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Globe-trotting genes

Welcome or not, modified strains pop up in crops near and far

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UC Berkeley ecologist Ignacio Chapela discusses an article about ... UC Berkeley ecologist Ignacio Chapela discusses an article about his opposition to a university alliance with a biotechnology company and the decision to deny him tenure. Renée C. Byer

Ripples in academic circles

Ever since he spoke out against his employer's alliance with a biotechnology company, life has been chaotic for Ignacio Chapela.

Chapela is an ecologist at the University of California, Berkeley. In 1998, Berkeley's Department of Plant and Microbial Biology struck a deal with a company named Novartis that gave the department $25 million and access to trade secrets. In return, the company could mine department brainpower and claim first dibs on potentially lucrative discoveries.

Chapela, a faculty representative for the college overseeing that department, denounced the partnership. With that, his anti-biotech reputation was born.

Fast forward two years. A doctoral student in Chapela's laboratory, David Quist, discovered biotech genes in native Mexican corn from the highlands of Oaxaca. The find was explosive - a snapshot of biotechnology run amok. The two scientists retested the corn repeatedly to be sure. In 2001, the prestigious journal Nature published their research.

A chorus of other scientists, including Berkeley colleagues who'd received Novartis money, roundly criticized the study, finding fault in the details. The journal subsequently disavowed the paper. No one, however, contested the underlying claim that genetically engineered genes were in Mexican corn. In anti-biotech circles, Chapela and Quist were heroes.

Meanwhile, Chapela came up for tenure. One day before Thanksgiving 2003, word came down: Tenure denied.

Was it retaliation? Or did Chapela truly fall short on his academic record? The university won't comment on personnel matters.

Regardless, Chapela's tenure fight became a symbol of a bigger fight.

In December, he hosted a program on campus, “The Pulse of Scientific Freedom in the Age of Biotechnology,” featuring himself and three other scientists who've been vilified for their controversial research. It was there, in a lecture hall filled with supporters, that Chapela first announced the outcome of his tenure review.

He spoke not of his personal grief but of a loss to UC Berkeley: “This is such a jewel of a place,” he said wistfully. “This ship is being looted and pirated left and right. We have been too much of a willing crew.”

Since then, Chapela has geared up to fight back. Though officially he's out of a job as of June 30, he's not ready to leave.

“I want to clear my name,” he said, adding, “I feel I belong here.”


Ecological promise

So far, California remains less vulnerable to gene pollution because corn and soybeans, the two major biotech crops, aren't widely grown here. But biotechnology is not standing still.

Today, about 110 new engineered crop varieties, from a new kind of seedless watermelon to insect-resistant tomatoes, are being tested in California fields. Such brave new crops offer ecological promise - farmers could spray fewer pesticides, for example - but they also pose special challenges.

A report prepared for the California Department of Food and Agriculture in 2002 said the consequences of biotechnology may take years to show up. “The benefits and risks ... have hardly been examined,” the report said.

There's one quick way to see what biotechnology could bring to California: Visit the places it is booming.

Travel through the prairies of Saskatchewan and you find that runaway biotech genes are a top environmental problem for farmers. Along gravel roads, the yellow paintbrush-like flowers of genetically modified canola sprout where they're not wanted: in fields of organic flax, organic canola and other crops.

“Listen, it's all over the country here,” said Arnold Taylor, a farmer south of Saskatoon. Taylor has given up growing organic canola because it is so easily tainted with biotech genes. “It's in the gardens. It's in the towns. It's on the roadsides. This whole countryside is contaminated.”

Swing through western Illinois, where StarLink feed corn engineered to make its own pesticide - pulled off the market four years ago after it appeared in taco shells - still shows up at harvest time, taking money out of people's pockets.

Phil Thornton, an Illinois grain elevator manager, is among those shortchanged. Last fall, DNA tests detected StarLink on one of his company's barges, a mix-up that cost him $1,000 when the corn had to be sold as animal feed because StarLink is not approved for human consumption.

