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Glyphosate pathways to modern diseases V: Amino acid analogue of glycine in diverse proteins

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Glyphosate, a synthetic amino acid and analogue of glycine, is the most widely used biocide on the planet. Its presence in food for human consumption and animal feed is ubiquitous. Epidemiological studies have revealed a strong correlation between the increasing incidence in the United States of a large number of chronic diseases and the increased use of glyphosate herbicide on corn, soy and wheat crops. Glyphosate, acting as a glycine analogue, may be mistakenly incorporated into peptides during protein synthesis. A deep search of the research literature has revealed a number of protein classes that depend on conserved glycine residues for proper function. Glycine, the smallest amino acid, has unique properties that support flexibility and the ability to anchor to the plasma membrane or the cytoskeleton. Glyphosate substitution for conserved glycines can easily explain a link with diabetes, obesity, asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), pulmonary edema, adrenal insufficiency, hypothyroidism, Alzheimer’s disease, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), Parkinson’s disease, prion diseases, lupus, mitochondrial disease, non- Hodgkin’s lymphoma, neural tube defects, infertility, hypertension, glaucoma, osteoporosis, fatty liver disease and kidney failure. The correlation data together with the direct biological evidence make a compelling case for glyphosate action as a glycine analogue to account for much of glyphosate’s toxicity. Glufosinate, an analogue of glutamate, likely exhibits an analogous toxicity mechanism. There is an urgent need to find an effective and economical way to grow crops without the use of glyphosate and glufosinate as herbicides.
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© 2016 Collegium Basilea & AMSI
doi: 10.4024/03SA16A.jbpc.16.01
Journal of Biological Physics and Chemistry 16 (2016) 9–46
Received 2 February 2016; accepted 31 March 2016 9
03SA16A
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1. INTRODUCTION
While it might be expected that fidelity is always perfect
in mapping from the DNA triple code to the specific
amino acid it codes for, multiple studies have shown that
this is not the case [1–5]. In addition to coding errors
leading to substitution of another core amino acid, there
exist hundreds of non-protein amino acids that could be
substituted, some of which occur naturally in plants [1, 2].
Others are produced as oxidation products of the original
amino acids [3]. In inflammatory conditions such as
Alzheimer’s disease, atherosclerosis and cataract
generation, accumulation of oxidized proteins as
components of lipofuscin are believed to contribute to the
disease process [6]. Remarkably, oxidized amino acids
can be directly incorporated into protein chains through
protein synthesis [4]. These damaged peptides cannot be
repaired except through complete enzymatic hydrolysis,
and their accumulation with aging is believed to disrupt
cellular functions.
Finally, and most significantly, multiple synthetically
produced amino acids, close structural analogues of
natural amino acids, can be mistakenly incorporated into
peptides [7, 3]. There are 20 unique aminoacyl-tRNA
synthetases in the ribosomal system, each of which
specifically recognizes one amino acid, according to the
DNA code. Ominously, there does not appear to be any
proof-reading mechanism for the ribosomal system.
Once an amino acid analogue fools the recognition
process, there is no mechanism to abort translation and
discard an erroneously produced peptide sequence [4]. A
direct quote from Rodgers et al. [4] makes this very
clear: “Certain structural analogues of the protein amino
acids can escape detection by the cellular machinery for
protein synthesis and become misincorporated into the
growing polypeptide chain of proteins to generate non-
native proteins.” Glyphosate is a glycine molecule with a
methyl-phosphonyl group bound to the nitrogen atom. As
an analogue of glycine, it can be expected to displace
glycine at random points in the protein synthesis process,
with unknown consequences.
Godballe et al. describe in their 2011 paper how
glycine can be used to construct synthetic molecules
Glyphosate pathways to modern diseases V: Amino acid analogue of glycine in
diverse proteins
Anthony Samsel1, * and Stephanie Seneff
2, **
1Research Scientist, Deerfield, NH 03037, USA
2Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory, MIT, Cambridge, MA 02139, USA
Glyphosate, a synthetic amino acid and analogue of glycine, is the most widely used biocide
on the planet. Its presence in food for human consumption and animal feed is ubiquitous.
Epidemiological studies have revealed a strong correlation between the increasing incidence
in the United States of a large number of chronic diseases and the increased use of
glyphosate herbicide on corn, soy and wheat crops. Glyphosate, acting as a glycine
analogue, may be mistakenly incorporated into peptides during protein synthesis. A deep
search of the research literature has revealed a number of protein classes that depend on
conserved glycine residues for proper function. Glycine, the smallest amino acid, has unique
properties that support flexibility and the ability to anchor to the plasma membrane or the
cytoskeleton. Glyphosate substitution for conserved glycines can easily explain a link with
diabetes, obesity, asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), pulmonary
edema, adrenal insufficiency, hypothyroidism, Alzheimer’s disease, amyotrophic lateral
sclerosis (ALS), Parkinson’s disease, prion diseases, lupus, mitochondrial disease, non-
Hodgkin’s lymphoma, neural tube defects, infertility, hypertension, glaucoma, osteoporosis,
fatty liver disease and kidney failure. The correlation data together with the direct biological
evidence make a compelling case for glyphosate action as a glycine analogue to account for
much of glyphosate’s toxicity. Glufosinate, an analogue of glutamate, likely exhibits an
analogous toxicity mechanism. There is an urgent need to find an effective and economical
way to grow crops without the use of glyphosate and glufosinate as herbicides.
*Email: anthonysamsel@acoustictracks.net
**Corresponding author: S. Seneff, Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory, Massachusetts Institute of
Technology, USA; e-mail: seneff@csail.mit.edu
10 A. Samsel and S. Seneff Glyphosate pathways to modern diseases V
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JBPC Vol. 16 (2016)
having functionality resembling the activities of cationic
antimicrobial peptides [8]. A reactive side chain is attached
to the nitrogen of glycine, and such units can be assembled
into “peptoid” chains that in many ways resemble peptide
chains, except that they are highly resistant to proteolysis.
This is presumed to be beneficial because it allows the
antimicrobial agent to survive longer in the tissues. These
authors remarked: “N-substituted glycines can be viewed
as amino acids, where the side chain is attached to the
amine nitrogen instead of the α-carbon, and oligomers of
these building blocks are called α-peptoids.”
Glyphosate, is in fact, an N-substituted glycine; i.e., a
peptoid unit. If glyphosate is misincorporated into a peptide
under construction, it could interfere with the disassembly
of the defective peptide, leading to the accumulation of
undegraded short peptide chains with unknown conse-
quences in the blood or in cells harbouring such defective
proteins. It is intriguing and suggestive that phosphonyl
groups are attractive as a component of designer peptides
that inhibit proteases [9] and of potential insecticides that
work by inhibiting protein degradation [10].
There is considerable evidence that glyphosate’s
biological effects are due in part to its action as a glycine
analogue. Glyphosate disrupts chlorophyll synthesis in
plants, likely due in (large) part to its inhibition of δ-
aminolevulinic acid (ALA) synthesis, the rate-limiting
step in the synthesis of the core pyrrole ring. It has been
proposed that this may be a major factor, besides
disruption of the shikimate pathway, in its toxicity to plants
[11]. Its action as a glycine analogue likely causes
competitive inhibition of ALA synthase from glycine and
succinyl coenzyme A. Glyphosate has been shown to
activate NMDA receptors in rat hippocampus [12], and
this has been proposed to be in part due to glyphosate’s
ability to act as a ligand in place of glycine, in addition to
glutamate (as the other ligand), whose overexpression is
induced by glyphosate [13]. Both glyphosate and its
metabolite aminomethylphosphonic acid (AMPA) can
inhibit the growth of some tumour cells, likely by
suppressing glycine synthesis [17].
If glyphosate substitutes for glycine in peptide
sequences under construction, the results are likely to be
catastrophic at multiple levels. The evidence that
glyphosate interferes with glycine’s rôles as a receptor
ligand and as a substrate, and also suppresses glycine
synthesis, implies that glyphosate could be taken up
instead of glycine and subsequently incorporated into a
peptide during protein synthesis. Several examples
already exist of non-coding amino acids causing harm
through misincorporation into peptides. For example, a
natural non-coding amino acid analogue of proline,
azetidine-2-carboxylic acid (Aze), is linked to multiple
sclerosis due to its ability to displace proline in peptides
[14]. Similarly, L-canavanine, a natural non-coding
analogue of L-arginine, is a toxin stored in the seeds of
certain plants [15, 16]. β-N-methylamino-L-alanine
(BMAA), a natural analogue of serine synthesized by
cyanobacteria, is implicated in amyotrophic lateral
sclerosis (ALS) and other neurological diseases [1]. A
recent study of glyphosate’s effects on the rhizosphere
microbiome showed sharp increases in the expression of
proteins involved with both protein synthesis and
especially protein degradation, implying that multiple
synthesized proteins were failing to fold properly and had
to be disassembled and reconstructed [18].
In this paper, we present a review of the literature on
diverse biologically important proteins that contain either
glycine-rich regions or conserved/invariant glycine
residues. The evidence supports the likelihood that
multiple diseases and conditions currently on the rise may
be caused by disruption of conserved glycine residues,
often in ways that would be predicted on the basis of
glyphosate’s physical properties.
Glycine plays many important rôles in human
physiology, as an inhibitory neurotransmitter, as substrate
for the biosyntheses of glutathione, haem, creatine, nucleic
acids and uric acid, and as a source for one-carbon
metabolism via the glycine cleavage system (GCS) [19].
Glycine also plays an important rôle in metabolic
regulation and as an antioxidant. Finally, and perhaps
most importantly, glycine is a highly conserved residue in
diverse proteins, due to its unique properties. Glycine is
the smallest amino acid, having no side chains. It is
especially important in proteins that require flexibility, in
hinge regions, or for ion gates that must open and close
under varying circumstances [20]. Glycine is achiral, such
that it can adopt angles representative of either L- or D-
amino acids. Glycine confers flexibility through its unique
ability to adopt a wide range of main-chain dihedral
angles [21]. Many highly conserved glycine residues
have been found in various proteins, reflecting this need
for flexibility and mobility. It has also been determined
empirically that substitution of conserved glycines in the
enzyme acylphosphatase causes an increased tendency
to aggregate, and this may be an important consideration
for protection from the amyloid formation linked to many
neurological diseases [22].
Glycine plays a critical rôle in dimerization for a
number of protein classes for which dimerization is an
essential step towards activation. Glycine is also highly
conserved as the terminal residue in certain peptides,
where it often plays a crucial rôle by supporting binding to
the plasma membrane via myristoylation [23]. In many
cases, even conservative substitution of alanine for
Glyphosate pathways to modern diseases V A. Samsel and S. Seneff 11
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JBPC Vol. 16 (2016)
glycine disrupts the enzyme’s function due to
conformational changes following steric hindrance or
impaired myristoylation. Conserved glycine residues are
often located at the enzyme active site, particularly in the
GXY or YXG motifs: glycine provides flexibility
necessary to accommodate presence or absence of the
substrate [24].
As of 2011, glyphosate was the largest selling
herbicide worldwide [25]. In a series of previous
publications [26–29], we have discussed how
glyphosate’s known toxicological mechanisms can be
causal in a large number of diseases whose incidence is
going up in step with the steadily increasing use of
glyphosate on core corn, soy and wheat crops in the USA.
The correlations between glyphosate usage and the
recent alarming increase in multiple modern diseases are
stunning, as presented in [30]. These include obesity,
diabetes, end stage renal disease, renal failure, autism,
Alzheimer’s disease, dementia, Parkinson’s disease,
multiple sclerosis, intestinal infection, inflammatory bowel
disease, stroke, leukemia, thyroid cancer, liver cancer,
bladder cancer, pancreatic cancer and kidney cancer.
Another study, looking at both human and animal data,
revealed a large number of disorders of the newborn that
are increasing in step with glyphosate usage [31]. These
include congenital heart disease, skin disorders,
genitourinary disorders, blood disorders, metabolic
disorders and lung conditions. Our previous papers have
been able to explain some of the pathology linked to
glyphosate, predominantly through its powerful chelating
effects, its adverse effects on beneficial gut microbes, its
interference with the supply of crucial nutrients (in many
cases derived from the shikimate pathway), and its
suppression of cytochrome P450 enzymes in the liver.
However, given the large number of diseases and
conditions that are correlated with glyphosate usage, we
suspect that there is something much more insidious and
fundamental than chelation or enzyme suppression that is
happening with glyphosate. The fact that it is a synthetic
amino acid, an analogue of an amino acid that carries
many important rôles in the function of proteins
containing it, makes it conceivable that glyphosate
substitution for glycine in peptides could cause a large
number of adverse effects that would not otherwise be
anticipated. This would explain how a single toxic agent
can be responsible for so many modern diseases.
2. BIOACCUMULATION, METABOLIZATION AND REACTION
PRODUCTS OF GLYPHOSATE
The ability of glyphosate to bioaccumulate and metabolize
in vivo in animals was clearly demonstrated in a 1988
study by Howe et al. [32]. Table 1 below outlines some of
the study’s design features. Seven groups of rats received
a single oral or intravenous (IV) 14C-radiolabeled dose of
glyphosate technical acid (N-phosphonomethyl glycine).
Group 6 was preconditioned with unlabeled glyphosate at
10 mg kg–1 day–1 for 14 days before receiving a single
radiolabeled dose. AMPA and N-methyl AMPA
(MAMPA) were the main metabolites found in the
excreta, as well as other metabolites and reaction
products. The fact that the research team found 0.3% of
the dose as radioactive CO2 in the expired air from the
animals’ lungs, within 24 hours, demonstrated in vivo
metabolism. Glyphosate was the primary radiolabeled
material found in the urine and faeces; bioaccumulation
was found in all tissues, glands and organs. Additional
details can be found in previously published work [29].
Group
No.
Dose/
mg kg–1 Animals Route Duration/
days Samples collected
1 10 3 males
3 females Oral 7 Urine, faeces, expired air @ 6, 12, 24 h
2 10 3 males
3 females Oral 7 Blood @ 0.25, 0.5, 1, 2, 4, 6, 8, 12, 24, 48,
72, 120 and 168 h
7 10 3 males
3 females IV 7 ditto
3 10 5 males
5 females IV 7 Urine and fa eces @ 6, 12, 24 h and daily
thereafter; organs, tissues, carcass @ day 7
4 1000 5 males
5 females Oral 7 ditto
5 10 5 males
5 females Oral 7 ditto
6 10a 5 males
5 females Oral 7 ditto
Table 1. Glyphosate metabolism experimental design by Howe et al. [32].
aGroup 6 was preconditioned with unlabeled glyphosate at 10 mg kg–1 day–1 for 14 days before receiving a single radiolabeled dose.
