Monsanto’s Next Moves as GMO Patents Expire: #BigData and #RNAi

As the first-generation ‪Roundup Ready ‬‪#‎soybean‬ trait, the world’s most widely adopted ‪#‎biotech‬ trait, comes off patent this year (2015), people are asking, “What is ‪#‎Monsanto‬ up to next?”

The Climate Corporation provides field level insights powered by big data.

Two years ago Monsanto purchased The ‪‎Climate‬ Corporation, hoping to marry ‪#‎bigdata‬ and ‪big agriculture‬ to benefit farmers. The idea is that farmers will use real time, highly detailed field maps to maximize the return on every square foot of their fields. Farmers can see water, fertilizer and weed control data, comparing crop yields and “making every seed count.” The Climate Corporation has announced that farmers have mapped more than 75 million row crop acres in their digital agriculture platform. This significant (!) acre adoption represents nearly 45 percent of all corn and soybean acres planted in the U.S. Most importantly perhaps, 30 years of weather data are aggregated and accessed, so that weather data can support farming decisions, with 50 BILLION data points.

It has often been said of Big Data that it is like teenage sex: everyone talks about it, nobody really knows how to do it, everyone thinks everyone else is doing it, so everyone claims they are doing it. But, in my opinion, this is doing it RIGHT. Tellingly, The Climate Corporation also offers insurance products for farmers!!

RNA can be directly applied to crops for pest control and direct genetic modification.

Recently, Monsanto and other seed companies have started employing the extraordinary power of RNA interference (#RNAi) in spray form, to knockdown a destructively feeding insect’s genes, effectively killing them by shutting off genes that they need to survive. The RNAi spray, called BioDirect, can also directly genetically modifying plants, by entering into the plant’s cells through the leaves.

After Monsanto discovered ( in 2010) that RNA could directly modify the expression of plant genes, they took over a company called Beeologics, which had found a way to introduce RNA into sugar water that bees feed on in order to kill a parasitic mite that infests hives. That company also came up with a much cheaper way to make RNA, which has traditionally been very expensive to produce.

Monsanto then paid $30 million for access to the RNA interference know-how (and patents) held by the biotech companies Alnylam, and Tekmira. Additionally, they are the financial backer of a 15-person company called Preceres, where robotic mixers stir RNA together with coatings of specialized nanoparticles to deliver this seemingly miraculous technology.

All in all, both of these technologies are great news for Monsanto’s biggest headaches and heartaches; 1) GMO patents expiring, 2) Opposition to GMOs, 3) Bt resistant insects, and 4) RoundUp resistant weeds.

I can’t wait to see what the future brings! Monsanto- Do you need a lobbyist!?

Originally posted on Medium, and re-posted here with permission of the author.

The “Flu Shot” and Flu Season 2016–2017. Let’s discuss.

You probably already know that the “flu season” varies quite a bit from year to year. Some years, relatively few people die, for instance in 1986–1987 only 3,349 died. But some years the flu can be very dangerous, in 2003–2004 for instance, 48,614 deaths were attributed to flu.

In 2014, San Diego, Washington state, North Carolina and Alberta, (Edmonton, Canada) each saw their deadliest flu seasons ever or within the past 5 years. In 1918 a flu (H1N1) pandemic killed an estimated 25 million people, infecting 500 million globally. This flu killed healthy young people with robust immune systems, not the weak or elderly. The 2009 H1N1 “swine flu” pandemic was similar to the 1918 strain, and part of the reason the 2014 season was so deadly is because H1N1 dominated yet again.

The reason for this wide variation is simple; deaths peak when strains of “Influenza A” dominate, and are quite a bit lower in years when “Influenza B” dominates. No one really knows what will happen on a given year. Flu mutates notoriously quickly. During the 2014–2015 flu season, the virus mutated in people, and the mutated strain spread rapidly, making the vaccines that people had been given less effective- at about only 19% immunity.

In the last few weeks of the 2015–2016 flu season, Influenza A (H1N1) viruses have begun to predominate. Overall, the viruses that have been circulating appear to have been well matched with the strains included in this season’s trivalent and quadrivalent influenza vaccines. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has reported preliminary overall influenza vaccine effectiveness of 59% percent this season. That is great and compares well with data from previous years!! We have seen less pediatric mortality in this last flu season overall then the previous few years.

A total of 30 influenza-associated pediatric deaths have been reported during the 2015–2016 season from Puerto Rico [1], Chicago [1], and 15 states (Arizona [3], California [5], Florida [4], Illinois [1], Indiana [2], Louisiana [1], Michigan [1], Minnesota [3], Mississippi [1], Nebraska [1], Nevada [2], New York [1], Tennessee [1], Texas [1], and Washington [1]).

