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UHV students test food for genetic modification

By KBell
Feb. 18, 2012 at midnight
Updated Feb. 18, 2012 at 8:19 p.m.

As graduate student, Matt Boyett, demonstrates gel electrophoresis, a method of separating proteins, University of Houston-Victoria students Sarah Vincent, Nan Rosas and Jenna Steinmann lean in for a closer look.

Though some ardent Cheetos addicts may disagree, it's probably no surprise to discover the finger-lickin' good snack did not come from God himself.

But what about Cheetos' No. 1 ingredient: corn? Is the vegetable used to create the crunchy snacks all natural?

Some University of Houston-Victoria students set out to find out.

Professor Hashimul Ehsan's plant biotechnology class has been extracting DNA from foods - from chips and crackers, peas from a garden, corn from the grocery store - to determine if the plants used in the food have been genetically modified.

The project introduces students to the tedious lab procedures involved with obtaining a DNA profile, but it also gives them a taste, if you will, of what Ehsan calls the frontier of technology.

"We have seven billion people" on Earth, Ehsan told his class. "We need to feed those seven billion people, so people should be concerned if there is an effect from genetically modified food, or is it beneficial?"

His students conceded the term "genetically modified" can sound scary in a population that's becoming increasingly informed about what goes into the food they digest.

But junior biology major Steven Couch said the more he's learned in Ehsan's class, the more he sees the benefits of genetically-modified foods outweigh the talk of health concerns.

By genetically modifying foods, "they can basically take the negative traits from different plants and different foods and eliminate them to put positive, desirable traits into them," Couch, 25, explained.

That can mean foods that are resistant to pests, vegetables that stay fresher longer or added nutrients to a crop that goes to a malnourished group of people.

"To be honest, the genes that are placed in the food are bacteria that would be on the food we eat, anyway. I can't see it being harmful to us, but a lot of people don't want to eat anything that was tampered with like that," senior biology major Kevin Moseley, 29, said.

Whatever the politics, Ehsan's class was more concerned about the process of proving what goes into some of the food in our backyard.

On Wednesday, the class of about 20 students extracted DNA from the foods they brought to the UHV lab. Within an hour of creating a DNA profile from half a gram of food, they were able to determine the corn in one of their Cheetos was, in fact, genetically modified.

Another group, meanwhile, discovered a bag of tortilla chips weren't genetically modified.

Somewhere in the test, Couch and Moseley's group lost the DNA they extracted from peas, so that part of their experiment will be inconclusive.

But by Thursday night, the team was back together again, working on a presentation about their experiment to share with the rest of the class.

Ehsan was less concerned about the human error that's inevitable with a group of students working with micro-level specimens. "Science works one day or two days a year," as he put it.

Rather, he said the hands-on application of rather complex concepts is helping his students learn, and hopefully it's whetting their appetite for propelling the frontier of plant biotechnology research.



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