sugarbeets and alfalfa) were introduced in 2006. I like to think of the existing GM crops as the first generation of GMOs – a generation that focused on benefits for the producer by protecting against pests. One of the reasons I so strongly support GMOs is not because of what they’ve done so far (although it has been impressive) but because the technology has  incredible possibility to revolutionize both our impact on the environment and the nutritional profile of our food. We are quite literally on the brink of a second generation of GMOs that have the potential to reduce waste, use our dwindling resources more efficiently, and make our food better for us. Of course, the only sticking point is that we have to convince people to stop demonizing the technology so we can actually realize the possibility of what lies ahead.

Which brings me to the Innate Potato. No pressure, or anything, but I seriously hope the two newest GMO crops (the Innate™ Potato and the Arctic® Apple) can change the way people think about GMOs. Why do I hope that? Because these two biotech crops are directly and intentionally aimed at benefits for the consumer. And, best of all, they were not created by Monsanto.

Thaner family, picture courtesy of NIcole.

Nichol family, picture courtesy of NIcole.

So, today’s post is a Q&A with Nicole Nichol about the non-browning/low-acrylamide Innate Potato which has recently received USDA and FDA clearance. Nichol is a Biotech Regulatory Compliance Specialist at Simplot Plant Sciences. She helps to make sure Simplot follows all the regulations when working with biotech crops.  Before that she was a Transformation Associate Scientist in Plant Sciences for three-and-a-half years, where she used Agrobacterium to mediate the genetic engineering of plants.  Nichol grew up in a small mountain town in Colorado that was pretty devoid of agriculture due to the altitude.  She earned a bachelor’s degree in biology at Saint Mary’s College in Notre Dame, Indiana and a master’s degree in plant breeding, genetics and biotechnology from Michigan State University  where she studied GM potatoes for drought tolerance.  She now lives in Meridian, Idaho with her husband and three kids ages 6, 3, and 14 months.

Warning: this post is pretty sciency. When you ask a scientist questions about their science, expect to get very sciency answers. That said, it’s incredibly interesting stuff. Read on.

It’s MomSense: What are the benefits of Innate potatoes?

Nichol:  Innate potatoes in general have the benefit of being biotech potatoes that only use potato genes to alter the desired traits. In a sense we are doing precise breeding.  You could achieve the same traits using conventional breeding but it might take decades, if not longer, to get the same quality of potatoes.  Our first generation of Innate potatoes have two traits: non-browning/reduced black spot as a result of downregulating the PPO enzyme and reduced acrylamide as a result of reduced levels of the amino acid asparagine.

It’s MomSense: Tell me more about acrylamide – what is it?

Nichol: Acrylamide is a naturally-occurring chemical compound found in many foods and beverages. In our diet acrylamide is formed during the Maillard reaction which involves heat, reducing sugars (glucose and fructose) and the amino acid asparagine.  Acrylamide forms in coffee, prunes, potato chips, breakfast cereals and many other foods.  We have basically been consuming acrylamide since we discovered cooking with fire.  The more toasted or burnt your toast or fries are, the more acrylamide it is going to contain.

It’s MomSense: How much is present in a serving of french fries?

Nichol: From 39 samples of fries from Norway, Sweden, Switzerland, the U.K. and the U.S. the mean level of acrylamide was 537 µg/kg (WHO, 2002). Or to try and put it in more familiar terms 0.000537 grams per 35.3 oz.  A large fry from a quick-serve restaurant is 5.9 oz.

It’s MomSense: How much will the Innate potatoes reduce acrylamide levels?

Nichol: Innate potatoes will reduce acrylamide levels by 50-70 percent over the conventional variety (depending on the variety of Innate potato and method of cooking).

It’s MomSense: What does the science actually say about acrylamide and cancer in humans?

Nichol: The toxic effects of acrylamide in food have been described as negligible in the literature (WHO, 2002 and Lineback et al., 2012). Neurotoxicity has been observed in rodent studies using a chronic drinking water method.  The WHO Consultation concluded that the NOAEL (No Observed Adverse Effect Level) to be 0.5 mg/kg/day for humans.  The estimated average chronic human dietary intake of acrylamide is 1 µg/kg body weight/day, meaning the average person would have to eat 500 times more acrylamide than they typically do in a day.