12 A. Samsel and S. Seneff Glyphosate pathways to modern diseases V
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JBPC Vol. 16 (2016)
Glyphosate metabolism by plants was also
investigated by Dupont in 2007 [33]. Protection from the
effects of glyphosate was achieved through genetic
engineering of maize plants to induce excess synthesis of
the enzyme glyphosate acetyltransferase (GAT). The
modified gene, gat4601, produces the enzyme
acetolactate synthase, which acetylates glyphosate, thus
preventing herbicide activity and plant death. N-
acetylglyphosate (N-acetyl-N-phosphonomethyl glycine)
is another amino acid and glycine analogue that was
found in animals by Monsanto.
Acetylation does not preclude glyphosate’s
incorporation as an amino acid. N-acetylglyphosate can be
recycled back to glyphosate in vivo through deacetylation.
This has been shown to occur in both goats [34] and
chickens [35]. The metabolization of N-acetylglyphosate
includes its decarboxylation to N-acetyl AMPA, and
further metabolism to AMPA, as illustrated in Fig. 1.
Radiolabeled metabolism of N-acetylglyphosate was
investigated in chickens [35], using orally dosed laying
hens. Sacrificed hens, eggs and excreta were analysed/
assayed for total 14C, glyphosate, AMPA, N-acetylgly-
phosate and N-acetyl AMPA residues. Results are
shown in Table 2. The fact that nearly 12% of the reaction
products in egg yolk were recovered in the pepsin digest,
and over 3% in the protease digest, suggests that
glyphosate is being incorporated into peptide chains. The
14C radioactivity in the enzyme digests indicated that an
additional glyphosate analogue had been extracted;
however, low residue levels precluded further analysis.
Figure 1. Glyphosate metabolism pathways.
a Total radioactive residue.
b Equivalent value derived from liquid scintillation data.
c Egg yolk and liver post-extraction solids (PES) were subjected to enzyme digestion.
d Levels in reconstructed whole eggs calculated by summing (proportionally) residue levels in egg whites and yolks.
e Not applicable.
f Total recovery was derived by summing radioactivity in excreta, cage wash, egg yolks, egg whites and liver.
Table 2. 14C N-acetylglyphosate residues found in excreta, eggs and tissues (from Dupont, 2007 [35]).
Matrix TRRa Extracted Unextracted
%dose mg/kg eqb %TRR mg/kg eq %TRR mg/kg eq
Egg white 0.01 0.02 94.3 0.01 5.7 < 0.0 1
Egg yolk 0.04 0 .34 81.5 0.19 18.5 0.04c
Whole egg 0.36d nae na
Liver 0.05 0.51 95.6 0.48 4.4 0.02c
Muscle 0.04 87.5 0.03 1 2.5 <0.01
Abdominal fat 0.05 92.4 0.05 7.6 <0.01
Excr et a 84.1 83.2 1.0
Cage wash 5.9 na na
Total recovery 90.2f na na
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JBPC Vol. 16 (2016)
Remarkably, in Dupont's study on goats [34], muscle
extraction yielded only 42% of the total reactivity before
pepsin digest, and there was negligible additional
recovery after both pepsin and protease digests. This
suggests that glyphosate strongly inhibited the ability of
proteases to break down the proteins, as 58% remained
embedded and detectable only by its radioactive label. It
was also noted that liver extraction recovery was 83%
before pepsin digest and 6.9% additional recovery after
digest. Kidney extraction was 97% before pepsin with an
additional 4.6% recovery from the digest. Omental, renal
and subcutaneous fat yielded 35, 94 and 92% recovery,
respectively, before pepsin digest with an additional 28%
recovery from omental fat only by pepsin digestion.
Protease digestion in these tissues yielded insignificant
levels of TRR recovery.
The Lowery/Dupont experiment with 5 laying hens
studied the metabolism of 14C-radiolabeled N-acetyl-
glyphosate [35]. Birds were dosed by capsule twice per
day for seven days with pure N-acetylglyphosate. Two
radiolabeled substances were found in the chicken
excreta and identified by HPLC, N-acetylglyphosate
82%) and glyphosate (0.8%). Residues of N-acetyl-
glyphosate, AMPA, glyphosate and N-acetyl AMPA
were identified in the liver, as well as six distinct
radiolabeled residues in the abdominal fat. Sequential
treatment with pepsin and protease enzymes of the total
radioactive residues (TRR) remaining in the liver and egg
yolk samples liberated additional radioactivity (4.1–14.7%
TRR in toto), suggesting that glyphosate had been
incorporated into the proteins.
A total of eight radiolabeled substances were found
in actual muscle tissue, including: N-acetylglyphosate
25% (0.009 mg/kg); AMPA 17% (0.005 mg/kg);
glyphosate 7.2% (0.002 mg/kg); N-acetyl AMPA 1.9%
(0.001 mg/kg); and four additional metabolites
representing 9% (0.003 mg/kg).
The highest bioaccumulated total radioactive residue
in whole eggs was 0.36 mg/kg, occurring at seven days.
Unmetabolized N-acetylglyphosate and metabolites of
AMPA, glyphosate and N-acetyl AMPA were 0.16,
0.002, 0.014 and 0.003 mg/kg, respectively.
Egg whites and yolks were also examined
individually. The results are summarized in Table 3.
Table 3. Distribution of total radioactive residues (TRR) of glyphosate metabolites and reaction products found in chicken
eggs and tissues by liquid scintillation counting (LSC).a
aFrom Dupont, 2007 [35].
bDifferences during processing reflect losses (1.5% TRR) incurred during concentration and/or sample clean-up for HPLC.
cLosses (32% TRR) during the process were attributed to non-selective adsorption to particulate matter in the concentrated
extract.
dNot detected.
eNot applicable.
fUp to 4 components with no one component accounting for greater than 9% TRR (0.003 mg/kg eq).
gUp to 2 components with no one component accounting for greater than 0.7% TRR (< 0.001 mg/kg eq).
hLow levels of radioactivity in the concentrated digest precluded further characterization.
Component Composite egg Composite egg Liver Composite Composite
white (day 1–7) yolk (day 1–7) muscle fat
% mg/k g e q % mg/kg eq % mg/kg eq % mg/kg eq % mg /k g eq
TRR TR R TRR TRR TR R
TRR (mg/kg eq) na 0.010 0.229 0.505 0.033 0.057
init ia
l
extra ct 94 0.009 81 0.1 87 96 0.483 87 0.029 92 0.053
conc en trat ed extrac t 94 0.009 80 b 0.183 64c 0.322 87 0.029 92 0.053
AMPA -d - 0.91 0.0 02 6.7 0.034 17 0.005 11 0.007
glyphosate 11 0.001 5.7 0.013 16 0.084 7.2 0.002 39 0.023
N-acetyl-AMPA 4.3 <0.001 1.1 0.003 4.0 0.020 1.9 0.001 10 0. 006
N-acetyl-glyphosate 41 0.004 68 0.157 64 0.323 25 0.009 23 0.014
minor unkn owns 3.4 < 0.001 - - -- 15e0.006 1.4
f
0.001
pepsin digest (PD) nag na 12 0.027 3.8 0.019 na na na na
processed PD na na 4.3 h 0.010 0. 63 h
0.003 na na na na
protease d igest na na 3.1 h 0.007 0.27 h 0.001 na na na na
unextracted residues 5.7 0.001 3.8 0.008 0.36 0.002 13 0.004 7. 6 0.004
14 A. Samsel and S. Seneff Glyphosate pathways to modern diseases V
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JBPC Vol. 16 (2016)
Glyphosate, like the canonical amino acids, is
capable of chemical modification and metabolism in vivo
[29]. The glyphosate amino acid analogues that are
reaction products of these processes are shown in Fig. 2.
Glyphosate can be acetylated, methylated, formylated
and nitrosylated. Enzymatic deacetylation also recycles
the acetylated molecule back to glyphosate. All of these
modifications will impact the potential for glyphosate to
be taken up by the cell and will change its reaction
chemistry. For example, amino acid methylation generally
makes the molecule both more water-soluble and more
fat-soluble, as well as lowering the activation energy
[36]. Fig. 3 shows metabolites of glyphosate that were
found during Monsanto’s experiments on rats. N-acetyl
AMPA was identified by Dupont.
Figure 2. Glyphosate-derived amino acids identified by Monsanto exhibiting typical amino acid modifications.
Figure 3. Metabolites and manufacturing contaminants of glyphosate.
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JBPC Vol. 16 (2016)
3. DNA DAMAGE: CHROMATID DELETIONS AND
ACHROMATIC LESIONS
One of Monsanto’s early studies involved examining
DNA damage in bone marrow of mice exposed to
glyphosate [37]. An interesting finding was a substantial
increase in the number of chromatid deletions and achro-
matic lesions observed following glyphosate exposure
compared to controls (Table 4). Achromatic lesions
(gaps) in chromatids are induced by endonucleases that
play a rôle in the repair process. These gaps are a
manifestation of unrejoined DNA double-strand breaks
following endonuclease activity [38]. A possible
explanation for the observed lesions involves impaired
DNA repair mechanisms, particularly concerning the
nucleotide guanine. 7,8-dihydro-8-oxoguanine (8-oxoG) is
one of the most commonly formed oxidative lesions in
DNA [39]. It is particularly destructive because it mispairs
with adenine during replication, changing guanine:cytosine
to thymine:adenine. Premutagenic lesions accumulate in
mice that are defective in the gene coding the DNA
glycosylase enzyme, OGG1, which excises 8-oxoguanine
from DNA [40].
Clustered DNA damage means multiple lesions in
close proximity. In particular, it has been demonstrated
experimentally that a lesion adjacent to an 8-oxoG is
more resistant to the endonuclease-based repair process
[41]. OGG1 has a conserved glycine at position G42 that
plays an essential rôle in distinguishing 8-oxoG from
guanine [42]. A hydrogen atom binds to the N7 atom of
guanine during the formation of 8-oxoG, and this
hydrogen atom is H-bonded to the carbonyl of the strictly
conserved glycine residue in OGG1 to secure
attachment. That is how it can recognize the oxidized
A. Chromatid deletions: observed frequencies
b
Samp ling t ime Control Glyphosate (1g/kg) pc
12 h 0.0035 0.0087 0.26
24 h 0.0071 0.0142 0.26
B. Achromatic lesions: observed frequenciesb
Samp ling t ime Control Glyphosate
c
6 h 0.0083 0.020 0. 08
12 h 0.0052 0.016 0. 08
a Table reproduced from Monsanto’s 1983 report [37].
b No. of aberrations minus number of cells scored.
c Probability to be the same as the solvent control as determined
by Student’s t test.
Table 4. Statistical analysis of data on chromatid deletions
and achromatic lesions in rat bone marrow cells, performed
only on data where the observed frequency for glyphosate
treatment was higher than that of the solvent control.a
form of guanine and distinguish it from the healthy,
unoxidized molecule. Substitution of alanine for G42
disrupts the binding due to steric hindrance. With OGG1
impaired through glyphosate substitution for glycine, one
can expect an accumulation of unrepaired 8-oxoG,
leading to an increased frequency of clustered DNA
damage and double strand breaks, and therefore of
chromatid deletions and achromatic lesions, as observed
by the Monsanto researchers. Mice with impaired OGG1
function develop increased adiposity, fatty liver disease
and impaired glucose tolerance [39]. A defective version
of this gene is linked to type-II diabetes in humans [43, 44].
4. METABOLIC AND SIGNALING DISORDERS
In this section we will examine several classes of
enzymes that contain conserved glycines with essential
rôles. We show that glyphosate substitution for glycine in
hormone-sensitive lipase can explain an association
between glyphosate and obesity, as well as adrenal
insufficiency. The combination of protease inhibition and
enhanced kinase activity can be predicted to cause
excessive phosphorylation systemically. Phosphorylation
is a widespread modification with profound effects on
affected molecules, which can increase risk to both
Alzheimer’s disease and cancer. Pulmonary oedema
induced by glyphosate can be explained through protein
phosphatase inhibition.
The insulin receptor has conserved glycines that are
necessary for its transport from the endoplasmic reticulum
(ER) to the plasma membrane. Insufficient insulin
receptor availability leads to hyperglycaemia and
diabetes. Cytochrome c oxidase (COX) is the enzyme
responsible for the final step of ATP synthesis in the
mitochondrion. Substitutions for conserved glycines in
COX severely impair oxidative phosphorylation. This can
explain glyphosate’s known toxicity to mitochondria.
Kelch-like ECH-associated protein 1 (KEAP1) is a
protein that regulates nuclear factor erythroid 2-related
factor 2 (Nrf2)-like activity. It depends on a conserved
glycine to prevent Nrf2 migration into the nucleus to
activate multiple genes. Nrf2 overactivity can directly
explain the beak deformities observed in chickadees fed
sunflower seeds that were sprayed with glyphosate just
before harvest. Nrf2 overactivity is also linked to fatty liver
disease.
Hypothyroidism in the mother is a risk factor for
autism in the child [45]. Disruption of conserved glycines
in the pituitary gland can lead to insufficient release of
thyroid-stimulating hormone. Conserved glycines also
play a rôle in adrenocorticotropic hormone (ACTH)
release, and ACTH deficiency has been linked to adrenal
16 A. Samsel and S. Seneff Glyphosate pathways to modern diseases V
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JBPC Vol. 16 (2016)
insufficiency induced by glyphosate [46]. Both sulfate
synthesis by endothelial nitric oxide synthase (eNOS)
and the removal of sulfate from bioactive sulfated
molecules can be predicted to be impaired upon
glyphosate for glycine substitution at critical locations on
eNOS and arylsulfatases. eNOS also depends on
conserved glycines for nitric oxide synthesis. Impaired
nitric oxide synthesis leads to hypertension.
4.1 Impaired cholesterol and fat metabolism
Lipases and esterases are an important group of enzymes
that hydrolyse ester bonds. They contain a characteristic
gly-xaa-ser-xaa-gly (GXSXG) motif; the essential active
serine residue imparts the name “serine hydrolases” [47].
The hydrogen bond donated by the first glycine of the
motif plays a critical rôle in the catalysis [48–50]. An
especially interesting subclass of serine hydrolases are
the hormone-sensitive lipases (HSLs) which, in humans,
are responsible both for lipid hydrolysis and cholesterol
ester hydrolysis [51]. HSLs respond to adrenalin,
catecholamines and ACTH by initiating the release of
fatty acids from adipose tissue as a source of fuel for the
tissues [52]. HSLs are closely related to several bacterial
proteins [53–55], and more distantly related to
acetylcholinesterase and lipoprotein lipase. Hydrolase
disruption leads to lipotoxic effects that can promote
mitochondrial dysfunction, induce endoplasmic reticulum
(ER) stress, induce inflammation, and compromise
membrane function leading to apoptosis [56]. Impaired
HSL function has been linked to obesity, atherosclerosis
and type 2 diabetes [51].
