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Date: Tue, 3 Nov 1998 00:06:04 +0100
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New Scientist October 31, 1998
SECTION: Comment: Editorial, Pg. 3 HEADLINE: Much ado about something ?
HIGHLIGHT: This issue has been genetically modified. Does it need a label ?
BODY: IN EUROPE, the debate over genetically modified foods is on the
boil. Biotechnology companies are falling out with one another while
governments are considering blanket bans on the commercial growing of
genetically engineered crops - even though the same crops are already being
harvested and sold in the US and elsewhere (see p 4). Much of this week's
issue (see p 30) is devoted to examining the science and the conflicting
views behind the debate.
Many of the biggest concerns still lie in the future. But there are two
urgent questions that are being asked by public and governments right now.
Should all GM foods be routinely segregated by farmers and labelled by
And should there be a moratorium on growing GM crops ?
Unfortunately, the answers are anything but simple. Take the issue of
labelling - over which long-simmering transatlantic hostilities have
finally broken out in the biotech industry.
The view championed by US government regulators is that segregating and
labelling GM foods such as soya beans is a waste of time. European
companies have concluded that not to segregate and label such foods is a PR
The question nobody seems to be asking, however, is what kind of labels GM
foods should carry and what the real purpose of labelling is. No one knows
how the GM label will be interpreted or what the words " genetically
modified" are supposed to convey.
Taste and nutritional value ? Presumably not, for most genetic
modifications to date have nothing to do with either.
The two most common modifications involve herbicide and pest- resistance
genes that are inserted for the benefit of agribusiness, not consumers. In
future, this will change as companies market a range of foods engineered to
be high in vitamins and low in saturated fats. But even then, " genetically
modified" won't mean anything without additional information about the
nature of the modification. Nor, in isolation, does the label "GM" reveal
anything concrete about the environmental impact of growing the food. This
will depend not just on the specific nature of the modification, but where
the crops were grown and how the farmer used the technology. As a rule of
thumb, crops with pest-resistant genes are likely to spell good news for
wildlife, but herbicide-resistant crops are another matter. Will farmers
and food manufacturers be happy to provide consumers with this extra
And will they also say whether the GM crop in question was grown anywhere
near any wild and weedy relatives, or whether it even has such relatives ?
Or whether it was engineered to be sterile ? Because if they do not, nobody
will be any the wiser about the product's contribution to one of the most
widely touted environmental risks of all - the threat of transgenes
"escaping". You can see the problem. The term " genetically modified"
doesn't really tell you what you need to know to make an informed decision
in the supermarkets. For the same reasons, the term doesn't tell government
regulators and advisers what they need to know about a crop in order to
decide whether it's safe to grow. This is why a moratorium on growing GM
foods - as though they were all the same - is illogical.
Or at least it is if your worries stray no further than consumer safety,
superweeds and wildlife. For there are two objections to the genetic
engineering of food crops where the GM label does become truly informative.
Some people fear that transgenic crops will lead to more and more of the
world's food production being controlled by a handful of big companies, to
the detriment of poor farmers. Others regard the idea of companies owning
genes and moving them from species to species as immoral. For these
consumers, a GM label carries real meaning.
But for the vast majority of people who simply want to know whether a food
is safe to feed their baby, or whether growing it harmed songbirds, the
term is not much use without further information.
Which makes you wonder why many pressure groups are so keen to introduce a
GM label. It could just encourage people to act blindly rather than think
-surely not what they want ?
For more science news see http://www.newscientist.com
> ======#====== New Scientist October 31, 1998
SECTION: This Week, Pg. 4 HEADLINE: Mutiny against Monsanto
BYLINE: Andy Coghlan
HIGHLIGHT: Angry biotech firms are blaming the industry leader for
bringing modified crops into
disrepute BODY: MONSANTO, the American biotech giant, is facing an
unprecedented wave of criticism from within the industry. Many of
Monsanto's rivals say the company is largely to blame for a consumer
backlash that could cripple the prospects for genetically engineered food
Polls show that consumer acceptance of engineered food has collapsed in
Europe since 1997, when it emerged that Monsanto's herbicide-resistant
Roundup Ready soya beans had been shipped to Europe mixed with ordinary
soya. Consumers interpreted the move as a ploy to force transgenic soya
down European throats.
Monsanto officials have always maintained that the decision not to
segregate was made by farmers and distributors, but they admit to
misjudging the mood in Europe. Monsanto was convinced that smooth
acceptance of transgenic soya in the US would be mirrored in Europe.