In laboratory studies, acrylamide has been shown to be carcinogenic. Using somatic and germ cells in Petri plates, acrylamide can induce changes to DNA.  In studies using acrylamide treated rats they did have a slightly higher incidence of tumors.  After looking at all the data available, the WHO in 2002 declared acrylamide to be a Group 2A classification—probably carcinogenic in humans.  The classification falls in line with other carcinogens that are formed in food as a result of cooking.  The WHO also recognizes that further studies are needed to have a better understanding of the carcinogenic potential of acrylamide.  Their recommendation is to follow general healthy eating habits that moderate fried and fatty foods.

It’s MomSense: Tell me more about the non-browning aspect – is there anything actually harmful about eating a browned potato, or is it purely aesthetics? How much does this reduce the browning?

Nichol: There is nothing harmful or unhealthy about eating a browned potato. Although this may appear to be purely for aesthetics, this does have an impact on consumers, processors and growers. It is estimated that 1.4 billion pounds of fresh Russet potatoes (the ones you buy in the grocery store) are wasted each year in the U.S. because of the browning and bruising.  If all Russet potatoes were converted to Innate potatoes, the U.S. would save 400 million pounds of waste in the retail and food service channels and a significant portion – perhaps upwards of 1 billion of the estimated 3 billion pounds discarded by consumers according to the Journal of Consumer Affairs.   Along with the less waste this would also save $90 million in producer costs, 60 million pounds of CO2 emissions and 6.7 billion gallons of water.  In our Innate Russet lines there is a 35-44 percent reduction in bruising compared to conventional Russets.

Innate vs conventional potato

Innate potato (left) and a conventional potato (right), 30 minutes after being peeled.

It’s MomSense: Back in the 90s, Monsanto and others were working on a GM potato that got abandoned largely because McDonalds and the fast-food industry said they wouldn’t source GM potatoes. In light of the recent Innate deregulation, McDonalds again affirmed it wouldn’t be sourcing this new GM potato, either. Seeing as Simplot is a large supplier of McDonalds potatoes, that must have come as no surprise. Why do you think the market is ready now and wasn’t in the 90s? How does McDonalds’ decision impact Simplot?

Nichol: I don’t know if the market is that different now than it was in the 90’s, I think our traits and how we are handling the market introduction is what is going to be the difference for GM potato this time around. Our traits touch the consumer, the processors and the growers.  For our market introduction, we are being very limited in who and where the crop is grown so that Innate potatoes will not be in potato market categories that are commonly exported.  Currently we only have deregulation in the U.S. and until deregulation is complete in other countries we will have a strong stewardship program intended to keep the potatoes away from the process and dehydrated markets.  In addition, we have a very limited amount of Innate potatoes at this time and it will be a few years before we would have enough seed inventory to supply quick serve restaurants.

It’s MomSense: What makes this product different from other GM products? I’ve read this is a cisgenic product, why is this an advantage?

Nichol: To date, this is the first commercial GM product that has sourced the genes for the traits from the plant’s same gene pool. The term cisgenics has been used to describe genes from within the same gene pool of the target species.  Transgenics generally refers to genes sourced from species outside of the targets specie’s gene pool.  Another way to think of it is that a cisgenic plant could be achieved through conventional breeding, where a transgenic plant can only be achieved using biotechnology methods.  We also do not use antibiotic marker genes in the development of our commercial Innate lines and the marker genes are typically used to develop other GM crops.  Antibiotic markers are safe, we however wanted to stay all within the potato genome for our products.  In some ways this made it a little harder for us to produce our Innate potatoes but we think it will help in consumer acceptance.   We have decided to call our technology “Innate™” to focus on technology that doesn’t involve foreign genes.

It’s MomSense: Where do the genes come from? Would it have been easier to do with transgenics?

Nichol: The genes come from Solanum tuberosum (the common cultivated potato) Ranger Russet variety and Solanum verrucosum a closely related species. Our traits are achieved by turning down the gene expression and this is actually best achieved by either using cisgenic approaches or synthetic DNA sequences.  It would have been less work to include an antibiotic resistance marker gene and this would have been a transgene.

It’s MomSense: This would be the very first GM product with a direct consumer benefit, and it feels like this product was intentionally aimed at consumers (has a healthy angle because it reduces carcinogens, and has an environmental angle because it reduces food waste, all using genes from within the potato family.) Do you believe this product will change the way consumers view GMOs? Was that part of the goal all along?