Because flu mutates so rapidly, every year different strains predominate, so a new vaccine must be made every year. Scientists basically make an educated guess, and go from there in a mad dash to get the vaccine ready, (safety testing, efficacy testing, data to the CDC, manufacture, distribution.. etc) in time for the start of the flu season.

Planning for the 2016–2017 season is already underway. The recommended composition of the 2016–2017 influenza strains were recently announced, differing slightly from the 2015–2016 vaccine. The World Health Organization (WHO) recommended that the trivalent vaccine contain:

  • A/California/7/2009 (H1N1) pdm09-like virus
  • A/Hong Kong/4801/2014 (H3N2)-like virus NEW, and
  • B/Brisbane/60/2008-like virus

The quadrivalent vaccine recommendation includes an additional B virus (B/Phuket/3073/2013-like virus). Last year, the B/Phuket/3073/2013-like virus was included in the trivalent vaccine, with the B/Brisbane/60/2008-like virus only appearing in the quadrivalent vaccine.

Every year I get the same questions about the flu shot. I have compiled my answers along with some general information on how the vaccine works. I hope this helps you to decide if the flu vaccine is right for you and your family.

Question: How do viruses and vaccines work anyway?

Answer: Viruses HIJACK our cells, they cannot replicate on their own. Viruses are basically a ribonucleic acid syringe. They are paragons of Darwinian evolution, having shed every single functional organelle (for example, they do not have mitochondria, ribosomes, Golgi apparatus, endoplasmic reticulum, or nuclei). They inject their DNA or RNA right into our own cells where it gets incorporated into our own DNA, where it is then translated and transcribed, so that our cell’s protein production machines are put to work, making new viral particles. The immune system protects the body from viruses. Specialized cells (Macrophage and T cells) roam around and when they encounter a viral particle they capture it, engulf it, break it apart, and present a small piece of it to the immune system. The immune system then goes to war, and becomes an antibody factory, making antibody-soldier cells against the small piece of virus that has been shown to it. Virtually hundreds of antibodies are released all day everyday by our immune systems. Vaccines work by mimicking a virus and stimulating the immune system to build up defensive antibodies against the pathogen if it is ever encountered again. You want your immune system to detect the most deadliest and destructive viruses before they can insert their DNA (or RNA) into yours.

You get symptoms after a viral infection because your body tries to kill the cells (YOUR CELLS) that are infected. Symptoms come from instructions provided to your cells by the virus itself, fro example, it will make you cough and sneeze (etc). The virus uses your body to spread itself to other people. It doesn’t have legs or arms or independent “locomotion”, it needs you to spread it around.

Structure of an influenza particle

Question: Can’t I STILL get the flu, even if I get a flu shot?

Answer: Yes. The flu shot is only as good as your own immune system’s response to it!!! The effectiveness does not come from the vaccine, it comes from you. If your body creates a strong response to the vaccine then your immunity to flu will be high. If you have a weak response then your immunity will be low, and you may still get the flu. That is why the effectiveness of the vaccine can vary between people. Usually, the flu vaccine is “quadrivalent”, meaning you will be vaccinated against only the 4 most common strains of flu. That being said, the shot does ALSO give you protection in general from the flu (not just to strains in the vaccine). Getting the shot “primes” your body to recognize and fight all strains of the flu. So, if you are infected with a strain not covered by the vaccine your symptoms will be less severe, and even the most severe consequences of infection, like death, can be prevented.

Question: Why bother getting the shot then, if I can still get the flu?

Answer: Even just a ‘simple’ hospitalization from the flu will cost on average up to $4,000, and that number doesn’t include your lost wages! Flu makes you miserable! And don’t forget, it is a DEADLY disease. On average 40,000 people die every year from the flu.

Most people do things every day that are only somewhat effective at preventing severe consequences, but they do them anyway on the off chance that it might prevent some freak occurrence from happening. For example: some people “always” buy organic because they think that it prevents cancer or is healthier (neither of these claims have evidence to back them up). Brushing your teeth everyday is kind of effective at preventing cavities, but it needs to be coupled with flossing, which a lot of people don’t do. Wearing your seat belt probably can’t prevent every death from *catastrophic* car accidents, yet most people never question these activities, despite the fact that they can not prevent all cavities or all car deaths or all cases of cancer. YET these same people will turn around and say that they wont get the flu vaccine because it is not effective against every strain of flu. It doesn’t really make any sense, at all.