The entire industry is now having to deal with the consequences of that
miscalculation. Though wary of breaking a tradition of solidarity against
opponents of genetic engineering, other companies are distancing themselves
from Monsanto. "We have a PR mountain to climb," says Willy de Greef, head
of regulatory and government affairs at Novartis Seeds in Basel,
Switzerland. "You have a problem if the market leader has firmly set ideas
about how to do things, which others might not agree with," he adds. "An
expensive failure can be made into an asset if you've learnt from it, but
Monsanto still has some learning to do."
Zeneca, the British-based biotechnology giant, also feels aggrieved, not
least because it won applause from consumer groups in 1996 by labelling its
tomato puree as containing genetically modified tomatoes. "It's a matter of
respect for your customer," says Nigel Poole, head of regulatory affairs at
Zeneca Plant Science in Bracknell, Berkshire.
Another senior figure in the industry, who asked to remain anonymous, is
more blunt, accusing Monsanto of "arrogant stupidity". He adds: "The issue
with Roundup Ready soya beans is the elimination of choice. It's not about
genetic engineering, it's an issue of 'no one's going to tell me what to
Other companies are less willing to single out Monsanto for criticism, but
those contacted by "New Scientist" agree that the failure to segregate
Roundup Ready soya was a setback. And the problems didn't end there, say
some industry sources: a high- profile advertising campaign from Monsanto,
designed to reassure European consumers, has if anything hardened negative
public attitudes to agricultural biotechnology. "We're as fed up as some
others with the Yankee-Doodle language that comes to our consumers," says
de Greef of Novartis. Even some US companies, insulated from the worst
effects of the European storm, are concerned. Du Pont of Wilmington,
Delaware, is worried about the impact of Monsanto's stance on future
launches of its products in Europe. "It may be more difficult now," says a
When it comes to their own-brand products, many of Britain's major
retailers are telling their soya suppliers to order as much material as
possible from sources outside the US - mainly in Argentina and Brazil -
that are guaranteed unmodified. But Brazil last month approved commercial
plantings of Roundup Ready soya beans, and Monsanto aims to capture 20 per
cent of the Brazilian market within three years.
Monsanto argues that the company is being singled out because it is the
market leader. "We certainly didn't intend to drop other companies in it,"
says Monsanto spokesman Dan Verakis. "If people think we started the
controversy, we are certainly trying to clarify it."
For more science news see
> ======#====== New Scientist October 31, 1998
SECTION: This Week, Pg. 4
HEADLINE: Britain to proceed with caution
BODY: CALLS for a moratorium on the commercial planting of engineered crops
have been rejected by the British government. Instead, it intends to move
towards allowing them be grown for sale via "farm scale" trials. If these
reveal harm to the environment, "we can take appropriate action", says
environment minister Michael Meacher.
The trial plots will be bigger than any plots grown in Britain to date, but
for now will be restricted to crops made tolerant to herbicides.
Similar trials of plants modified to produce insecticides will be delayed
for at least three years, as the government fears that these crops could
pose a threat to species that are not pests.
Biotechnology companies are pleased to have avoided an outright ban. "This
is the way to get data together to challenge claims that these crops damage
the environment," says Nigel Poole, head of regulatory affairs at Zeneca
Plant Science in Bracknell, Berkshire.
English Nature, the government conservation watchdog which had been
pressing for a moratorium, expects the measures to "give time for further
research into gene escape and allow ecological experiments to be done". For
more science news see
> ======#====== New Scientist October 31, 1998
Living in a GM world, Pg. 28
HEADLINE: Future Shock
HIGHLIGHT: American writer Alvin Toffler has a term for it - the dizzying
disorientation people feel when the future arrives sooner than they expect
it to BODY: Welcome to the latest installment of that shock: the GM
revolution. Gene therapy.
Spare-part tissues grown from engineered fetal cells. Organ-donor pigs and
their viruses. All these are part of it. But they are the remote part that
exists only in the labs and the imaginations of scientists. GM food is
It's already left the labs . . . Even as you read this, genetically
engineered crops of soya bean, maize, oilseed rape and potatoes are growing
in fields dotted around the US, Canada, Argentina and elsewhere. An area of
land the size of Great Britain is now home to these transgenic plants. And
more are on the way.
Suddenly, plant science is no longer a quiet backwater for genial
professors and their cuttings. It is the stuff of big business, patent
rivalries and closely guarded technical tricks.
