Brett Winters isn’t saying genetically modified corn is affecting human health.
But he’s not saying it isn’t, either.
While some high school students spent last summer working part-time jobs or hanging out with friends, the 17-year-old Dutch Fork High junior was trying his hand at growing corn that had been genetically modified to increase its yield.
His goal was to examine the corn’s effects on worms, but Winters’ project could have implications for human health. The project earned him fourth-place recognition in the animal science category last month at the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair in Los Angeles -- “the Oscars of science competitions,” his Dutch Fork research adviser, Elizabeth McShane said. More than 1,700 students from around the world competed.
“It just bowls me over,” McShane said. “Dutch Fork always has students excel, especially in our STEM program, yet Brett really has taken us a step further. He’s really stepped up to the expectations and exceeded the expectations.”
To put the project in simple terms, Winters grew some corn on a plot of land near his house, fed it to some worms in a room above his garage, then recorded what happened.
The DNA in the corn had been modified to resist insects and tolerate herbicide used to kill weeds - the same type of corn that is planted by the vast majority of farmers nationwide. He then spent 184 days gathering data from the worms.
He compared the effects on worms that were fed genetically modified corn to worms that were fed organic corn, studying their growth and development. He found that the worms fed genetically modified corn increased in weight but not population size compared to their organically fed peers.
Winters determined that their weight was being affected by the bacteria in their soil, and that the bacteria were being affected by the genetically modified corn.
The conclusion could have potential implications for humans, whose bodies rely on healthy bacteria in their digestive systems. But there’s a big gap between worms and humans, so only further research will tell, Winters said.
“If it’s affecting worms in this way, could it also be affecting humans in a similar way?” Winters said. “This field of research is extremely new and fresh in recent years, so we can’t possibly know what effect it will have come years down the road.”
Winters’ conclusions stretch the extent of research that has been done in the field of genetically modified crops, and he’s only in high school.
A student in Dutch Fork’s STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) honors program, Winters is -- not surprisingly -- studying well above his grade level, having already completed courses such as Advanced Placement biology and chemistry before his senior year.
His teachers describe him as a self-motivated, well-rounded teenager whose intelligence is off the charts. As a sophomore in Carl Tilson’s AP biology class last year, Winters was writing lab reports with “over the top detail,” worthy of publication, Tilson said.
“There aren’t enough words to say just how he inspires some of his teachers,” Tilson said. “He’s pushing his teachers to be better teachers because we look at the level of quality that he’s putting out, and we want to make sure that we’re doing the best we can.”
Deborah Winters saw a love for science develop in her son at an early age, when he would join his parents in observing the nature in the wooded area around their home.
“We brought everyday life to him and said, ‘This is the awe of the world,’” Deborah Winters said. “From the minute that he could learn anything, he just loved it all.”
Pure curiosity led Winters to pursue his research of genetically modified corn. It was an article about genetic modification he read in Discovery magazine that prompted him to dig deeper into the topic, he said.
“(The article) ultimately revealed how much we don’t know about it, and that really made me think, and it made me want to learn more,” he said.
While genetically modified crops are something of an enigma to the average consumer, they’re anything but uncommon in the United States and world marketplaces.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture reported that about 170 million acres of genetically modified crops, mainly corn, cotton and soybeans, were grown in the country in 2013, representing about half of U.S. farmland used to grow crops.
Nearly all genetically modified seeds used in the United States are designed for pest management, the USDA says. The crops are used in an abundance of ways, including as ingredients in processed food products and as food for livestock.
Though some critics of genetically modified crops balk at the fact of not knowing their possible long-term health effects, their immediate benefits are undeniably plenty. Most importantly, they lead to higher crop yields -- a necessity for feeding hunger-ridden parts of the world, but also a benefit for most any commercial farmer now, as a cycle of higher crop yields leads to lower market prices, which leads to a further need for higher yields.
Winters said he hopes his project will lead to further research on genetically modified crops’ impact on non-target organisms that are more closely related to humans, so stronger conclusions can be drawn. He plans to continue his own research at the college level -- hopefully at MIT or Stanford, he said -- and beyond.
“One day we are going to see some major research break from him,” Tilson said. “He could take this all the way to a Nobel prize.”
Reach Ellis at (803) 771-8307