San Diego's Mycogen making luminous greens

Greenpeace attacks gene tinkering

— If San Diego's Mycogen Corporation has its way, you'll soon be eating food from fluorescent plants and wearing fluorescent cotton T-shirts.

Even Disney World in Florida is celebrating the invention. This month and next, Disney's Epcot Center will feature Mycogen's investment as part of an exhibit called "Plants of the 21st Century."

But the Washington-based Union of Concerned Scientists says companies like Mycogen are leading the public down a dangerous path of corporate-driven science. These companies, they say, are more interested in short-term profits than long-term fallout for man or nature. Greenpeace claims gene tinkering will lead to a permanent alteration of the ecosystem.

What's the fuss about? A green fluorescent protein -- also known as GFP -- probably cloned from some fluorescent fish. Mycogen has been sponsoring the patent process for inserting the protein into genetically altered crops such as soy, corn, and cotton. Plants with the extra gene will shine green under ultraviolet light.

The point is to track escaping "super genes." Scientists fear the new crops' genes will escape from planted fields and be cross-pollinated into related weeds, creating insect-proof "super weeds." This will be the first step, some say, to creating unstoppable Frankensteinian monsters. Think: Little Shop of Horrors. Think: Audrey, the innocent weed who craves sunlight, water, and a few juicy human beings.

What was needed was an easy way to spot "super weeds" before they got out of hand. Now Mycogen thinks a scientist they're sponsoring has the answer. Professor C. Neal Stewart, of the University of North Carolina, has developed a green fluorescent protein "marker" gene to insert in all genetically enhanced crops.

"Certain crops can out-cross with relatives that persist in the environment," he says. "For example, canola has lots of relatives that grow nearby. Farmers want to know if the transgenes are moving into these related plants."

So he's found a way to bond a GFP to the added genes in each engineered plant. Now, Stewart says, "You just go round the field edges at night shining your ultra-violet light and see which weeds fluoresce green."

"[Genetically enhanced] soybean and cotton that have tolerance to particular herbicides are already being planted on millions of acres," says Mycogen's Mike Sund. Until Stewart's invention, he says, tracking errant genes was tough. "Right now, if you want to know whether there's a transgene in a [wild] plant, you'd have to do a biochemical analysis to see if it's there. [Easy spotting is needed because] there's an awful lot of transgenic breeding going on."

Which is precisely what worries environmental organizations like Greenpeace. "This just demonstrates what we've been saying all along," says Paul Clarke, of Greenpeace's anti-genetic engineering campaign. "By introducing these crops into an ecosystem, we're running the risk that the weeds will pick up the characteristics of the transgenic plants, and it's going to permanently alter that ecosystem. The leakage is inevitable."

Clarke says the threat is particularly serious with plants such as the southern U.S.'s corn.

"Since the center of origin for corn is in Central America, and there are wild and related varieties in nearby states, the chance for the genes escaping is very real."

The same goes for canola in Northern Europe. "This is exactly the place where [the U.S. is] looking at planting genetically engineered rapeseed [canola]. Or potatoes: if genetically engineered potatoes are planted in South America, or genetically engineered soybeans are planted in Asia, these are all places where wild and related varieties of these plants exist. That's asking for trouble."

Clarke says genetically engineered corn is particularly dangerous. "It's been designed to produce its own pesticide within the plant. Should that characteristic be picked up by wild and related varieties, they will be given an unfair advantage in that ecosystem, where in the normal course of competition -- say, in the situation of an insect infestation -- those [super] plants will be able to survive, while the other indigenous vegetation will not. So it will be pushing out the other indigenous vegetation."

Clarke says there's also the potential danger for human consumers.

"Genetic alteration makes it uncertain for human consumption. For example, the genetically altered corn has been engineered with an antibiotic-resistance marker gene. It confers Ampicillin resistance. There has been concern from European scientists and from European medical associations that this antibiotic-resistance-marker gene could lead to Ampicillin resistance in livestock -- and possibly also in humans. And this is for one of our most heavily used and important antibiotics."

"Take it a step further," says Jane Rissler, a senior staff scientist with the Union of Concerned Scientists. "When folks start releasing genetically engineered insects, it's going to become even harder to keep control of plants' genetically altered offspring, even with aids such as [Stewart's] fluorescent gene."

For Greenpeace's Clarke, it's just big business being its adaptable self.

"What we're seeing is farmers searching for opportunities to reduce their chemical use, both for costs and for environmental damage. The chemical companies see [genetic engineering] as a way for them to expand their profits in another direction: by developing a crop that produces its own pesticide and by patenting that crop, the chemical company gets a royalty on every bag of seed. And this is something the farmers have to buy every single year, either because the seed is unable to reproduce after that first generation or by contractual obligation."

Mycogen's Sund says he knows the arguments against genetic engineering well. "People who are suspicious of biotechnology," he says, "need to understand that some technological improvement is required for us to sustain the population we have today, much less the growth that's coming in the future. The big payoff will be in what genetically enhanced crops can do, producing more and better nutrients on fewer acres. Intensive agriculture is the only way you're going to avoid plowing down all the wild land in the world. Look at Indonesia: they [have taken out] millions of acres [of rainforest] to grow soybeans to feed their own population. They cannot grow soybeans as well as the American farmer. We've got acreage out of production. Intensive agriculture is a conservation tool."

"The problem is not a scarcity of food, but a lack of access to food," says Greenpeace's Clarke. "Simply saying, 'We have produced a new product that will solve world hunger,' the general public would have to be a bit naive to accept that. It's already very plain the European consumers do not want genetically altered food. And as American consumers find out that these products are entering our grocery stores, we see uniform opposition to them. They feel corporations are tinkering with their food for a profit."

Counters Sund, "I remember when microwave ovens were introduced. There was quite a concern that we would suffer from their effects. The American prairie remained uncultivated for many years because people were worried that steel plows would poison the soil. This [genetic engineering] technology has been exhaustively tested. If you're looking for a risk-free world, very little new technology could be introduced."

The problem, says Concerned Scientists' Rissler, is that research into the long-term consequences does not rest in disinterested hands. "The chemical companies own the research! Monsanto has been selling chemicals, pesticides. Now they're into biotech, doing most of their own research. We would like to see [independent] folks do research on the implications of gene flow, do experiments that say, 'If this gene does flow to this wild plant, what are the repercussions?' A little bit -- not nearly enough -- of money is going into such research. The department of agriculture sponsors some research, but it's a piddling amount compared to the power and the strength that this [bio]technology is going to have."

"We know we have to feed the world," says Sund. "We know that [farmers employ] massive amounts of chemicals to do that now. And we know that that's probably not a good long-term method. The environmental consequences of not using [alternative genetic methods] are greater than those of using them. It's a risk-reward analysis."

At least with ten to twelve million acres of transgenic corn and cotton already growing in the United States, all sides agree that Mycogen and Stewart's green fluorescent protein might serve as a finger in the dike of runaway superseeds.

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