In addition to the conserved GXSXG motif, members
of the mammalian HSL class also contain the tetra-
peptide histidyl-glycyl-glycyl-glycine (HGGG) motif in a
conserved region described as an “oxyanion hole” [57,
58]. This is a critical element in the catalytic machinery
of diverse proteolytic enzymes (notably serine protease
and certain caspases), which stabilizes negative charge
build-up in the substrate via hydrogen bonds.
Monsanto’s chronic studies in mice and rats cited in
our previous work [29] found considerable tissue
destruction by glyphosate in the pituitary, thyroid,
thalamus, testes and adrenal glands, as well as major
organs. A 1990 study by Stout and Rueker revealed
significant cortical adenomas, benign and metastatic
pheochromocytomas and ganglioneuromas in male and
female animals. A 1983 Knezevich and Hogan chronic
study of glyphosate in mice revealed lymphoreticular
tumours that “tended to be more frequent in treated
animals, particularly the females.” It revealed cortical cell
adenoma and lymphoblastic lymphosarcoma of the adrenals.
A previous 1982 chronic study in rats by Lankas and
Hogan also showed neoplastic phenomena in the
adrenals, including reticulum cell sarcoma, pheochro-
mocytoma, cortical adenomas and malignant lymphoma
of the adrenals particularly in the female animals.
“Pheochromocytoma of the adrenals was the second
most common tumour found among male animals. Most
frequent neoplastic changes of glands was seen in the
pituitary gland which was highest in females” [59].
HSLs play an essential rôle in the adrenal glands as
a first step in adrenal hormone synthesis from cholesterol
[60]. The glyphosate-containing herbicide Roundup has
been shown experimentally to severely impair adrenal
hormone synthesis [46]. A glyphosate substitution for
glycine in the GXSXG motif and/or the HGGG motif
would disrupt protein function. This would also explain a
link between glyphosate and obesity, due to impaired
release of stored fats. The correlation between Roundup
use on corn and soy crops and obesity in the USA as
determined by data from the Centers for Disease Control
(CDC) is very strong (R = 0.96, P = 2 × 10–8) [30].
4.2 Protease inhibition
Because excess expression of metalloproteinases is
implicated in metastatic cancer, there is considerable
interest in developing compounds that can inhibit
protease activity [61]. Much effort has gone into
developing protease inhibitors based on a phosphonyl
moiety [9, 62]. The discovery of very potent irreversible
inhibitors based on phosphonyl fluoride led to their use in
in vitro studies, but they are highly unsuitable for
therapeutic inhibition because they react with
acetylcholinesterase, making them extremely toxic.
Glyphosate, like phosphonyl fluoride compounds, has also
been shown to inhibit acetylcholinesterase [63].
As a consequence of the toxicity of phosphonyl
fluoride-based protease inhibitors, there has been a focus
shift towards the concept of peptidyl phosphonate esters,
because these can be hydrolysed, and because they can
be designed to be specific to a narrow class of proteases.
The attached polypeptide chain can be tuned to match the
specificity of the target enzyme. Their mechanism of
action is complex, but it involves a stable tetravalent
phosphonylated derivative where one of the phosphonate
oxygens is extended into an oxyanion hole (details can be
found in [9] in the section beginning on p. 90). It can be
expected that glyphosate’s phosphonyl group might have
a similar effect and, because of glyphosate insertion into
a large number of different peptide sequences, the
consequence of inhibition of multiple proteases by
various glyphosate-containing short peptide chains, with
unpredictable outcomes, can be expected.
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4.3 Protein kinases, cancer and Alzheimer’s disease
The human genome contains about 518 putative protein
kinase genes, which constitute about 2% of all human
genes [64]. Protein kinases contain a glycine-rich domain
in the vicinity of the ATP-binding lysine residue in the N-
terminal domain. The glycine-rich loop anchors the
phosphate of ATP in a cleft just below the loop, and the
nearby positively charged conserved lysine secures the
nucleotide in place [65]. Protein kinase CK2 is a highly
versatile molecule, able to phosphorylate more than 160
substrates on serine, threonine and tyrosine, using both
ATP and GTP as phosphate donors [66]. It is involved in
signal transduction and cell cycle regulation, cell
proliferation and oncogenesis. A conserved region
contains a glycine-rich loop (GXGXXG) that is also found
in other protein kinases [67]. A model has proposed that
the GXGXXG residues form an elbow around the
nucleotide [68]. The second glycine, G48, is conserved in
99% of protein kinases, and it plays a fundamental rôle.
Its replacement by negatively charged residues gives rise
to mutants with improved kinetic properties for the
peptide substrates. Insertion of a negatively charged
residue favours faster release of ADP from the ATP
pocket, leading to increased activity. It can be expected
that glyphosate substituting for any of the conserved
glycines in protein kinases, but especially G48, will
increase protein activity.
Cyclin-dependent kinases (CDKs) are central to
control of eukaryotic cell division. Their activity is
regulated through phosphorylation and dephosphorylation
of conserved threonine and tyrsosine residues [69].
GEGTYG is a highly conserved motif in CDK1, CDK2,
CDK3, CDK5 and CDK10 [70]. This motif is referred to
as the “G-loop,” and the adjacent glycines are essential
for maintaining the flexibility to control activation/
inactivation by phosphorylation of the intervening
threonine and tyrosine in the sequence GTYG. All the
CDKs except CDK7 maintain the motif GXGXXG.
It has been suggested that overactivity of protein
kinase CK2 plays an important rôle in cancer [71]: CK2
overexpression protects cellular proteins from caspase
action and subsequent apoptosis. This leads to the
transformation to a tumorigenic form supporting survival
and proliferation. Imatinib (Gleevec) is a remarkably
effective tyrosine kinase inhibitor used in chemotherapy
to treat patients with leukaemia and breast cancer [72].
Many other drugs based on suppression of protein
phosphorylation are under development [73].
Glycogen synthase kinase 3 (GSK3) is a
constitutively active, proline-directed serine/threonine
kinase, also containing a highly conserved glycine-rich N-
terminus [74]. Its overexpression has been linked to
Alzheimer’s disease [75]. Overexpression of GSK3 can
result in the hyperphosphorylation of tau, memory
impairment, the increased production of β-amyloid (Aβ)
and in the inflammatory response. GSK3 also reduces
acetylcholine synthesis, and cholinergic deficit is a
feature of Alzheimer’s disease [76]. GSK3 also mediates
apoptosis, which will promote the loss of neurons.
4.4 Insulin receptor activity and diabetes
The insulin receptor (IR) is a transmembrane tyrosine
kinase receptor activated by both insulin and the insulin-
like growth factors IGF-I and IGF-II. Defective IR
activity can lead to type 2 diabetes [77], which has reached
epidemic proportions throughout the industrialized world.
The incidence of diabetes has been going up over time in
the USA exactly in step with the increased use of
glyphosate on core crops [30]. Knockout studies on mice,
in which the insulin receptor of the α-cells of the pancreas
were impaired, demonstrated that glucagon release is
regulated by these receptors and, when they are dysfunc-
tional, the mice display hyperglucagonaemia, hypergly-
caemia and glucose intolerance [78]. A significant
incidence of pancreatic islet cell tumours were reported
in Monsanto studies in 1981 and 1990 (data shown in [29]).
A loosely conserved motif in two families of receptor
tyrosine kinases, insulin receptors and epidermal growth
factor receptors is characterized by a central glycine
residue that allows for a turn in the secondary structure
of the protein [79]. This glycine residue has an upstream
α-helix and a downstream β-sheet. Receptors for insulin
and epidermal growth factor both contain at least 8
repeats of this motif. The glycine-centred motif in the IR
is thus very important in determining its three-
dimensional structure [80]. A patient with leprechaunism,
a genetic syndrome associated with extreme insulin
resistance, had two mutations in the gene for IR, one of
which was a glycine in this conserved loop [81]. Arginine
was substituted for gly366 in the first repeat of the loop,
and alanine displaced a conserved hydrophobic valine
residue. Both mutations impair post-translational processing
and intracellular transport of the receptors to the plasma
membrane. Most likely, these two mutations inhibit the
folding of the proreceptor into its normal conformation
[80]. This results in its retention within the ER, and
therefore post-translational processing steps in the Golgi
apparatus are blocked. The result is a great reduction in
the number of receptors that are transported to the plasma
membrane and, therefore, impaired glucose uptake.
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4.5 Cytochrome c oxidase
Glyphosate has been shown to disrupt oxidative
phosphorylation in mitochondria, although this effect
required dosages that were much higher than would be
expected in realistic physiological situations [82].
Glyphosate in combination with surfactants has been
shown to cause mitochondrial damage and induce
apoptosis and necrosis [83]. It is possible that glyphosate
induces toxicity to mitochondria through an effect on
cytochrome c oxidase (COX), and that the surfactants
enable glyphosate’s entry into the cell and the mitochondria,
greatly increasing its toxic effects on the latter [84].
This would be especially so for the salts and esters
of glyphosate, which are more soluble than glyphosate
technical acid (N-phosphonomethylglycine), which was
used in Monsanto’s chronic animal studies. It is interesting
to note that the active principles actually used in Roundup
glyphosate-based herbicide formulations in real-world
applications are not solely the technical acid but rather
the far more soluble salts and esters of glyphosate; i.e.,
potassium glyphosate, sodium glyphosate, ammonium
glyphosate and the popular isopropylamine glyphosate.
These formulations have been shown to be orders of
magnitude more toxic than glyphosate in isolation [85].
COX catalyses the one-electron oxidation of four
molecules of reduced cytochrome c and the four-electron
reduction of oxygen to water. It is an essential
component of the oxidative phosphorylation pathway in
mitochondria that produces adenosine triphosphate
(ATP), the “energy currency” of cells. Subunit II of COX
contains a CuA redox centre, serves as a binding partner
for cytochrome c, and as a participant in the electron
transfer process [86]. Subunit II has a highly conserved
glycine residue at the active site [87–89]. A mutant form
of COX in Rhodobacter sphaeroides involving a
substitution of valine for the conserved gly283 resulted in
a complete block of access of oxygen to the active site
[88]. Similarly, conversion of a conserved glycine in subunit
II’s active site to arginine in a yeast strain resulted in
respiration deficiency [89]. A structural model of the
redox center of subunit II includes two conserved
glycines at positions 219 and 226, in close proximity to
conserved amino acids that act as ligands to the CuA
redox site and a glutamic acid residue implicated in
cytochrome c binding, as schematized in Fig. 4 [90].
Obviously, substitution of glyphosate for glycine in either
of these conserved sites would almost certainly harm
enzyme function, leading to both impaired energy
generation and oxidative damage. Glyphosate is also a
strong chelator of copper, having a higher metal chelate
formation constant—11.93—compared to its affinity for
manganese (5.47), zinc (8.74) and calcium (3.25).
4.6 Nrf2, KEAP1, fatty liver disease and bird
beak deformities
Nrf2 is a leucine zipper protein that protects against
oxidative damage due to an inflammatory response
following various environmental triggers [91]. Interestingly,
tumour cells often overexpress Nrf2, and this allows
them to thrive in the face of severe oxidative stress [92–
96]. High levels of Nrf2 activity cause chemotherapeutic
resistance and correlate with a poor prognosis [94, 97].
Remarkably, although Nrf2 is cytoprotective,
unregulated expression of Nrf2 is lethal in mice. Nrf2 is
constitutively expressed, and KEAP1 is a cytoplasmic
protein that regulates Nrf2 expression by binding to it to
prevent its migration into the nucleus, thus enabling
ubiquitination and subsequent degradation [98, 99]. Mice
engineered to be KEAP1 deficient died postnatally,
probably from malnutrition due to hyperkeratosis
obstructing the oesophagus and forestomach [100]. The
issue is that Nrf2 activates squamous epithelial cells to
overproduce keratin, and a thickened oesophagus
eventually becomes completely blocked.
KEAP1 maintains a cytoplasmic anchor through
scaffolding with the cytoskeleton [98, 101]. The binding
process depends upon a conserved region of the protein
containing a sequence of two glycine residues (double
glycine repeat, DGR). KEAP1 acts as a sensor for
electrophilic and oxidative stresses to maintain an
appropriate amount of Nrf2 activity. KEAP1 responds to
oxidative stress through oxidation of sulfhydryl groups in
conserved cysteine residues, and this causes it to release
Nrf2, permitting its survival and entry into the nucleus,
where it activates many phase 2 antioxidant defences
Figure 4. Schematic of structure of subunit II of cytochrome c
oxidase (COX). Non-conserved amino acids are indicated
by *. Adapted from Holm et al. (1987) [90].
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[102]. Unregulated overactivation of Nrf2 due to
impaired KEAP1 function can be expected to lead to
hyperkeratosis.
A newly emerging disease termed “avian keratin
disorder” has become widespread among birds in certain
regions of North America, particularly the interior of
Alaska [103, 104], around the Great Lakes [105, 106],
and off the coast of California (where agricultural runoff
is a suspected factor) [107]. High rates of crossed beaks
and other malformations were first noted around the
Great Lakes in the mid-1970s [103, 105, 106], which is
when glyphosate was first introduced into agricultural
practice.
Chickadees are the most affected species, and they
are known to frequent bird feeders supplying sunflower
seeds, which according to the USDA are primarily grown
in California, Colorado, the Dakotas, Kansas, Nebraska,
Minnesota and Texas. Glyphosate is used in pre-planting,
burndown, staging and preharvest dessication on
sunflowers and specifically recommended to reduce crop
loss due to feeding by wild blackbirds [108]. Frequent
sightings of blackbirds with deformed beaks were first
reported in 1979 [109].
A detailed study of potential toxic exposures to
black-capped chickadees in Alaska, which investigated
multiple toxic metals, organochlorine pesticides,
polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), polychlorinated
dibenzodioxins and polychlorinated dibenzofurans
(PCDFs), was unable to identify any obvious exposure–
disease relationship and, furthermore, the authors
admitted that there was no known link between any of
these chemicals and hyperkeratosis [104]. Notably,
glyphosate was not studied. Avian keratin disorder is not
present at birth, but rather develops over time and is most
common among adult birds. Some physically examined
birds revealed a systemic hyperkeratosis not limited to the
beak. The most plausible explanation is that glyphosate
substitutes for glycine in KEAP1, causing constitutive
expression of Nrf2 leading to hyperkeratosis.