Nichol: It was part of the vision from the beginning to have a biotech product that has direct benefits for the consumer. If we end up changing consumers’ views of GM products, to being more positive overall, I think that will be an ancillary benefit.  My personal opinion is that 10-20 years from now fruit and vegetables with the non-browning trait will be just as common as seedless produce is today.  (And just to be clear those seedless varieties were not produced with biotech methods.) There is already the Arctic Apple, and just imagine avocados, bananas, pineapples, etc. that won’t turn brown!

It’s MomSense: I understand this product uses RNAi. Many folks get that confused with Terminator technology that is widely demonized by the anti-GMO crowd. Can you explain what RNAi is, how it’s used in this product, and how it’s different than Terminator?

Nichol: RNAi, or RNA interference, is a way to downregulate gene expression. Terminator technology refers to the overall way to keep pollen or seeds of genetically modified plants sterile.  Cells from bacteria to humans use gene downregulation all the time to ‘police’ what is going on in the cell, it does not mean it will lead to sterility.  The confusing part is that you could use RNAi to achieve the Terminator effect.  It’s like saying birds lay eggs, but not all eggs are from birds.  Initially the anti-GMO crowd came out very negatively against Terminator technology.  However, there has been a renewed interest in this technology by the same crowd that was once against it.  This is because there are difficulties in maintaining pure organic (a.k.a. GM free) seed stocks.

If you want to learn more about RNAi I recommend the tutorial from the PBS NOVA series.  It has a good ‘non-science’ analogy: http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/nova/body/rnai-explained.html.

RNAi evolved as a defense mechanism against viruses and that is why it is present in bacterial, plant and animal cells.  Normally in a cell double stranded DNA is the template to make single stranded RNA.  Single stranded RNA is the template to make proteins, and proteins are the all-important building blocks to life.  RNAi comes in, and like a defensive player in sports, it will double up the coverage making the single stranded RNA partially double stranded.  This defensive RNAi is very specific and will only double up on the single stranded RNA if the templates match.  Once the match is found that whole piece of single, and partially double, stranded RNA is chopped up like yesterday’s newspaper in a shredder.  The result is whatever gene (DNA) made that RNA will not be made into the protein and so the gene is considered downregulated or silenced.  In our Innate potatoes we use this RNAi to play defense against the gene that is the template for the PPO enzyme that causes the browning and another RNAi to play defense against the gene that is the template for the amino acid asparagine.  If you are reading this and have some basic biochemistry knowledge you may be wondering how we can “silence” an amino acid, because amino acids make proteins and are definitely necessary.  This is possible because the amount of RNAi can vary.  So to bring back a sports analogy if you have three defensive players (RNAi) and five offensive players (regular single stranded RNA) the three defensive players will only be able to partially cover their opponents.  Thus we only get partial gene downregulation.  And just like in sports, sometimes the defense can still steal the ball and score when they are outnumbered; we can still have less acrylamide with there still being some asparagine out there in the cells.  We have also used a tuber specific promoter so that this gene downregulation only occurs in the tuber (the part of the potato plant we all know and love) and not in the leaves or roots or other parts of the plant.

The other unique point about potatoes is that they are a vegetatively propagated crop, they are not grown from botanical seed.  This means that when you grow a potato plant you use a tuber, or at least a piece of a tuber that has an eye.  That eye will sprout, as you have probably seen happen in your pantry, and those sprouts will grow into a plant.  This process can go on and on, year after year, and never requires pollination to get a new plant.  This means that the risk of gene flow from our Innate potatoes to conventional potatoes is not a concern.  So although RNAi and Terminator technology are not related, there is no purpose to using Terminator technology in biotech potato production.

It’s MomSense: Why didn’t Simplot decide to stack this technology with farmer benefits like disease or pesticide resistance?

Nichol: As I mentioned above, the Innate potatoes do have a farmer/grower benefit in that the grower is able to capture more value in their harvested crop with less of the potatoes going to waste due to black spots and browning. As for also including a trait like disease or herbicide resistance, the disease resistance is actually in the pipeline.  We have a potato gene from Solanum venturii (another close relative to the cultivated potato) that confers resistance to potato late blight.  Potato late blight is the disease that caused the Irish potato famine and it is still a big problem in potato production today.  It is a fungi like organism (an oomycete to be exact) and growers have to spend lots of money and time spraying fungicides to keep the late blight at bay.  This trait has been stacked on to our first traits and will be available in our second release of Innate potatoes.  We hope to have deregulation from the USDA for our second version of Innate potatoes by the end of 2015.  We are also working on introducing more genes for late blight resistance to have more global, long term resistance along with resistance to PVY, a virus that results in yield loss and is carried by aphids.