Also, it’s not just whether you get sick or not. The most vulnerable members of our society need to be protected by us. It is a concept called “herd immunity”. You can spread germs to others who can’t get the shot even if you don’t get sick yourself. Examples of people who cannot get the flu shot are people who are immune-compromised, very sick people, babies under 6 months, the elderly, people undergoing cancer therapy, and people who legitimately can’t get vaccines because of allergies.

Question: If I get a vaccine won’t that weaken my own immune system because I won’t be challenging it enough? What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger?

Answer: No. Most people don’t know that getting the shot actually does “work” your immune system. Just as hard as actually getting the flu from natural infection. It puts your immune system to work making antibodies against the virus, the EXACT same way as if you were infected, but without the miserable, costly or even deadly side effects.

Our immune systems are MIRACULOUS things. They fight off thousands of encounters with bacteria and viruses and parasites every day. When you allow your self to get sick, you open yourself up to getting massive secondary bacterial infections (like pneumonia, bronchitis or rhinovirus). Because coughing rips up the throat, making you vulnerable to the common bacteria that live in our throat and around our nose and that we are exposed to all the time. A lot of people that die during the flu season actually die form these secondary infections that they never recover from. And god forbid you actually pick up a strain of bacteria that is antibiotic resistant, which many are now (!!) due to the over use of antibiotics.

Question: I don’t want to get flu symptoms from the shot, and I’ve heard that if I get the vaccine I will feel sick.

Answer: You can’t get the flu from getting the shot.

That is a common misconception because vaccines used to be made with whole viruses that had been “weakened” (attenuated), they were still strong enough to make us feel sick. Today’s vaccines are made with just the smallest piece of virus possible, not the whole virus, therefore it is impossible to get sick from them. There is one exception: If you opt to get the nasal mist vaccine, that is made with “live attenuated” virus, so you can get some symptoms if you chose that delivery method over the shot.

Question: When should I get vaccinated?

Answer: CDC recommends that people get vaccinated against flu soon after vaccine becomes available, if possible by October.

It takes about two weeks after vaccination for antibodies to develop in the body and provide protection against the flu.

Doctors and nurses are encouraged to begin vaccinating their patients soon after vaccine becomes available, preferably by October so as not to miss opportunities to vaccinate. Those children aged 6 months through 8 years who need two doses of vaccine should receive the first dose as soon as possible to allow time to get the second dose before the start of flu season. The two doses should be given at least four weeks apart.

Did I answer your question here? If not, please post your questions and I will do my best to answer them!


10 Amazing GMOs!

Most people are familiar with just three types of “GMOs” corn, soy beans, and beets (usually they can even cite glyphosate resistance or the Bt trait!). But dozens of GMOs exist and they have been used to benefit human health, animal welfare and to safeguard the environment for over 30 years! Here are some GMOs you may have never heard about, or realized why they were created in the first place!!!

1) Do you eat cheese?! Who doesn’t!? Once upon a time, the veal calf industry was booming, and we used calf stomach rennet (enzymes that coagulate milk into curd) to make cheese with. But as our concern for animal welfare grew, and our use of veal calves fell, we needed to find an alternate source of cheese making enzymes. We now use bioengineered chymosin to protect the welfare of veal calves and to have a cheap and virtually limitless supply of enzymes, responsible for over 90% of cheese consumed today.

2) Insulin — For 60 years after the discovery that injected insulin could treat diabetes, diabetics relied on insulin purified from animals, primarily cattle and pigs. Animal insulin works well on the whole, but is not an exact match with the human hormone and sometimes causes adverse reactions, for example, skin rashes. In 1978 insulin became the first human protein to be manufactured through biotechnology. Today all insulin for human use is manufactured from GMO bacteria.

3) Vaccines- indisputably life saving, vaccines are produced in chicken eggs, human cell lines or bacteria all genetically modified to produce the antigen of choice!

4) Golden Rice- a great example of improving a non-nutrient dense, staple food source that is heavily consumed in very poor countries. 190 million children and 19 million pregnant women are at risk for vitamin A deficiency. The genes to make vitamin A in Golden Rice were transferred from daffodils, a bacterium, and maize.

5) Papaya — the entire papaya industry in the US was nearly decimated by the papaya ringspot virus. GMOs saved the entire industry!!

6) Potatoes- GMO potatoes were approved by the FDA last year. Potatoes naturally contain a precursor to acrylamide, a cancer causing chemical that is produced when potatoes are cooked at high temperatures (just like we enjoy them, fried!!) the gene was modified so the potatoes will produce less if the chemicals. Nothing was added!!

7) Interferon- a protein used to treat multiple sclerosis, autoimmune disorders, and in some cancer treatments. As a society we rely on drugs produced by GMO bacteria!!!