Non-alcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFL) has
become an epidemic worldwide in recent years [110].
From 10 to 20% of patients with NAFL eventually
develop non-alcoholic steatohepatitis (NASH), cirrhosis,
end-stage liver disease, and hepatocellular carcinoma
[111]. Mallory–Denk bodies (MDBs) are cytoplasmic
inclusions associated with both alcoholic and non-
alcoholic steatohepatitis [112]. These bodies are enriched
in keratin, which is overexpressed through enhanced
Nrf2 expression [111].
Non-melanoma skin cancer is the most common
form of cancer among Caucasians [113]. Lankas and
Hogan (1982) found sebaceous gland adenoma, and
basosquamous cell tumour of the skin as well as
fibrosarcoma, fibromas, neurofibrosarcoma, osteogenic
sarcoma and mixed malignant tumour of the
subcutaneous tissue associated with glyphosate residue
ingestion by male rats during a 26-month study [59, 29].
Hyperkeratosis is a common feature of non-melanoma
skin cancer [114]. Laryngeal keratosis is a risk factor for
subsequent carcinoma [115]. Hyperkeratosis was
observed in 2% of oesophageal biopsies performed on
1845 patients, and was linked to invasive squamous
carcinoma of the oral cavity/larynx [116].
4.7 Tyrosine phosphatase and systemic inflammation
Glycine is a component of multiple sequence motifs that
are consistent patterns within various groups of protein
phosphatases. One sequence that includes a GXG
subsequence is found in tyrosine phosphatases [117].
Another unique sequence containing two glycines is
found in serine/threonine phosphatases [118]. Several
acid phosphatases contain the conserved sequence,
RHG [119]. A long signature motif found in a family of
glucose-6-phosphatases, as well as several acid
phosphatases and lipid phosphatases, contains a
conserved glycine residue near the middle of the
conserved sequence [120].
Protein tyrosine phosphatases are a class of
enzymes that remove phosphate groups from
phosphorylated tyrosine residues on proteins, and they
generally have an anti-inflammatory rôle [121]. Tyrosine
phosphatases play a very important rôle in the developing
immune system, influencing the process of maturation of
T-cells, as well as in the immune response in the adult
[122]. Defective versions of a haematopoietically
expressed cytoplasmic tyrosine phosphatase have been
associated with multiple autoimmune diseases, including
systemic lupus erythematosus, rheumatoid arthritis and
type 1 diabetes [123–127]. T-cell protein tyrosine
phosphatase (TCPTP), a negative regulator of JAK/
STAT and multiple growth factor receptors, is highly
expressed in haematopoietic tissues [128]. Defects in
this gene have been linked to type 1 diabetes, rheumatoid
arthritis and Crohn’s disease through genome-wide
association studies [124, 128, 129]. Substitution of proline
or alanine for the conserved gly127 residue resulted in a
400-fold decrease in catalytic activity [130].
Studies on TCPTP-deficient mice have greatly
enhanced our knowledge of this important protein [131–
133, 128, 134, 135]. Homozygous TCPTP-deficient mice
become ill and die by three to five weeks of age [131–
133, 128]. They exhibit severe anaemia and infiltration of
mononuclear cells into multiple tissues, along with a
dramatic increase in expression of proinflammatory
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JBPC Vol. 16 (2016)
cytokines systemically, including TNF-α, IFN-γ and IL-12
[133]. More specifically, inflammation of the synovial
membrane and severe subchondral bone resorption of
the knee were observed, along with significantly greater
numbers of osteoclasts in the femur [123]. Heterozygous
TCPTP-deficient mice respond with excess cytokine
production and exaggerated gut inflammation to epithelial
insults, inducing colitis [136].
Severe glyphosate-surfactant poisoning is manifested
by gastroenteritis, respiratory disturbances, altered mental
status, treatment-resistant hypotension, renal failure and
shock [137]. The fatality rate ranges from 3 to 30%, and
is mostly due to either pulmonary toxicity or renal failure.
A case study from India specifically highlights pulmonary
oedema following acute poisoning, along with a
precipitous drop in blood pressure [138], probably due to
loss of serum fluids into the abdominal and pleural cavities.
A paper from 1990 by Martinez et al. compared the
effects of an oral dose of Roundup on rats to intratracheal
installations [139]. The oral dose induced pulmonary
oedema 6 h later, along with bloodstained weeping from
the nose, diarrhoea, distended gastrointestinal (GI) tract,
and ascites, suggestive of hypovolemic shock. The
intratracheal instillations were much more toxic at much
lower dose levels. A dose of 0.1 mg/animal caused 80%
mortality, and 0.2 mg/animal gave 100% mortality.
Pathological examination found haemorrhaging and
congestion in the lungs.
Protein tyrosine phosphatase plays a crucial rôle in
protection from pulmonary oedema by maintaining barrier
function following an inflammatory episode [140, 141]. It
is conceivable that, following an acute inflammatory
response to glyphosate poisoning, glyphosate is taken up
by cells and incorporated into newly synthesized tyrosine
phosphatase, disabling its effectiveness. However,
glyphosate would likely inhibit these phosphatases even in
the absence of direct incorporation into the peptide chain.
An investigation into 15 different synthetic compounds, all
of which contained a phosphonyl group, demonstrated
their effectiveness in inhibiting both tyrosine and serine–
threonine phosphatases [142].
Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) is
the fourth largest cause of death in the USA. It has been
linked directly to overexuberant kinase-based signaling
cascades [143]. Enhanced kinase activity combined with
impaired ability to turn off the signal through dephosphory-
lation, both of which can be explained by glyphosate
interference, can easily account for such a pathology.
Monsanto’s sealed documents filed with the US
EPA for the registration of glyphosate technical acid
show that glyphosate has adverse effects on the lungs of
animals. We previously reported tumours found in the
lungs of test animals [29]. The study authors also noted
many non-neoplastic microscopic findings. In 1981,
Lankas and Hogan reported that the more common
findings were changes in the kidneys and lungs. The lungs
of many of the rats had “changes associated with chronic
respiratory disease such as the presence of peribronchial
and perivascular mononuclear cells and foci of macroph-
ages in alveoli.” In addition, some of the physical symptoms
included nasal discharge, excessive lacrimation and rales
(abnormal crackling noises) caused by disease and
congestion of the lungs. Tumours of lungs were also
found and included reticulum cell sarcoma, malignant
lymphoma, adenocarcinoma and carcinomas.
Monsanto’s studies found that radiolabeled carbon in
glyphosate was able to be recovered in the exhaled
breath of rats [29]. Pseudomonas aeruginosa is among
the very few microbial species that are known to be able
to metabolize glyphosate and use it as a source of
phosphorus [144]. P. aeruginosa infection has been linked
to COPD [145]. Glyphosate is known to disrupt bacterial
homeostasis leading to an overgrowth of resistant
pathogens; it was found by the USGS to be present in the
atmosphere [146]; thus inhalation of the compound (not
just ingestion) would also harm the lung.
4.8 Hypothyroidism due to impaired thyroid-stimu-
lating hormone activity
In [45], it was proposed that impaired activity of
manganese-dependent protein phosphatase 1 (PP1)
could explain a link between autism and maternal
hypothyroidism, due to a dependency on PP1 for the
pituitary to release thyroid-stimulating hormone (TSH).
In that paper, it was argued that glyphosate chelation of
manganese might severely decrease manganese bioavail-
ability. This argument was supported by the extremely
low serum levels of manganese found in dairy cows
exposed to GM Roundup-Ready feed [147].
However, we have already seen that phosphatases
contain conserved glycine motifs that are essential for
their proper functioning. Another distinct possibility is that
glyphosate substitutes for glycine directly in the
conserved CAGYC region of the β-subunit of TSH itself.
A rare mutation where the central glycine in CAGYC is
replaced by arginine in an autosomally recessive trait
results in cretinism (mental and growth retardation)
[148]. This single mutation leads to the synthesis of a
defective form of the β-subunit of TSH, which renders it
unable to associate with an α-subunit. This results in
severe systemic deficiency of TSH and hypothyroidism.
It is plausible that a similar disruption of adrenal
stimulation occurs because of glyphosate substitution for
a conserved glycine in ACTH [149]. A homozygous
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JBPC Vol. 16 (2016)
substitution of glycine by valine in codon 116 of ACTH
resulted in a profile of seizures, hypoglycaemia, impaired
immune function and respiratory distress, characterized
as “ACTH resistance syndrome.”
4.9 eNOS, sulfate and red blood cells
Endothelial nitric oxide synthase (eNOS), which
resembles cytochrome P450, plays a crucial rôle in
providing the signaling molecule, nitric oxide, in the
vasculature [150]. NO induces smooth muscle cell
relaxation in the artery wall, leading to improved vascular
flow. eNOS is dynamically regulated at the
transcriptional, post-transcriptional and post-translational
levels. Much has been written about eNOS’s
“pathological” production of superoxide under certain
conditions, especially when the cofactor
tetrahydrobiopterin (BH4) is depleted [151, 152].
Regulatory control of eNOS is complex, and, in particular,
it only produces NO when it is both phosphorylated and
detached from its secured scaffold to caveolin in lipid
rafts in the plasma membrane [153]. Caveolin-1 prevents
calmodulin binding under low calcium conditions [154,
155] Excess calmodulin, produced in response to calcium
signaling, triggers the release of eNOS from its caveolin-
bound site [156], and subsequent phosphorylation enables
NO production.
In [157, 158], it was proposed that eNOS is a
“moonlighting enzyme” which, when membrane-bound,
rather than being inactive, produces sulfate, catalysed by
sunlight. The superoxide is drawn into a zinc-occupied
cavity created by the eNOS dimer, where it oxidizes
sulfane sulfur, bound to conserved cysteine residues [159,
160] that encircle the cavity, to produce free sulfate.
Details can be found in [157].
Red blood cells (RBCs) contain significant levels of
eNOS, which is permanently located just within the
plasma membrane. This has presented a puzzle to
researchers, and some have even suggested that it is
residual, because NO would be rendered ineffective
through binding with haemoglobin, which would also
disrupt oxygen transport [157, 161]. RBCs also steadily
produce cholesterol sulfate, which plays an important rôle
in maintaining their membrane negative charge and
protects them from lysis and aggregation [162, 163].
Insufficient cholesterol sulfate leads to a high rate of
haemolysis and shortened life span. Thus, RBCs plausibly
use their eNOS to produce sulfate, which is then
conjugated with cholesterol and exported to the external
membrane wall.
eNOS is a member of a class of NOS isoforms that
includes inducible NOS (iNOS) and neuronal NOS
(nNOS). All known members of this class contain a
conserved glycine residue (gly450), including all mam-
malian NOSs as wall as avian and insect NOS enzymes
[164]. Gly450 is essential for NOS dimerization.
Conservative amino acid substitutions at gly450 of
murine iNOS abolishes NO production, dimer formation,
and BH4 binding to the enzyme [165]. Furthermore,
eNOS uniquely (compared to iNOS and nNOS) contains
a myristoyl group covalently attached to the conserved
N-terminal glycine, gly2, which is essential for securing
eNOS to the membrane [164, 166]. It has been proposed
that the myristoylating enzyme has an absolute specificity
for glycine [23]. Experiments in which the glycine was
replaced by alanine showed that neither myristoylation
nor palmitoylation took place, and thus the defective
enzyme only appeared in the cytoplasm [167–170].
It should be noted that other enzymes also have a
conserved N-terminal glycine that supports myristoyla-
tion, including cyclic AMP-dependent protein kinase
[171], calcineurin B [172], neurocalcin [173] and
NADH–cytochrome b5 reductase [174]. Neurocalcin is
found mainly in retinal photoreceptors and in neurons,
where it is involved in the transduction of calcium signals
[175]. Neurocalcin binds to clathrin, tubulin and actin in
the cytoskeleton via myristoylation, and this suggests it
may play a rôle in moderating clathrin-coated vesicle
traffic [176]. This rôle would be disrupted if glyphosate
replaces glycine at the N-terminus.
Thus, it becomes apparent that, if glyphosate is
substituted for glycine at either the gly2 or the gly450
sites, eNOS will malfunction in both of its rôles of
producing either sulfate or nitric oxide. This will have
widespread pathological effects related to excessive
haemolysis (anaemia), insufficient supply of cholesterol
sulfate to the tissues, and insufficient production of NO,
leading to vascular constriction and hypertension.
Disruption of iNOS function will lead to impaired
immunity, since iNOS defends the host against infectious
agents [177]. And, of course, other important enzymes
that also support myristoylation via a terminal glycine will
behave in unpredictable ways when that glycine is
replaced with glyphosate.
4.10 Arylsulfatases
Arylsulfatases are a family of enzymes that remove
sulfate from sulfated molecules. Substrates include: the
sulfated glycosaminoglycans—keratin sulfate, chondroitin
sulfate and heparan sulfate; the sulfated sterols—
cholesterol sulfate, estrone sulfate, testosterone sulfate,
DHEA sulfate etc.; sulfated phenolic compounds; and the
sulfated lipids such as sulfatide (sulfated
galactocebroside). A defective version of arylsulfatase A,
which removes sulfate-21 from sulfatide, results in the
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JBPC Vol. 16 (2016)
condition of metachromatic leukodystrophy [178]. The
infantile form of this genetic disease is characterized by
muscle wasting and weakness, muscle rigidity,
developmental delays, blindness, convulsions, impaired
swallowing, paralysis and dementia. Life expectancy is
below five years.
All members of the arylsulfatase family are subject
to a unique modification that is necessary for activation,
involving the transformation of a cysteine residue into
formylglycine (FGly) [179]. In a rare inherited disorder
named multiple sulfatase deficiency (MSD), the activities
of all sulfatases are severely reduced. This disorder
involves an impairment in the transformation of cysteine
to FGly. A highly conserved motif consisting of four
amino acids (LTGR) is found in all human and microbial
arylsulfatases, near the modified cysteine. A 16-mer
segment including this motif is essential and sufficient for
the formation of FGly [180]. It is likely that the conserved
glycine residue in the motif is essential to support the
flexibility needed to present the cysteine to the modifying
enzyme [181]. Without this transformation, the enzyme is
completely inactive. Therefore, displacement of this glycine
by glyphosate would likely disrupt enzyme activation.
In a mouse model of autism, maternal immune
activation through polyinosinic:polycytidylic acid
(poly(I:C)) injection produced offspring with
characteristic features of mouse autism [182]. Likely due
in part to a leaky gut, these offspring had sharply
elevated serum levels of 4-ethylphenylsulfate, produced
by the gut microbes, with a 46-fold increase over
controls. Injection of 4-ethylphenylsulfate into normal
mice induced autistic behaviour. It is plausible that
impaired phenol sulfatase activity, particularly in the
context of a leaky gut, would cause the accumulation of
sulfated phenols in the plasma, contributing to autism.