It’s MomSense: The Center for Food Safety and other critics claim RNAi is “untested” and inadequately regulated. Of course, they say this about all biotechnology, so I don’t think it holds much water, but the one point they make is interesting – that somehow this application of RNAi impacts the potato’s ability to fend off pests. Is there any truth to that? Has that been thoroughly tested?

Nichol: PPO has been shown in some literature to be induced when a pest is feeding on the plant and thus is thought to provide some resistance to the pest. However, there was little research on potato plants so we investigated this issue extensively while working on the development of these potatoes.  We found that because we are only downregulating Ppo5 (one of several PPO genes) in the tubers and not in the leaves this reduces the risk of increased loss due to pests. Also there are several genes that code for different variations of PPO and we only silenced one of them.  After growing and storing potatoes across the U.S. for several years there were no significant differences in pest or disease issues in our Innate potatoes compared to the conventional varieties.  RNAi is a very specific mechanism within the cell.  Only the specific double-stranded RNA will be degraded for that specific gene.  The potato DNA that we inserted is very specific to target Ppo5 and Asn1 (asparagine gene) and our studies have not found any “off-target” gene downregulation.

It’s MomSense: Will we ever see the Innate potato in the supermarket or is it exclusively going for commercial use?

Nichol: We hope to have Innate potatoes available in grocery stores as both whole potatoes in the bag like you are used to buying and as washed, peeled, and cut raw potatoes in packaging in the refrigerated produce aisle. Again we will initially not have a large supply to have it in all grocery stores for the next year or two, but we definitely want to get these directly to consumers so they can recognize the value in a reduced bruising, non-browning potato.

It’s MomSense: Is there anything else you’d like to add?

Nichol: I briefly mentioned our second version of Innate potatoes that will include the late blight resistance and we have also included downregulation of Invertase. Similar to the PPO and asparagine downregulation, the Invertase downregulation is achieved through RNAi and this will only be in the tuber.  Invertase is involved in converting sucrose to glucose and fructose (those reducing sugars previously mentioned).  With less reducing sugars there will be even less acrylamide formation than in our first version of Innate.  Up to 90 percent less acrylamide than conventional potatoes.  Another benefit to less reducing sugars is that you can store potatoes in a colder storage for longer.  Traditionally certain varieties of potatoes are stored between 46-50°F, for about 4-5 months.  There are other potato varieties that cannot be stored.  Our Innate potatoes with downregulated Invertase can be stored at colder temperatures for possibly a longer time period; even converting varieties that could not be stored into a variety that can be stored.  This is important for potatoes that will be processed into fries or chips.

innate friesconventional friesInnate Burbank (top) and conventional Burbank (bottom), second generation with reduced Invertase.  The dark brown color in the conventional Burbank fries are a result of higher reducing sugars content.

Lastly, I would just like to emphasize that there is no evidence that any commercially available GM crop possess any more risk than traditional crops in terms of health for humans, animals and the environment. As I mother I have no problem feeding Bt sweet corn to my kids and I can’t wait to feed them Innate potatoes from this year’s harvest!

References

Lineback, D. R., Coughlin, J. R., & Stadler, R. H. (2012). Acrylamide in foods: a review of the science and future considerations. Annual review of food science and technology, 3, 15-35.

World Health Organization. Food Safety Programme. (2002). Health Implications of Acrylamide in Food: Report of a Joint FAO/WHO Consultation, WHO Headquarters, Geneva, Switzerland, 25-27 June 2002. Diamond Pocket Books (P) Ltd.

Thornton, M. (2003). The rise and fall of NewLeaf potatoes. Biotechnology: Science and Society at a Crossroad. National Agricultural Biotechnology, Council Boyce Thompson Institute, Ithaca, New York, 235-243.

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2 Comments

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2 Responses to Q&A with Simplot Scientist Nicole Nichol

  1. What a great article! Yes, it’s definitely sciencey, but in this case definitely needs to be.

  2. John R. French

    Excellent overview of very competent work. Simplot and its technology managers should be proud of their achievements. I hope that the Innate(R) technology succeeds, and that the next generation of disease resistant potatoes will be approved very soon. These contributions should be strongly supported by all parties who are truly concerned about protecting human health and reducing environmental impact of our food production systems. As consumers, my family and I will buy the Innate potatoes whenever & wherever we can find them.

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