If you believe biotech's gainsayers, this brave new plant science is also
ushering in a dark age in which all genes will bear a "no trespassing"
sign, and the companies that own them will move them from species to
species like Lego bricks, to the detriment of what's left of the natural
world and our respect for it.
We've seen lesser versions of the shock before. When scientists began
manipulating the genes of bacteria in the early 1970s, environmentalists
and politicians, especially in the US, voiced many of the same apocalyptic
fears about scientists playing God and the risks of genetically manipulated
A quarter of a century later, chemicals and pharmaceuticals plants are home
to great stainless steel vats of GM bacteria producing scores of proteins
and enzymes for medicine and industry - and nobody minds.
But complacency would be unwise, for biotechnology clearly has entered a
new phase. Many of the organisms researchers are manipulating are more
complex than bacteria and have greater emotional resonance for humans,
either because they are mammals or part of our food supply, or both. Even
with GM bacteria, researchers' ambitions have grown. Many no longer want
merely to keep them in vats behind closed doors. They want to set them to
work in the wider world, doing jobs such as neutralising toxic waste.
For now, though, the debate about the pros and cons of living in a GM world
rages around transgenic plants. And rightly so, because their impact will
be felt soonest. In the following articles, we look at the issues behind
the controversy. Some problems seem to have been wildly exaggerated - the
idea of "Frankenfoods" being inherently unsafe, for example. Others,
notably the risk of transgenes escaping to create " genetic pollution" ,
may have technical fixes. But still others are more complex. Even though GM
crops do not spell disaster for wildlife and the developing world, their
impact is unlikely to be wholly benign. But first, the quest for the blue
rose . . .
For more science news see http://www.newscientist.com
> ======#====== New Scientist October 31, 1998
SECTION: Features: Living in a GM world, Pg. 30
HEADLINE: Brave new rose
BYLINE: David Concar
HIGHLIGHT: It's 2020. You're lying on a lemon scented
lawn. The roses are blue BODY: TURNING a rose blue. In an era when
researchers can clone mammals and insert genes into plants to ward off
crop-devouring insects, you would think this would be easy. But it isn't.
Ask Edwina Cornish. Years ago, this Australian biotechnologist and her
colleagues began a quest to create in the lab what cannot be created by
breeding. They founded a company, Florigene in Collingwood, Victoria. They
raised money for the research.
They cloned the gene that enables petunias to produce the blue pigment that
roses lack. But when they inserted the gene into rose cells, the resulting
flower was no bluer than, well, a rose. Then there is the mysterious case
of the mutant loblolly pine. Another dream of plant engineers is to create
easy-to-pulp trees. For years, researchers believed the key in all species
was an enzyme called cinnamyl alcohol dehydrogenase, or CAD. This, after
all, was what the textbooks said all woody plants used to synthesise the
lignin polymers that make cell walls sturdy and the extraction of cellulose
But then last year, unexpectedly, Ronald Sederoff of North Carolina State
University in Raleigh and his colleagues uncovered some mutant pines that
broke the rules. The trees had a mutation that blocked all production of
the CAD enzyme - yet they still made plenty of lignin. In pine trees at
least, genetically manipulating levels of this enzyme would not
dramatically help the pulp extractors.
You get the picture. Plant biochemistry is turning out to be more
unpredictable - and harder to tame - than researchers had thought. Even the
researchers say so. "In the early days it was easy to be optimistic," says
Cornish. "We might have underestimated how long things would take and the
complexity of the pathways we were trying to manipulate." But here's the
rub. Hard to tame does not mean impossible to tame. Slowly but surely,
researchers like Cornish and Sederoff are getting to grips with the
complexities of engineering plants. Slowly they are laying the foundations
for a world where the initials "GM" will come to prefix far more than just
genetically manipulated tomato puree and soya beans.
It might take five years, it might take twenty, but we will have
genetically modified roses that are blue, along perhaps with GM geraniums
that smell of roses, GM orchids that glow when they need watering, GM
leylandii hedges that stop growing at a reasonable height, GM lawns that
(almost) never need mowing, and GM bin liners made from plastics
synthesised in plants. Not to mention GM newspapers and wallpaper.
If this sounds silly, think what has been achieved so far.