5. NEURODEGENERATIVE DISEASES
We have already seen that the pathology of Alzheimer’s
disease is linked to overexpression of GSK3, which can
be induced by the substitution of negatively charged
amino acids in place of glycine in the N-terminal region.
Glyphosate is negatively charged at biological pH.
Beyond Alzheimer’s, multiple neurodegenerative
diseases are associated with aggregated and tangled
proteins including Lewy bodies, tauopathies, senile
plaques and neurofibrillary tangles. In this section, we will
focus on four classes of neurodegeneration that can be
linked to disruption of conserved glycines in specific
misfolded proteins: prion diseases, Alzheimer’s disease,
Parkinson’s disease and amyotrophic lateral sclerosis
(ALS). In all four of these cases, it has been determined
that rare soluble non-fibrillar forms of the aggregated
proteins are much more damaging than the insoluble
precipitates. It has also been shown that conserved
glycines support the flexibility that is needed to allow the
hydrophobic components of the molecule to assemble so
as to precipitate out of aqueous solution. Glycine is
hydrophobic, whereas glyphosate is amphiphilic, and it is
also much bulkier than glycine. Glyphosate’s solubility
would likely be higher in the cytoplasm of a cell than in
serum both because of the higher pH and because of
cationic buffering by potassium. In fact, potassium salts
are used in glyphosate formulations to increase its
solubility. It seems plausible that the rare soluble non-
fibrillar forms of aggregated proteins that are toxic have
glyphosate in place of glycine in their structure.
5.1 Prion diseases
Prion diseases, also called transmissible spongiform
encephalopathies, are novel degenerative diseases in
which the infective agent is a misfolded protein. Prions
are believed to be responsible for Kuru, Creutzfeldt-
Jakob disease, and bovine spongiform encephalopathy
(BSE, mad cow disease). BSE first appeared in the
United Kingdom in 1986, after glyphosate had been used
to control weeds in animal feed for at least a decade.
While BSE is believed to be caused by feed contaminated
with the brain, spinal cord or digestive tract of infected
carcasses, there remains the open question of what
caused the original appearance of misfolded proteins to
initiate the infection. Prion proteins contain a glycine-rich
hydrophobic region that shows almost perfect conserva-
tion across a wide range of species. This region appears
to be important for the misfolding process and prion
propagation [183]. It seems remarkable that a highly
conserved region of the protein, unaltered by genetic
mutations, could be the source of the toxicity. The normal
form of prion proteins, PrPC, is rapidly catabolized,
whereas a pathogenic isoform, PrPSc, is highly resistant
to proteolysis [184]. A subsequence containing only PrP
106–126 is a highly conserved unstructured region of
PrP, which is considered to be the main contributor to
fibrillogenicity. It has a high tendency to aggregate into a
β-sheet structure forming amyloid fibrils in vitro [185, 186].
There is controversy regarding whether the toxicity
is due mainly to mature fibrils or to protofibrillar
aggregates. A definitive study [187] showed that two
strictly conserved glycine residues, at positions 114 and
119, within the highly conserved region, are the main
drivers behind fibril formation, likely due to the high
flexibility that they introduce in the molecular structure. If
either of these is substituted by glyphosate, fibril
formation would be impaired, due to the decreased
flexibility. Remarkably, although replacement of these
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JBPC Vol. 16 (2016)
glycines with alanine interfered with aggregate formation,
it produced a higher concentration of a soluble non-
fibrillar form which was, however, extremely neurotoxic
[184]. Alanine has an additional methyl group, which
makes it a bulkier molecule than glycine, restricting
flexibility of the assembled protein. Glyphosate
substitution for glycine would be expected to be even
more disruptive than alanine, given its additional
methylphosphonyl group. The lack of flexibility to
organize the hydrophobic unit into a fibril will favour the
toxic soluble form of the peptide. Furthermore, glyphosate
can be expected to resist enzymatic degradation, and
glyphosate-containing peptoids would also be resistant to
proteolysis, in both cases due mainly to the highly stable
C–P bond [188].
5.2 Alzheimer’s disease, prions and ββ
ββ
β-amyloid
Alzheimer’s disease is the most common form of
dementia, accounting for 60% to 80% of all cases [189].
Worldwide, the prevalence of dementia was more than
35 million in 2010, and projected to be more than 65 million
by 2030 and 115 million by 2050 [190]. The incidence of
Alzheimer’s disease is increasing at an alarming rate in
the United States, in step with the dramatic rise in the use
of glyphosate on corn, soy and wheat crops [30]. β-amyloid
(Aβ) is now well established as a causal factor in Alzheimer’s
disease, although the mechanism of toxicity remains
controversial [191]. The Aβ that accumulates in the
Alzheimer’s brain consists of deposited insoluble fibrillar
components, monomers, and soluble oligomers, the latter
being the most toxic form. The levels of the monomer and
the deposited precipitates are orders of magnitude
greater than the levels of the toxic soluble oligomers,
which are known to cause both acute synaptotoxicity and
neurodegeneration [190]. The pharmaceutical industry
has developed immunotherapies that target Aβ, but none
of them are specific to the toxic soluble form, and this
likely explains their lack of efficacy [192]. The challenge
to the industry is to develop a drug that uniquely targets
the soluble oligomers.
Growing evidence supports the concept that soluble
non-fibrillar forms of Aβ are the most toxic, and their
toxicity can be mimicked by a synthetic peptide containing
the first 42 residues (Aβ42) [193]. Interestingly, Aβ has a
GXXXG domain with conserved glycines at positions
G29 and G33 [194]. Substitution of alanine in place of
glycine at residues G29 and/or G33 led to an attenuation
of dimerization, and specifically increased the formation
of Aβ38 and shorter species at the expense of Aβ42.
Munter et al. argued that the glycines promote
dimerization and that this impedes access of proteases to
the molecule, resulting in the survival of the longer peptide
chain. However, it is extremely unlikely that a highly
conserved element in the protein could be responsible for
disease. An alternative thought is that glyphosate substitutes
for glycine, increasing solubility and preventing
proteolysis. This is in line with work that has shown that
aminopeptidases can be disrupted by methylphosphonic
acid [10]. It can be envisioned that the presence of
glyphosate in place of glycine upstream interferes with
the stripping off of residues 41 and 42 by γ-secretase,
leaving behind a soluble and damaging Aβ42 peptide.
Magnesium deficiency has been linked to Alzheimer’s
disease [195, 196], and in vitro studies have shown that
low magnesium leads to increased production of Aβ
[197]. Glyphosate’s chelation of +2 cations can be
expected to deplete magnesium availability, and studies on
soy have shown that glyphosate interferes with magnesium
uptake in plants [198, 199]. The effect of low magnesium
will work synergistically with glyphosate’s inclusion in the
Aβ peptide to induce Alzheimer’s disease (AD).
Bush, Cherny and others note that zinc, copper and
iron accumulate in brain plaques [200–204]. Aβ is a Zn
and Cu metalloprotein, and zinc has been shown to induce
amyloid formation in Aβ [200]. Glyphosate strongly
chelates Cu, as well as Zn, and ferrous iron, Fe2+, which,
as Monsanto’s John E. Franz notes, quickly oxidizes to
the ferric form, Fe3+. Metal chelate formation constants
show strong binding potential for these elements at 11.9,
18.2 and 6.9 for Cu, Zn and Fe respectively, as compared
to the parent amino acid glycine at 8.6, 5.4 and 4.3
respectively. Maynard et al. (2005) assert: “Aβ and APP
(amyloid precursor protein) expression have both been
shown to decrease brain copper (Cu) levels, whereas
increasing brain Cu availability results in decreased levels
of Aβ and amyloid plaque formation in transgenic mice.
... Interestingly, the highest levels of free or synaptic Zn
are found in cortex and hippocampus, the regions most
affected in AD. Zn2+ reuptake after synaptic release is a
rapid, energy-dependent process. Hence, energy
depletion could cause a pooling of extracellular Zn2+,
contributing to Aβ deposition” [203]. Glyphosate’s
disruption of COX could impair energy supplies, leading to
excess Zn2+ accumulation. Religa et al. show that zinc
levels rise with tissue amyloid levels and “were
significantly elevated in the most severely demented
cases (CDR 4 to 5) and in cases that had an amyloid
burden greater than 8 plaques/mm2. Levels of other
metals did not differ between groups.” They concluded
that the zinc accumulation is dominant in cases of
advanced Alzheimer’s disease and linked to brain
amyloid peptide accumulation as well as to the severity of
the disease [204]. Such a pairing of these elements with
the amino acid glyphosate in amyloid protein would likely
24 A. Samsel and S. Seneff Glyphosate pathways to modern diseases V
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JBPC Vol. 16 (2016)
form misfolded proteins as well as insoluble plaques due
to the known resistance of the analogue to proteolysis.
Because of its small ionic radius and strong positive
charges, aluminum firmly binds to metal-binding and
phosphorylated amino acids, acting as a cross-linker by
binding multiple amino acids simultaneously [205], which
can cause the oligomerization of proteins, inhibiting their
degradation by proteases. This is believed to be a
mechanism for the neurofibrillary pathology of
phosphorylated tau protein [206, 207]. We have already
established that glyphosate likely induces excess protein
phosphorylation due to its excitatory effects on kinases
and inhibitory effect on phosphatases. However,
glyphosate itself also binds aluminum, particularly through
oligomeric complexation of an aluminum ion [208]. Thus,
two molecules of a peptoid/peptide, both of which contain
glyphosate, will likely become linked together via an
aluminum ligand binding two embedded glyphosate
residues, one in each peptide. This would almost surely
lead to impaired protein degradation and accumulation of
fibrils. In vitro studies have shown that soluble dimeric
and oligomeric forms of Aβ are more toxic than
monomeric Aβ [209, 210].
Increasingly, prions are suspected of playing a rôle in
Alzheimer’s disease. A recent, well-designed study has
demonstrated that a triad formed from amyloid-β, PrPC
and a metabolic glutamate receptor is critical for the
disruption of synaptic plasticity by the soluble non-fibrillar
forms of Aβ [211]. High affinity binding of Aβ to PrP has
been localized to the region of PrP from residue 91 to
residue 119 [212]; within this region, residues 114 and 119
are the two conserved glycines in PrP [184].
5.3 Cataracts and Alzheimer’s disease
Crystallin is the dominant protein found in the lens of the
eye. Cataract formation is the result of amyloid protein
aggregation from crystallins, which results in insoluble β-
amyloid deposits in the lens [213]. Post-mortem studies
on Alzheimer’s patients revealed that Aβ is also present
in the cytosol of cells from the lenses of people with
Alzheimer’s disease and that it is associated with
cataracts [214]. In fact, amyloid plaques in cataracts and
in the brain in Alzheimer’s patients were identical.
Furthermore, α-B-crystallin is found in association with
brain plaques and fibrillary tangles in Alzheimer’s,
Creutzfeldt-Jakob and Parkinson’s diseases.
An increase in phosphorylation of crystallin is linked
to increased cataract risk [215]. Such an increase can be
expected in the context of hyperactive kinases and
inhibited phosphatases, such as is expected with
glyphosate insertion in place of glycine in these
molecules. Furthermore, a single mutation of the
conserved glycine-98 residue of crystallin to arginine
results in a defective form of the protein that lacks
chaperone function, and is susceptible to heat-induced
aggregation [216]. This mutation is also linked to
increased risk of cataracts. The α-crystallins in particular
play an important rôle in chaperoning crystallins to
prevent protein aggregation and precipitation. Thus, it
appears that alterations to glycine residues can play a rôle
in cataracts that is completely analogous to the rôle they
play in Alzheimer’s disease, and the two conditions are
closely linked.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, given these cataract risk
factors linked to defective crystallin, Monsanto’s own
early rodent studies found a link between glyphosate
exposure and cataract formation [29]. Monsanto’s 1990
(Stout & Ruecker) chronic rat exposure study found
significant incidence of y-sutures and other ophthalmic
degenerative lens changes caused by glyphosate. The
pathologist for the study, Dr Lionel Rubin, noted in his
ophthalmoscopic examination report that: “There appears
to be a dose-related occurrence of cataract affecting
male group M3. The type of cataract affecting this group
is the diffuse posterior sub-capsular type and to a lesser
extent, anterior polar and sutural types.” Displacement of
pupils and ocular opacities in the presence of glyphosate
was also noted in 1983 by Knezevich and Hogan [29].
5.4 αα
αα
α-Synuclein and Parkinson’s disease
A 35-amino-acid peptide was isolated from the insoluble
core of Alzheimer’s disease amyloid plaque, and was
found to be a fragment of α-synuclein, a neuronal protein
of unknown function. This fragment had a striking
sequence similarity with the carboxyl terminal of Aβ, as
well as a region of PrP implicated in amyloid formation
[217]. α-synuclein aggregates are found in association
with Lewy bodies present in Parkinson’s disease
patients, and is also linked to dementia and multiple
system atrophy [218, 219]. A novel ELISA test has been
developed that detects only oligomeric soluble aggregates
of α-synuclein in the blood. It was shown that 52% of
Parkinson’s disease patients tested positive as against
only 15% of controls [220]. A 9-residue sequence,
66VGGAVVTGV74, containing three glycine residues, has
been shown to be crucial for the fibrillization and cytotoxicity
of α-synuclein [221]. Fibrillization and cell toxicity are
completely eliminated when this sequence is deleted.
5.5 TDP-43 and ALS
Transactive response DNA binding protein 43 (TDP-43)
is a transcriptional repressor that binds both DNA and
RNA, and has multiple other functions, including pre-
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mRNA splicing and translational regulation. Exon 6 of
TDP-43 encodes a C-terminal glycine-rich domain
where multiple missense mutations have been implicated
in association with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS)
and frontotemporal lobar degeneration (FTLD), a
subtype of dementia [222]. TDP-43 is now considered to
be the signature class of inclusional lesions for sporadic
ALS. TDP-43 is also recognized for its ability to repress
HIV transcription [223].
The C-terminus of TDP-43 bears sequence
similarity to prion proteins. Synthetic peptides near
residue 315 form amyloid fibrils in vitro and cause
cultured neuronal death [224]. Accumulation of protease-
resistant fragments may spread the disease phenotype
among neighbouring neurons, similar to the pathology
associated with prion diseases.