8) Blood clotting treatments — for stokes, blood clots and blood clotting disorders — example, the drug, ATryn, is an anticoagulant which reduces the probability of blood clots during surgery or childbirth. It is extracted from genetically modified goat’s milk.

9) Cotton- 50% more cotton is produced worldwide today on the same amount of land as compared to 40 some years ago. Some countries have reduced their cotton insecticide use by up to 90%!!!

10) Salmon- it’s no secret that wild salmon populations have been overfished and stressed by climate change. Commercial fishing, and human-caused habitat destruction have caused the lowest salmon population observed since the 1970s. A new genetically engineered Atlantic salmon variety contains a gene from Pacific Salmon to increase the growth rate from the usual 3 years to 18 months. This and other technological advances, enables the fish to be grown on land, which could help us to build a US based salmon industry (95% of our salmon is imported) and also help us to protect our oceans from over fishing.

GMOs in Development


Some of my favorite GMOs currently underdevelopment include;

A “polled” (hornless) version of dairy cattle, a stunning 9 million of which are currently deformed with hot irons, clippers or caustic paste causing much animal suffering (farmers hate doing it too!). Hornless cows are lousy milk producers and traditional breeding has not been able to cross breed a great milking AND hornless variety. This technology works by disabling a gene, instead of adding one from another species. There are many other genetic modifications in development currently to reduce animal suffering!!

The Florida Orange crop is currently being decimated by blight, a “citrus greening” plague sweeping through Florida. More than 80% of Florida’s orange trees are infected. A gene from spinach has been inserted into citrus trees to prevent this disease, and the citrus industry is only a few years away from complete collapse, however, approvals for new GMOs take a long time.

Spider silk from goats milk- spider silk is tougher than Kevlar, incredibly light and resilient! But spider silk, as useful as it may be to industry, is very hard to farm from spiders (they cannibalize each other..) !!

Some Persistent GMO myths


While we are at it, let’s also talk about some stuff I hate, m’kay?

“Genetic modifications are genes that are not found in nature.” False!!! These genes (every gene….) is found somewhere in nature, for example, when a gene from spinach is put into citrus trees. Synthetic biology and the de novocreation of genes or proteins has not quite made it out of the lab yet :). Watch out for it though. It’s coming for you!

“Genetically modified wheat caused the rise of Celiac disease and gluten intolerance”. The fact is, there is no such thing as “GMO wheat”. Wheat has been modified by human hands since the dawn of agriculture. The only modifications that have been made have occurred through NATURAL breeding. Not through bioengineering-i.e. the insertion or deletion of genes.

“Monsanto is making billions of dollars off the backs of poor farmers” False!!! Golden rice is distributed for free to subsistence farmers. Monsanto Company was one of the first companies to grant free licenses for golden rice. The cutoff is ten thousand dollars in profit- if farmers make more than $10,000 per year, then they are expected to buy the seeds.

I greatly dislike and object to the demonization of Monsanto. Why do you think it is that “Monsanto”, “RoundUp”, “glyphosate” and ‘Bt Corn’ are household names- while the examples below are not while Syngenta and DuPont are not? Exhibit A: ‘Syngenta’ is a huge biotech seed and agri-chemical company- they manufacture ‘Agrisure’ GM corn and triazine, one of the most widely used herbicides in US and Australian agriculture. The Agrisure brand corn has the Viptera trait, to be resistant to triazine.

Exhibit B: ‘DuPont “Pioneer”’, a huge company (a subsidiary of DuPont) that shares the GMO corn market with Monsanto. They each own around 36 percent of it.

Genes engineered into DuPont Pioneer products include the LibertyLink gene, which provides resistance to Bayer’s Ignite/Liberty herbicides; the Herculex I Insect Protection gene which provides protection against various insects; the Herculex RW insect protection trait which provides protection against other insects; the YieldGard Corn Borer gene, which provides resistance to another set of insects;and the Roundup Ready Corn 2 trait that provides crop resistance against glyphosate herbicides.

(Not only that, but DuPont has manufactured its share of dangerous pesticides, herbicides, and other chemicals, including coatings like C8. By the way, DuPont also manufactured Agent Orange, DDT, and PCBs … just like ‘Monsanto’ did (the OLD Monsanto chemical company- not the new seed company).

In conclusion, I LOVE GMOs and Biotechnology. We do this to help SOLVE The world’s problems. If you are interested in GMOs check out a guest blog post I wrote on GMO basics, where you can find out what happens to DNA after we eat it, or you can watch me on You Tube (how embarrassing) or for more advanced info- check out another post I wrote on what types of technologies Monsanto is developing next.