“We're still keeping an eye open for it,” he said. “It could very well still be out in the country.”

Or catch a flight to Mexico, where maize first was domesticated some 6,500 years ago, where villagers still line up each day outside neighborhood mills with maize to be ground into “masa” - dough for tortillas. Mexico is the motherland of maize, the cradle of corn. Here, the mysterious appearance of a foreign crop gene is more than just an inconvenience. It is a cultural insult.

“These genes are killing our heritage,” said Olga Maldonado, the rural farmer.

Diversity as insurance

When the genes were found, Mexico's environmental ministry called it the “world's worst case” of genetic crop pollution. Today no one is certain how far the genes have spread; researchers at Mexico's national university, Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México, are still trying to figure it out.

Paul Gepts, a professor of agronomy and plant genetics at the University of California, Davis, also is on the trail.

“Because there is wild maize in Mexico, this brings to the fore a series of new ecological issues,” Gepts said.

Is the genetic diversity of Mexican maize - a biological insurance policy against pests and disease - in danger? Is the grasslike ancestral parent of maize - teosinte - at risk?

Two years ago, Gepts received a $25,000 grant to look for answers. But when he asked three biotechnology companies for the seed samples he needed for his research, the trail went cold.

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Rooted in the United States

Click image to see more about biotech crops around the world.

Pioneer Hi-Bred International Inc. in Des Moines, Iowa, said no. Syngenta, of Switzerland, and St. Louis' Monsanto Co. also turned him down. “I was not surprised,” Gepts said. “If you want to study the effects of biotechnology, you come up against a wall.”

Pioneer spokesman Doyle Karr said the seed sample “wasn't ours to give away. It was licensed from Monsanto.”

Monsanto spokesman Bryan Hurley said the company is cooperating with an environmental commission, under the North American Free Trade Agreement, which also is examining gene-flow issues south of the border - with some assistance from Gepts.

“Given that the (commission's) work is still outstanding, we believed it was premature to support related work,” Hurley said.

Gepts sighed. “That's ridiculous,” he said. “The commission is not involved in experimental work. It is a purely bibliographic review. Monsanto is using the commission as an excuse not to provide seeds. I don't think that's right.”

“This was a major hindrance,” he added. “But I worked around it. I bought a bag of transgenic corn, a 50-pound bag - way more than I needed.”

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Click image to read "Global Status of Commercialzed Transgenic Crops: 2002."

Click here to read an executive summary of "Global Status of Commercialzed Transgenic Crops: 2003."

Study stymied

Today, Gepts' research continues. But other scientists have been stifled by industry resistance. It killed Allison Snow's work on sunflowers.

For five years at a test plot in Nebraska, Ohio State professor Snow had painstakingly monitored the flow of genes from genetically engineered sunflowers to wild relatives - and found the wild kin were capitalizing on the exchange. They were producing more seeds, perhaps evolving into “super-weeds.”

But as she prepared to begin a new phase of research in 2002, Pioneer Hi-Bred International and Dow Chemical Co., which had funded her work, put a stop to it, saying they owned the genes.

“We had to destroy all of our seeds,” Snow said. “We were so disappointed. No one had ever studied these questions before. We thought, just for the sake of science and openness, it would be good to explore this further.”

Pioneer had other priorities. “We were not going to bring (the modified sunflower) to market,” said company spokesman Karr. “There was no reason to take the fitness study further.”

Snow sees the issue differently. “This makes it really hard to get research done when regulatory agencies need it,” she said. “Public scientists can't get access to anything until it's already out in the environment. That's the Catch-22.”

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Biotech terms

In January, a prestigious National Academy of Sciences panel on biotechnology sounded similar concerns, saying “the current lack of quality data and science” is a major threat to agriculture and the environment.

Calling for more “non-market-driven, publicly funded research,” the panel ticked off a scientific wish list. “More data are needed on the nature of potential ecological effects,” it stated, adding that legal, ethical and social matters should be examined, too, including studies on the behavioral patterns of farmers and ways to reduce human error.


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