TDP-43 is a member of a class of ribonucleoproteins
known as 2XRBD-Gly proteins. The class share the
common feature of a glycine-rich C-terminus that
probably serves a similar function in all the members of
the class. Among 53 unrelated sporadic or familiar ALS
cases, two of whom suffered from concurrent FTLD,
29 different missense mutations in TDP-43 have been
reported [222]. All but one of them occurred in the C-
terminal glycine-rich domain of exon 6. The subset of
these mutations that involve a substitution for glycine are
concentrated in the region between residue 275 and 310,
the most glycine-dense region of the C-terminus. Thus,
replacing glycine with any other amino acid increases risk
to ALS. Non-genetic replacement with glyphosate can be
expected to have a similar outcome.
About 20% of patients with familial ALS have
mutations in Cu,Zn superoxide dismutase (SOD). One of
the more common mutations found is a substitution of
alanine in place of glycine at gly93, which introduces a
modest gain of function [225]. Although this change
appears to have little effect on enzyme activity,
transgenic mice with this genetic mutation become
paralysed in one or more limbs as a result of motor
neuron loss in the spinal cord and do not live beyond five
or six months. Clearly, substitution of a bulkier molecule
in place of glycine disrupts the function of the enzyme in
ways that are not yet understood.
6. MICROBIOME DISRUPTION AND IMMUNE SYSTEM
IMPAIRMENT
In this section we discuss several examples of proteins
that play a rôle either in maintaining the health of the gut
microbiome or in human defence against microbial
infection. In each case, conserved glycines are essential
for protein function. We begin with a section on the
disruption by glyphosate of PEP carboxylase, which has
major impact on microbial health, as this enzyme is
central to both carbon fixation and nitrogen fixation. The
next section describes glycine riboswitches and their rôle
in the metabolization of glycine in the medium via the
glycine cleavage system. This is important both to detoxify
glycine and to supply methyl groups for one-carbon
metabolism. Antimicrobial peptides such as α-defensin
are important for human immune function, and these
proteins contain conserved glycines. Finally, HIV-AIDS
infection is linked to impaired phosphatase activity,
particularly a constitutively expressed tyrosine phos-
phatase that is highly expressed in T-cells.
6.1 Nitrogen fixation and PEP carboxylase
Mung beans exposed to glyphosate at levels appropriate
for weed control show reduced fixation of nitrogen into
organic matter [226]. Nitrogenase, an essential enzyme
in plants for nitrogen fixation, converts nitrogen gas to
ammonia, which is then conjugated with glutamate to
produce glutamine. A study on lupins showed that
glyphosate exposure, even at sublethal levels, severely
inhibited nitrogenase activity, resulting in a decrease in
starch content and an increase in sucrose content. The
practice of using glyphosate as a pre-harvest ripener in
sugar cane to increase yield exploits this property of
increased sucrose production [227]. The mechanism was
traced to inhibition of phosphoenol pyruvate carboxylase
(PEPC), subsequent to accumulation of shikimate via
blockage of the shikimate pathway [228]. PEPC plays an
essential rôle in the incorporation of both CO2 and
nitrogen into plants [229, 230].
PEPC’s regulation is controlled by levels of
shikimate rather than through product inhibition. Since
PEP is the input to both PEPC and 5-enolpyru-
vylshikimic-3-phosphate synthase (EPSPS), the step in
the shikimate pathway that glyphosate disrupts, PEP
accumulates at ever greater levels while both the
carboxylase pathway and the shikimate pathway are
blocked. Most of the carbohydrate pool is then exhausted
through conversion to shikimate, acting as a metabolic
sink. Shikimate accumulates to very high levels due to
glyphosate’s inhibition of EPSPS, while the synthesis of
aromatic amino acids, normally derived from shikimate, is
blocked.
At the extreme C-terminus of PEPC there is an
invariant glycine residue which plays an essential rôle in
enzyme activity [231]. Even the conservative replacement
with alanine (one extra methyl group) leads to loss of
function both in vivo and in vitro, with an experimentally
demonstrated drop to only 23% of the wild type activity
level in sorghum [231]. In experiments on E. coli,
perturbation of the terminal gly-961 by either
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JBPC Vol. 16 (2016)
conservative neutral substitution with alanine or valine or
even by specific deletion did not seem to cause any
apparent harmful effects. However, replacement with a
negatively charged amino acid such as aspartate resulted
in a complete shutdown of enzyme activity. The authors
wrote: “PEPC appears to not tolerate additional negative
charge at its extreme C-terminus beyond that of the main
chain free CO2 group.”
Glyphosate substitution would of course represent
the introduction of additional negative charge. Thus, it
seems almost certain that glyphosate substitution for
glycine at this conserved terminal site would severely
inhibit the enzyme’s activity, beyond any inhibition
already induced by the build-up of shikimate. This offers
a further explanation for the empirically observed
suppression of PEPC by glyphosate, and it also suggests
that glyphosate disrupts nitrogen fixation [232].
6.2 Glycine riboswitches
Glycine is both essential and toxic to bacteria. It is well
known that glycine inhibits bacterial growth [233–236],
by substituting for alanine into peptidoglycan precursors
[237–239]. Glycine-containing precursors are poor
substrates for peptidoglycan biosynthesis enzymes as
well as for the transpeptidation reaction, leading to both a
deficiency in muropeptides and a high percentage of
muropeptides that are not cross-linked. These
modifications to the cell wall severely restrict growth.
As a consequence of glycine’s toxicity, it is important
for bacteria to be able to quickly break glycine down into
basic building blocks. Oxidative cleavage to CO2,+
4
NH
and a methyl group is carried out by the glycine cleavage
system (GCS), and the methyl group becomes a major
source for one-carbon metabolism, beginning with the
conversion of tetrahydrofolate (THF) to methylene-THF
[237], which is then used to biosynthesize various cellular
compounds, including, importantly, purines and
methionine. The GCS also produces NADH in the
oxidative cleavage step, which yields energy through the
electron transport system. As well the GCS is the most
prominent pathway for serine and glycine catabolism in
humans [240]. Mutations in GCS-encoding genes are
linked to defects in neural tube development, causing
spina bifida and anencephaly [241, 242, 243].
Riboswitches are small non-coding RNA segments
typically located in the 5' untranslated regions (UTRs) of
bacterial mRNAs, and they serve as both sensors of
cellular metabolites and effectors of regulatory
responses. Studies have revealed the presence of glycine
riboswitches in the 5' UTRs of the enzymes involved in
the GCS [244]. These riboswitches bind directly to
glycine and turn on the genes for transcription of
enzymes needed to metabolize it. In this way, glycine is
quickly cleared and put to good use, fueling the electron
transport chain and the one-carbon metabolism
pathways. Glycine is highly toxic to mutants missing
these riboswitch regions; a medium containing only 1%
glycine severely restricts their growth [237].
Glyphosate is a patented antimicrobial agent, and its
toxicity to humans has been attributed in part to its adverse
effect on the microbiome [26]. In addition to other actions
such as metal chelation and inhibition of the shikimate
pathway, glyphosate, acting as a glycine analogue, disrupts
the glycine regulatory system and cell wall construction.
Glyphosate perhaps, like glycine, substitutes for alanine in
the peptidoglycans. Glyphosate likely also binds to the
glycine riboswitches, acting as a glycine analogue, and it
could interfere with the signaling mechanism due to its
altered structure and negative charge.
6.3 αα
αα
α-Defensin and antimicrobial peptides
Human α-defensins are important members of a broad
class of antimicrobial peptides that are found throughout
the tree of life [245, 246]. All of the human α-defensins,
although their molecular structures are quite variable,
contain a conserved glycine, gly17, which is part of a
β-bulge structure. Gly17 is in fact the only non-cysteine
residue that is invariant in α-defensins. Gly17 is part of a
larger structural motif known as the γ-core, which is
present across many classes of antimicrobial peptides.
When other amino acids are substituted for gly17,
dimerization is impaired, and this disrupts the ability to
self-associate, inhibit anthrax lethal factor, and kill
bacteria [247].
Even the conservative substitution of L-alanine for
glycine inhibits protein function. Bulkier hydrophobic side
chains are likely to create steric clashes, a polar side chain
might introduce hydrogen bonds, and a charged side chain
might invite electrostatic attraction or repulsion [247].
Thus the methylphosphonyl group in glyphosate in place
of the conserved glycine is likely to have a major negative
impact on the protein’s effectiveness against microbes.
6.4 HIV-AIDS
Protein tyrosine kinases (PTKs), acting in concert with
protein tyrosine phosphatases (PTPases), control levels
of cellular protein tyrosine phosphorylation. Changes in
tyrosine kinase and phosphatase activity are implicated in
numerous human diseases, including cancer, diabetes and
pathogen infectivity [248].
Impaired phosphatase activity due to disruption of a
conserved glycine may play a rôle in increasing HIV
infectivity. c-Jun N-terminal kinases (JNKs) are signaling
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JBPC Vol. 16 (2016)
kinases that respond to mitogen-activated protein (MAP)
kinase signaling and regulate many cellular activities.
JNKs are activated through dual phosphorylation of
threonine and tyrosine residues, and inactivated by
matched phosphatases [249]. JNK activation is
implicated in HIV infections. Quiescent (resting) human
peripheral blood T lymphocytes do not support efficient
HIV infection, both because reverse transcription takes
longer and because of impaired integration of the viral
complementary DNA [250]. Cellular JNK is only expressed
following activation, and it regulates permissiveness to
HIV-1 infection. In JNK-activated T lymphocytes, viral
integrase is phosphorylated by JNK on a highly conserved
serine residue in its core domain. This modification is
required for efficient HIV-1 integration and infection. As
a consequence, it is mainly the activated lymphocytes
that are infected.
A dual-specificity PTK that can also dephosphorylate
threonine/serine residues is human tyrosine phosphatase
vaccinia H1-related (VHR). This phosphatase has special
significance because it is highly expressed in T-cells, and
it is expressed constitutively rather than in response to a
signaling cascade [130]. VHR has a conserved glycine
residue within the protein tyrosine phosphatase (PTP)
loop, which maintains its flexibility and is essential for
substrate binding and enzymatic activity [251].
Substitution of either proline or alanine for the conserved
G127 residue resulted in mutants with a decrease in
catalytic activity of about 400-fold, and the Ki value was
increased by 38-fold with alanine and 19-fold with
proline [130].
VHR may play a significant rôle in protection from
HIV infection due to its constitutive expression in T-cells
[252]. VHR is a negative regulator of the Erk and JNK
pathways in T-cells. Only constitutively expressed
enzymes are present in the early phase immediately
following MAP kinase activation. VHR is the only known
MAP kinase-specific phosphatase that is constitutively
expressed in lymphocytes. It can thus immediately
dephosphorylate activated JNK and in this way protect
from HIV infection.
It is likely that glyphosate’s disruption of VHR and
other protein phosphatases with conserved glycines has
implications far beyond HIV infection, since protein
phosphorylation status plays such an important rôle in
signaling cascades. In fact, the combination of activation
of kinases and suppression of phosphatases that can
plausibly be induced through glyphosate’s displacement
of conserved glycines in the enzymes can be predicted to
lead to an overabundance of phosphorylated molecules,
systemically. This may contribute to the recent
antiphospholipid syndrome epidemic. It may also play a
rôle in cancer: tyrosine kinase inhibitors are often used to
treat cancers with aberrant tyrosine kinase receptor
activity [253].
7. EFFECTS ON SPECIFIC ORGANS
In this section we examine proteins with conserved
glycines, where substitution with glyphosate can explain
porphyrias and liver disease, renal failure due to impaired
iron uptake (leading to simultaneous iron toxicity and iron
deficiency), disruption of cytochrome P450 enzymes and
glaucoma, impaired collagen function leading to osteoporosis
and increased risk to bone fracture, and malignancy in
non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma due to defective binding of
tumour cells to dendritic cells.
7.1 Porphyrias and liver disease
Gly232 is a strictly conserved residue in the enzyme
protoporphyrinogen oxidase (PPOX). A paper from 1997
discussed three patients with a missense point mutation
substituting arginine in place of this glycine residue. This
led to a deficiency in PPOX activity, resulting in impaired
haem synthesis and variegate porphyria [254].
In a mouse model of porphyria, it was shown that
mice developed fatty liver disease due to the accumula-
tion of protoporphyrin in the liver and resulting induction
of oxidative stress. The model involved excessive
inhibition of KEAP1-mediated Nrf2 degradation, resulting
in upregulation of the expression of keratin and the
appearance of keratin-rich Mallory–Denk bodies [111].
It seems possible that, in humans, glyphosate substitu-
tion for glycine in PPOX would lead to a non-genetic
expression of porphyria, and glyphosate substitution for
glycine in KEAP1 would interfere with KEAP1’s ability
to suppress the overexpression of Nrf2. This model would
explain protoporphyrin-induced fatty liver disease in the
context of glyphosate exposure, progressing to cholelithiasis,
end-stage liver disease and liver failure [255].
7.2 Siderophores and renal failure
Siderophores are small iron-chelating compounds secreted
by microörganisms as a mechanism to solubilize insoluble
ferric iron compounds [256]. The class of enzymes that
imports these siderophores is important both for iron
uptake and for uptake of vitamin B12. These enzymes
contain two conserved glycines, and these are the only
invariant residues found in every enzyme in this family of
iron transport proteins [257]. Substitution of alanine for
glycine was better tolerated than substitution of larger
amino acids. This suggests that glyphosate substitution
would induce impaired iron uptake as well as impaired
vitamin B12 uptake in E. coli and other microbes.
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JBPC Vol. 16 (2016)
In Bacillus subtilis, an important microbe in the
human micriobiome, iron deprivation induces upregulation
of all the enzymes involved in the synthesis of the iron
siderophore, bacillibactin [258], including the enzymes
needed to synthesize glycine, a precursor to bacillibactin.
Glyphosate has been shown to inhibit growth in tumour
cells, and the proposed mechanism was inhibition of
glycine synthesis from serine, through its action as a
glycine analogue [17]. Thus, it can be expected that both
siderophore synthesis and iron-loaded siderophore uptake
will be impaired in the presence of glyphosate. Glyphosate
also chelates iron, making it unavailable.
In our previous work [29] we discussed details of a
Monsanto study by Lankas and Hogan (1981), which
found microscopic changes of the kidney associated with
chronic progressive nephropathy. Focal tubular
hyperplasia and focal tubular dilation, which precede
acute tubular necrosis and nephrosis, were detailed.
Acute tubular necrosis (ATN) is a life-threatening
syndrome caused by impaired function of the proximal
tubule of the kidney [259–261]. This is the form of kidney
failure that characterizes the alarming epidemic of kidney
disease among agricultural workers in Sri Lanka and
elsewhere, which has been linked to glyphosate working
synergistically with toxic metals [262]. It has been found
through experiments in mice that defective iron uptake
from siderophores in the proximal renal tubule can cause
simultaneous iron deficiency and iron toxicity, explaining
the disease process [263]. Unbound iron forms reactive
ferryl or perferryl species [264] which can damage lipids,
nucleotides and the DNA backbone [265, 266].
Remarkably, Mori et al. [263] showed that the proximal
tubules markedly upregulate synthesis of lipocalin, a
protein that specifically functions to take up microbial
siderophores bound to iron, under stress conditions. In
fact, the tubules appear to rely on microbial siderophores
to supply their iron. A GXW motif is conserved in all
members of the lipocalin family [267]. Hence, it can be
expected that impaired siderophore synthesis by
microbes, combined with impaired uptake in the renal
tubules due to glyphosate substituting for conserved
glycines in lipocalin, can lead to destructive oxidative
damage by free iron paradoxically combined with iron
deficiency. Because several enzymes involved in amino
acid biosynthesis are iron-dependent, iron deficiency
causes amino acid starvation [258], further stressing the
renal tubules.
Transferrin-based iron uptake is likely to also be
disrupted by glyphosate, and this can help explain the
worldwide iron deficiency anemia epidemic, linked to
both impaired brain development [268] and obesity [269].
A recent study investigated the rôle of the conserved
sequence of four glycines in the protein responsible for
uptake of iron from human transferrin in the infective
agent, Neisseria gonorrhoeae [270]. The four glycines
follow a hydrophobic lipid anchor region that secures the
molecule in the membrane. While deletion of the glycines
did not prevent anchoring in the membrane, it did
interfere with the uptake of iron from transferrin,
suggesting impairment of the flexibility needed to form the
iron chamber, which allows for efficient iron internal-
ization through the β-barrel. It can be anticipated that this
protein and others similarly designed in other species,
concerned with mineral uptake, would be impaired by
glyphosate substitution for conserved glycines.1
7.3 Cytochrome P450 enzymes and glaucoma
Studies on rats have shown that glyphosate suppresses
the activity of cytochrome P450 enzymes (CYPs) in the
liver [26, 273]. In a hinge region of CYP1B1, characteristic
of microsomal CYPs, a proline- and glycine-rich region
follows the N-terminal transmembrane domain. It has
been proposed that the proline-proline-glycine-proline
motif joins the membrane-binding N-terminus to the
globular region of the P450 protein [274]. The hinge
permits flexibility between the membrane-spanning
domain and the cytoplasmic portion of the molecule
[275]. Mutations in the hinge regions interfere with the
proper folding and haem-binding of CYPs [275, 276].
Mutations in CYP1B1 have been closely linked to
primary congenital glaucoma [277, 278]. In a study
involving 24 Saudi Arabian families, the most common
mutation was a G A transformation at nucleotide 3987,
occurring in 78% of the chromosomes analysed [277].
This results in substitution of glutamate for gly61 in the
hinge region. Gly61 is one of the most highly conserved
residues in this region.
Another study involving five families with primary
congenital glaucoma in Saudi Arabia identified 2 out of 8
missense mutations that involved glycine being replaced
by another amino acid, one being the gly61 glu mutation
[278]. The second mutation involved a substitution of
tryptophan for glycine in helix J in the 5' end of exon 3,
part of the core structure of the enzyme. Both mutations
were associated exclusively with the glaucoma phenotypic
expression. It is possible that glyphosate substitution for
glycine at these two conserved residues contributes to
1A pattern of glycine-rich regions near hydrophobic sequences occurs repeatedly in protein design, and is probably necessary
for flexibility near the membrane anchor region [271, 272].
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JBPC Vol. 16 (2016)
glyphosate’s observed suppression of CYP enzyme
activity, more generally.
7.4 Collagen, bone fractures and osteoporosis
Glycine is the most common amino acid in collagen,
making up one third of the total amino acid residues in the
molecule. Over 10% of the molecule consists of a helical
region, where each coil in the triple helix is made up of
glycine-led triplets of the form (gly-2-3)n [279]. Proline
and hydroxyproline are also highly overrepresented in
collagen, and they appear in over half of the glycine-led
triplets. Triple helix formation is essential for the transport
of type I procollagen out of the ER for secretion to form
extracellular matrix fibrils to support mineral deposition in
bone [280].
Osteogenesis imperfecta (OI), which is also known
as brittle bone disease, is a congenital bone disorder
characterized by a strong predisposition towards bone
fractures. The condition is caused by genetic mutations in
collagen, mainly collagen I. Overwhelmingly, these
mutations concern substitutions for glycine in the glycine
triplet regions [281–283]. One third of the glycine
mutations that occur in the alpha chain of collagen 1 are
lethal, especially when the substituting amino acid is
electrostatically charged or has a side branch [284]. The
lethal regions align with proteoglycan binding sites,
suggesting impaired proteoglycan attachment. The
majority of the substitutions involve glycine residues in
the triple helical domain. Mutations have been found that
account for all of the possible amino acid substitutions for
glycine, except the stop codon, that can be produced by
changing just one nucleotide in the DNA code for glycine.
A case of a male child in which glycine was replaced
by tryptophan (the only case known for this substitution)
in a residue on the α2 chain demonstrated a severe
phenotype characterized by numerous fractures already
present at birth, and numerous additional fractures
occurring postnatally. By the age of 9 years his height
was below the 3rd percentile, he suffered from
generalized osteoporosis, and had a large skull, thin ribs, a
severely deformed pelvis, and markedly deformed long
bones [283]. It is thus likely that random replacements of
any of the multiple glycine molecules in collagen with
glyphosate would also disrupt collagen’s structure,
leading to osteoporosis as well as a sensitivity to bone
fractures, which might in part explain “shaken baby
syndrome” [285]. Osteoporosis is also a modern
epidemic [286]: As of 2003, osteoporosis affected one in
three women and one in twelve men worldwide [287].
We are witnessing an increase in age-specific fracture
rates due to an unknown aetiology.
7.5 Non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma
Non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma (NHL) has been linked to
glyphosate in occupational exposure studies [288, 289].
The tumour cells of NHL patients appear to be neoplastic
versions of activated B cells, in that they both express
very late antigen-4 (VLA-4), which binds to vascular cell
adhesion molecule-I (VCAM-1) expressed on follicular
dendritic cells, and in this way traps the dendritic cells.
This binding mechanism is central to the generation of
the immune response, and it influences activation and
proliferation of immune cells. Blocking studies demonstrated
that the binding of follicular lymphoma cells to malignant
follicles was inhibited with anti-VLA-4 and anti-VCAM-1
antibodies [290]. The VLA-4 from malignant cells studied
from different patient populations demonstrated variable
and weakened ability to bind to VCAM-1, and it was
proposed that defective binding might be the factor that
induces malignancy. The authors suggested that lower
adhesive capacity might explain the tendency of neoplastic
cells to disperse: “Therefore, a deregulated or dysfunctional
VLA-4:VCAM-1 interaction in follicular NHL may be
similarly important to the proliferation of the neoplastic
cells” [290].
VLA-4 is required for normal development of both
T- and B-cells in the bone marrow, in part by regulating
the balance between proliferation and differentiation of
haematopoietic progenitors [291]. It can therefore be
expected that impaired function would lead to pathologies
such as immune dysfunction and cancer. Two conserved
glycine residues at positions 130 and 190 are essential for
its adhesive activity [292]. Glyphosate’s link to NHL may
therefore be explained through substitution of glyphosate
for glycine at one or both of these conserved residues.
8. NEURAL TUBE DEFECTS AND AUTISM
Glyphosate can penetrate past the placenta [293]. Alarming
increases in birth defects such as microcephaly,
anencephaly, cleft palates and other facial defects have
been found in regions of South America and Paraguay
where glyphosate is used extensively on core crops [294,
295]. The US Centers for Disease Control have reported
on an excessive number of anencephaly births in Yakima
(Washington), at four times the national average rate
[296]. This increase coincided with a large increase in the
use of glyphosate to control waterway weeds.
A recent study by Roy et al. on zebrafish embryos
revealed that glyphosate causes microcephaly in
zebrafish, and that the forebrain and midbrain are
affected (but the hindbrain was spared) [297]. A US-
based study found that the cerebellum is frequently
disproportionately large in human microcephaly,
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JBPC Vol. 16 (2016)
particularly in the more severe cases, reflecting a larger
effect on the forebrain compared to the hindbrain [298].
A study on tadpoles conducted by Carrasco et al.
involved dilutions of 1/500,000 of glyphosate formula-
tions. [299]. They showed several pathologies in
development that relate to neural tube defects, including a
reduction in head size, cyclopia, reduction of the neural
crest territory at neurula stages, and craniofacial
malformations. They suggested excess retinoic acid as
the mechanism of toxicity. However, we suspect that both
impaired DNA repair mechanisms and impaired folate
one-carbon metabolism (FOCM) may also play a rôle.
Polynucleotide kinase 3-phosphatase (PNKP) plays
an important rôle in DNA repair. As its name implies, it
is both a phosphatase and a kinase, and therefore can be
expected to be disrupted by glyphosate in both of its
enzymatic rôles. Mutations in PNKP have been shown
to cause microcephaly, seizures and defects in DNA
repair [300, 301].
Disrupted FOCM is an established risk factor for
impaired neural tube closure leading to spina bifida and
anencephaly [302, 241, 242]. Low maternal folate during
the first trimester has been linked to increased risk to
spina bifida, and this has inspired several governments to
implement a folic acid enrichment programme for staple
foods such as wheat-based products, although it is unclear
whether the benefits of such programmes outweigh the
risks [303]. Folate is synthesized from chorismate in both
plants and gut microbes; chorismate is a product of the
shikimate pathway that glyphosate disrupts [304].
FOCM operates in both the cytosol and the
mitochondria. In the mitochondria, the reaction produces
formate, a precursor to both purine synthesis and
methyltetrahydrofolate, which plays an essential rôle in
methylation pathways [302]. Impaired methylation
capacity in the brain has been linked to autism [305, 306].
We mentioned the glycine cleavage system in the
section on glycine riboswitches, where we suggested that
impaired methylation capacity and glycine toxicity could
arise due to glyphosate’s disruption of this system in the
gut microbes. An important regulatory enzyme in the
GCS is glycine decarboxylase (GLDC). The lysine
residue in human GLDC that binds to pyridoxal phosphate
is very near a glycine-rich region that is essential for
enzyme activity [307]. Embedded in a peptide sequence
that is rich in β-turns and random coils, the glycine-rich
region maintains shape and flexibility of the active site.
A study on mice with a deficiency in GLDC
demonstrated two distinct outcomes: neural tube defects;
and hydrocephalus with enlarged ventricles and non-ketotic
hyperglycinaemia [243]. Autism, attention-deficit
hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and schizophrenia have
all been linked to enlargement of the ventricles in the
brain [308]. Children with prenatal mild ventriculomegaly
had significantly larger cortical grey matter than controls
and a large ratio of grey matter to white matter, both of
which are features of autism [309]. Whole-genome
sequencing applied to ASD families revealed links between
autism and defective versions of the aminomethyl
transferase gene (AMT) [310], another gene involved in
glycine cleavage and linked to nonketotic hyperglycinaemia
[311]. A case study concerned a boy with transient
neonatal nonketotic hyperglycinaemia and autism [312].
Thus, it appears that autism, hyperglycinaemia and neural
tube defects are all tied to impaired glycine cleavage and
methylfolate deficiency, which can be explained by
glyphosate’s antibiotic effects as well as its interference
with glycine riboswitches and with GLDC enzymatic action.
Another decarboxylase, besides GLDC, with a
conserved active-site lysine near a glycine-rich sequence
is ornithine decarboxylase (ODC) [313]. This enzyme is
essential for the synthesis of spermidine and spermine,
which stabilize DNA structure and assist in DNA repair
mechanisms. Lack of ODC leads to apoptosis in embryonic
mice following DNA damage [314]. Seizures, which are
associated with autism [315], lead to an increased
synthesis of ODC [316]. Could this be a compensatory
reaction to diminishing activity in the context of
glyphosate substitution for glycine in the active site?
Vanishing white matter (VWM) disease is a rare
leukoencephalopathy caused by mutations in genes
encoding the five subunits of eukaryotic translation
initiation factor eIF2B [317]. In advanced cases, the
white matter in the brain almost completely disappears,
presenting a signal indicative of cerebrospinal fluid.
Symptoms can include microcephaly, impaired
swallowing, failure to thrive, epilepsy, growth retardation,
dysgenesis of the ovaries, pancreatic abnormalities,
hypoplastic kidneys, hepatosplenomegaly and cataracts,
in addition to the leukoencephalopathy [318]. Increased
levels of cerebrospinal glycine are a marker for the
disease [318, 319], which may indicate neuroexcitotoxicity.
A study of the genetic markers for several individual
cases revealed mutations localized to two distinct regions
containing highly conserved glycines [318]. One
contained a single conserved glycine and the other
exhibited the pattern GXXGXG.
The glycine receptor class (GlyRs) is a member of a
family of ligand-gated ion channels. Glycine receptor
activation is required for receptor clustering in spinal
neurons, and is important in synaptogenesis [320]. This
receptor is widely distributed in the nervous system,
particularly in the spinal cord and brainstem [321].
Glycinergic inhibition plays an important rôle in motor
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JBPC Vol. 16 (2016)
control, pain sensitization and respiratory rhythm [322]. It
has been proposed that glyphosate may interfere with
GlyR through glycine mimicry, and that this may increase
risk to autism [13].
However, glyphosate may also operate at the level
of residue substitution for glycine in the peptide sequence.
An in vitro study on the human isoform by Vandenberg et
al. has confirmed that there is a conserved glycine
residue, gly160, that forms part of the binding site and
helps maintain the tertiary structure for binding [323].
Several mutations in GlyR α1 G160 significantly
decrease the potency of glycine as an inhibitor, likely
through disruption of glycine binding within the ligand-
binding pocket [322].
9. IMPAIRED DEVELOPMENT AND INFERTILITY
A recent study by Coullery et al. has shown that
glypyhosate causes irreversible abnormal growth and
delayed development in neuronal cells taken from
embryonic rats [324]. Cells exposed to sublethal levels of
glyphosate exhibited shorter and unbranched axons and
less complex dendritic arbours compared to controls. A
deeper look into the underlying mechanism of toxicity
revealed a decrease in WNT5a signaling, as well as
downregulated Ca+2/calmodulin-dependent protein kinase II
(CaMKII) activity.
A possible mechanism by which CaMKII might be
inhibited by glyphosate is through substitution of glyphosate
for one of the highly conserved glycines near ser26.
Ser26 is situated within a conserved stretch of nine
residues (LGKGAFSVV) that constitute the upper lid of
the ATP-binding site in the canonical kinase fold [325].
An intricate control mechanism for preventing excessive
activity of this autophosphorylating enzyme involves
phosphorylation of ser26, which then interferes with ATP
binding and disrupts enzymatic activity in a feedback
control mechanism. It was shown that replacement of
serine with a negatively charged amino acid had the same
effect as phosphorylation, inhibiting enzymatic activity.
This suggests that the negative charge, repelling
phosphate, is the deactivating agent. Replacement of one
of the two nearby glycines with glyphosate would have a
similar effect, thus explaining the enzyme inhibition that
was observed in the Coullery et al. study.
Basigin, also known as extracellular matrix
metalloproteinase inducer (EMMPRIN) and as cluster of
differentiation 147 (CD147), is a member of the
immunoglobulin superfamily, with a structure resembling
the putative primordial form of this family. It plays many
rôles in the body, particularly in development. Basigin
contains a highly conserved glycine residue, gly181,
within its extracellular domain, which is crucial for
basigin-mediated signaling and chemotaxis [326]. It also
has an important protective rôle in Alzheimer’s disease,
as it suppresses the production of Aβ [327]. Mutant mice
lacking this gene showed impaired short-term memory
and latent learning, as well as greater sensitivity to
electric foot-shock [328]. Basigin is also critical in fetal
development. Embryonic mice lacking basigin develop
normally prior to implantation, but most of the embryos
die around the time of implantation [329]. The male mice
that survived into adulthood produced only a small
number of spermatids that made it past the metaphase of
the first meiosis. The female mice appeared normal but
were probably defective in the step of implantation of the
fertilized egg.
10. OTHER ENZYMES WITH CONSERVED GLYCINES
Adenosine 5-phosphosulfate kinase (APS kinase) is an
important enzyme that participates in purine, selenoamino
acid and sulfur metabolisms. In particular, it is the first
and rate-limiting enzyme in methionine synthesis by gut
microbes. Methionine is an essential amino acid in
humans, and it sits at the crossroads of the methylation
and transsulfuration pathways. Thus, we depend in part
on our microbiome to synthesize methionine from APS.
Glyphosate has been shown to deplete methionine levels
in plants, which may be due to its ability to substitute for
one or more conserved glycines in its polypeptide chain.
APS kinase has been shown to be downregulated by a
factor of –2.55 in E. coli upon exposure to glyphosate
[330]. APS synthase contains an absolutely conserved N-
terminal glycine [331].
The human equivalent of this enzyme, 3'-phospho-
adenosine 5'-phosphosulfate (PAPS) synthase, is
bifunctional—it has both a C-terminal ATP sulfurylase
domain and an N-terminal APS kinase domain, connected
by a short irregular linker [332]. The N-terminal glycine
(gly59) is the initiator of a P-loop sequence, which plays
an essential rôle in providing conformational flexibility.
When the terminal glycine was experimentally substituted
with alanine (a conservative substitution), sulfurylase
activity dropped to only 8% of the original level [331].
PAPS formation was also disrupted when either the
highly conserved gly59 or the highly conserved gly62
were substituted with alanine. The former alteration
prevented the formation of the internal APS molecule,
and the latter disrupted the final phosphorylation step. It
can be expected that the P-loop’s flexibility will also be
severely restricted with the addition of a methylphos-
phonyl group to any of the conserved glycines, as would
be the case with a substitution of glyphosate for glycine.
PAPS plays an essential rôle in activating the usually
highly inert sulfate anion to facilitate sulfoconjugation,
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JBPC Vol. 16 (2016)
important for detoxifying xenobiotics as well as sulfurylation
of sterols, polyphenols and neurotransmitters.
There are almost surely many enzymes with conserved
glycines that we have not yet identified, which are also
likely to be disrupted by glyphosate substitution for
glycine. For example, the 65-amino acid γ subunit of
Na,K-ATPase in kidney has a conserved glycine residue
at position 4 which, if mutated to arginine or lysine, leads
to an impaired ability to oligomerize [333]. This defect
causes renal hypomagnesaemia, due to impaired magne-
sium reuptake in the renal tubules [334]. Acyl phosphatase,
an active enzyme in muscles, enhances Na,K-ATPase
activity [335], and a defective form could lead to impaired
muscle function and heart failure [336]. Acylphosphatase
has six conserved glycines [22]. One of them, gly15, is
important for enzyme catalysis. The other five are
suspected to play a rôle in preventing protein aggregation.
HapR is a quorum-sensing master regulator in
Vibrio cholerae, controlling a wide range of physiological
activities. In particular, it represses biofilm development
and the production of primary virulence factors [337].
HapR has a conserved hinge glycine residue (gly39) that
regulates its DNA binding ability, which is necessary for
its regulatory control. Substitution of asparatate for gly39
renders the molecule nonfunctional.
Hydroxymethylglutaryl-coenzyme A (HMG-CoA)
reductase is the enzyme that is suppressed by statin
drugs to reduce serum cholesterol levels. The enzyme
contains a glycine-rich region in the C-terminal section of
the catalytic domain [338]. Necrotizing autoimmune
myopathy (NAM) is a newly recognized condition
characterized by idiopathic inflammatory myopathy,
associated with necrosis in myocytes despite the absence
of notable inflammation. This condition is associated with
statin drug therapy, and a notable feature is that
termination of statin therapy often does not alleviate
symptoms [339]. Increased protein synthesis of HMG
Co-A reductase can be expected following its suppressed
activity level by statin drugs, and it is also upregulated in
regenerating fibres following injury. Thus, it can be argued
that overproduction of HMG Co-A reductase provides a
greater opportunity for incorporating glyphosate into the
enzyme, displacing conserved glycines. This would result
in a malfunctioning of the enzyme and, possibly, also an
autoimmune reaction to it due to impaired ability to
metabolize damaged versions of the protein.
11. GLUFOSINATE: ANOTHER AMINO ACID ANALOGUE
Glufosinate, like glyphosate, is a broad-spectrum
herbicide that may derive most of its toxicity from the fact
that it is an amino acid analogue of glutamate [340]. In
plants it inhibits glutamine synthetase, leading to a
complete breakdown of ammonia metabolism.
Glufosinate adversely affects central nervous
system development in both mice and rats. Glufosinate
exposure to mouse embryos at different stages of
development caused great disturbances to the nervous
system [341]. Mouse embryos exposed to glufosinate at
days 8 and 9 developed hypoplasia in the forebrain and
visceral arches. Day 10 embryos exposed to glufosinate
exhibited cleft lips as well as hypoplasia, along with
significant cell death in the brain vesicle and neural tubes.
Glufosinate inhibited the differentiation of midbrain cells
in day 12 embryos.
Rats exposed to low doses of glufosinate in the first
week of life were tested at six weeks and found to have
an enhanced response to kainic acid, which stimulates
glutamate receptors in the brain [342]. Glufosinate
exposure of mouse dams has been shown to induce
autistic-like behaviour in the pups [343]. Glutamate is a major
excitatory neurotransmitter, and disrupted glutamate
activity in the brain has been linked to autism [344].
Genetic defects for the encoding of the enzyme,
asparagine synthetase, have been linked to microcephaly
[345]. Asparagine synthetase has a conserved glutamate
residue that is essential for its function [346]. There is a
conserved glutamate residue in the first transmembrane
domain in the entire family of major intrinsic protein
(MIP) channels, which includes mammalian aquaporins.
An equivalent neurogenic transmembrane protein in
Drosophila is crucial for neuroblast determination during
development [347].
Mutations in a conserved glutamate residue in the
sulfonylurea receptor can result in either hyperinsulinism
or neonatal diabetes [348]. Symptoms of neonatal
diabetes include hyperglycaemia, failure to thrive,
dehydration and ketoacidosis, which may lead to coma
[349]. An absolutely conserved glutamate (E418) in all
voltage-gated potassium channels has been shown to be
critical to control the rate of slow inactivation [350].
Glutamate plays an essential rôle in ATP hydrolysis;
DNA replication, which depends on ATP, is likely to be
impaired if glufosinate can substitute for glutamate in
peptides. The Walker B motif is a distinct sequence
pattern found in ATP-binding proteins. It includes a
conserved glutamate that is essential for ATP hydrolysis
[351]. Replication factor C is a clamp loader that assists
in the process of second-strand DNA synthesis. It has an
absolutely conserved glutamate residue in a Walker B
motif that is required for ATP-dependent ligand binding
activity [352].
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12. SUMMARIZING DISCUSSION
In this paper, we have reviewed the biological function of
a large number of proteins containing conserved glycine
residues and/or glycine-rich regions, in the light of the
concept that glyphosate could be randomly substituting
for glycine in these peptides, causing diverse negative
consequences. There is strong evidence that glyphosate’s
mechanism of action includes an ability to substitute for
glycine during protein synthesis. In fact, this can explain a
large number of known effects of glyphosate on plants,
microbes and eukaryotes, which are otherwise difficult to
explain. For example, glyphosate’s interference with
oxidative phosphorylation [82] can now be easily
understood through disruption of COX [89]. The
disruption of PEPC that leads to impaired nitrogen
fixation in plants exposed to glyphosate [226] is also
explained through glyphosate substitution of an invariant
glycine residue at the C-terminal. Glyphosate has been
shown to inhibit iron uptake, and this may be due to both
reduced synthesis of siderophores and impaired function
of transporters of iron-carrying siderophores [257]. This
may also directly explain the renal tubular disease that
has become an epidemic among agricultural workers
exposed to glyphosate [262], and which was demonstrated
in Monsanto’s own chronic long-term studies.
It is remarkable that conserved glycines are found in
several of the misfolded proteins that are considered
causal in prion diseases, Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s
diseases, and ALS [183, 184, 194, 209, 221, 222].
Substitution of glyphosate for invariant or highly conserved
glycine residues in prion proteins, Aβ, α-synuclein and
TDP-43 can explain the formation of the soluble, poorly
hydrolysable forms of these pathogenic agents that are
considered to be the most toxic species.
Prior research strongly supports the position that
glyphosate would cause excessive phosphorylation
cascade activity combined with impaired dephosphoryla-
tion capacity. This can be expected to lead to many
diseased states, including cancer, diabetes and pathogen
infectivity, particularly HIV [248], but perhaps most
significantly, lung diseases such as pulmonary oedema,
asthma and COPD [143].
There are many ways in which glyphosate substitution
for conserved glycines could affect metabolism. One is
through disruption of insulin signaling, particularly in the
glucagon-producing cells in the liver, contributing to the
recent worldwide epidemic of type 2 diabetes [80].
Another is through the disruption of glycine metabolism,
which will result in a build-up of glycine to toxic levels
while at the same time depleting the supply of methyl
groups for one-carbon metabolism. This can easily link to
spina bifida and other neural tube defects [243]. A third is
through interference with the function of COX, which
would have huge negative consequences for oxidative
phosphorylation in the mitochondria, linked to many
chronic diseases [87–89]. A fourth is through the
impaired ability to export fatty acids from adipocyte
stores, a clear path to obesity [48–50]. Impaired
arylsulfatase activity is highly disruptive, as many
biologically active molecules are sulfated during transit,
and desulfation is a necessary step for activation [180].
The ability to produce sulfate anions to populate the
extracellular matrix is also impaired, due to the fact that
eNOS, a CYP enzyme, has conserved glycines in two
regions, and their substitution by glyphosate can be
predicted to cause both impaired ability to bind to caveolin
in caveolae and impaired dimer formation [23, 167–170].
These two factors provide a plausible explanation for the
well known pathology of superoxide production by
eNOS in a “decoupled” state, which cannot be directed
as intended towards sulfate synthesis [151, 152].
It is remarkable how well the epidemic of beak
deformation in chickadees [103, 104] can be explained
through the impaired ability of KEAP1 to bind to the
cytoskeleton, leading to constitutive Nrf2 activation and
overexpression of keratin synthesis. Since sunflower
seeds in bird feeders are routinely sprayed with
glyphosate just prior to harvest, there is a straightforward
explanation for glyphosate contamination in the birds’
diet. Overexpression of keratin also explains the inclusion
bodies observed in human livers in association with fatty
liver disease.
Non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, AIDS and glaucoma are
other conditions whose potential link to glyphosate can be
explained via displaced glycine residues in the conserved
regions of various proteins [292, 290, 278, 223]. Hypothy-
roidism, pituitary disorder and adrenal insufficiency are
also all potential consequences of displaced glycine
residues. Collagen, a key protein in bones and joints, as
well as the vasculature, is rich in glycines that are
essential for the formation of cross-linkages that maintain
the strength and elastic properties of the molecule. It is
highly significant that mutations in collagen associated
with genetic disorders almost always involve glycine
residues [281–284]. This also highlights the essential rôle
that glycine molecules play in this protein.
13. CONCLUSION
In this paper, we have shown that glyphosate, as an
amino acid analogue of glycine, may be erroneously
misincorporated into polypeptide chains during protein
synthesis. The research literature documents evidence of
severe protein impairment through substitution of
conserved glycines by other amino acids. It leads to the
34 A. Samsel and S. Seneff Glyphosate pathways to modern diseases V
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JBPC Vol. 16 (2016)
disruption of function of many proteins with essential
rôles in metabolism and regulatory processes. Glyphosate
substitution for conserved glycines in essential proteins
can explain the destruction of glands and organs revealed
by Monsanto (the original patent holder)’s own studies.
Glyphosate is pervasive in the food supply, and chronic
exposure will lead to slow accumulation of damaged
proteins, systemically. Fibrillary plaques and tangles
intransigent to proteolysis may be due to glyphosate
substitution for conserved glycines, accounting for
multiple neurological diseases. Impairment in dimerization,
membrane attachment, cytoskeleton attachment and
active site flexibility are some of the defects we
anticipate. Some consequences are impaired fatty acid
release leading to obesity, impaired insulin receptor
response leading to diabetes, impaired one-carbon
metabolism leading to neural tube defects and autism,
impaired oxidative phosphorylation causing mitochondrial
disorders, impaired Nrf2 regulation leading to
hyperkeratosis and fatty liver disease, impaired cell cycle
control during DNA synthesis, impaired collagen cross-
linking, and disregulated phosphorylation cascades
leading to cancer, lung disorders, and autoimmune
diseases. These effects easily account for the multitude
of diseases and conditions whose incidence is rising in
the USA and elsewhere, in step with the rise in the use of
glyphosate on core crops. We urge regulatory agencies
worldwide to take action to remove these synthetic amino
acids not only from the food supply but from our biosphere.
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