Fifteen years ago, there was just one technique, based on the grown gall
bacterium, for ferrying genes across the thick walls of plant cells. Now
there are several, including two types of gun for propelling DNA into cells
at high speed. A decade ago, researchers knew almost nothing about the
genes that control the shapes, sizes and flowering characteristics of
plants. Now dozens of such genes have been identified and a project to
sequence the entire genome of a flowering plant, a weed called "Arabidopsis
thaliana", is nearing completion. Already efforts are well under way to
engineer potatoes to double up as vaccines; to create transgenic "smart"
plants that will use a fluorescent "SOS" protein to give farmers or growers
early warning of drought or disease; to equip oilseed rape with bacterial
genes for producing biodegradable plastic; and to engineer cotton plants to
produce wrinkle-free fibres.
Forests of clones One by one, even trees, which are notoriously tricky to
grow from tissue cultures, as genetic engineering demands, are falling
under the spell of biotechnology. As a result, timber and pulp will
increasingly come from high-tech plantations where the trees are all
clones, engineered to carry new genes for pest and disease resistance, and
perhaps made sterile to prevent these transgenes escaping via pollen, says
David Ellis of the BCRI Forest Biotechnology Centre in Vancouver.
Some tree plantations, mostly in the southern hemisphere, already consist
of genetically identical trees, mostly produced the way gardeners and
farmers have cloned plants for millennia - with vegetative cuttings. But as
genetic engineering takes off, more and more forestry plantations will
begin life as so many cloned tree embryos, frozen until they are needed and
then cultivated in vast hydroponic vats. Granted, cloning can be labour
intensive and genetic uniformity is not always desirable. But many growers
are keen on it because it enables them to raise the quality of all their
trees to that of the best. The availability of "elite" genetically
manipulated trees will make them even keener.
" Biotechnology will accelerate the trend toward clonal forestry," predicts
Martin Maunders of Cambridge-based biotech company ATS. One "elite" trait
would be easy-to-extract pulp. Ellis points out that despite last year's
mutant pine surprise, the synthesis of lignin in other commercial tree
species is actually "very well characterised". "We know and have isolated
every gene in the biosynthetic path," says Ellis. And in eucalyptus and
poplar trees at least, engineering levels of the CAD enzyme does make pulp
easier to extract.
Researchers elsewhere are experimenting with genes that may boost the
growth of trees during winter months or curb the height of fruit trees so
they take up less space and their fruit is easier to harvest. Mini cherry
trees small enough for the tiniest city garden could be just a few years
away. In labs like Sederoff's, meanwhile, efforts are under way to identify
genes that affect wood strength and density. Where will it all lead ?
"A short, fat, fast-growing tree" might be the thing of the future, says
Ellis, only half in jest. "With no taper so you don't waste space on the
And with technicoloured timber perhaps. For there's nothing about the
biology of plant pigments that means grass has to be green or that wood has
to be a yellowy brown. Polka dot button holes to match your tie or scarf
are some way off, but already a couple of transgenic carnations that are
mauve rather than the usual pink, yellow, white or red are being sold by
florists in Australia, Japan and the US.
The carnations owe their strange hue to the pigment gene Cornish and her
colleagues cloned from petunias - the one that has so far failed to turn
roses blue. Why the gene works in carnations (up to a point) but not in
roses isn't entirely clear. But the researchers suspect petal acidity is a
major factor. The gene encodes an enzyme needed to synthesise blue pigment
molecules called delphinidins, which are lacking in both roses and
carnations. The problem for roses is that these molecules are only blue at
high "p"H, and the cellular cavities, or vacuoles, that hold petal pigments
in roses are acidic. To solve the problem, Cornish and her colleagues are
pinning their hopes on one of two options - finding a conventional rose
variety that is less acidic, or cloning the genes that control petal "p"H
so that they can alter conditions in the vacuoles.
Even then, there remains a risk that the rose's natural pigment molecules,
the red cyanadins and orangy perlagonidins, will drown out the added blue.
One reason why turning grass blue or red might be easier than it sounds is
that any biochemical changes might only need to be skin deep. For instance,
genetic engineers could use a pigment gene hooked up to a piece of DNA that
keeps the gene switched off in all but the outer layer of cells. Another
approach might be to make use of silent and unused pigment genes. After
all, the green stems and leaves of ornamental flowers have the same genes
as the petals. "The genes are there," explains Cornish, "but they are
expressed in the flowers, not the leaves." In theory, genetic engineers
could rouse these pigment genes from their slumber, producing leaves and
stems awash with floral pigments.
So, when blue roses do finally begin to emerge from labs, perhaps some them
will have the chance to express their native pinkness in their leaves. Some
might also have the chance to smell of lemons. "Some people find sweet
roses overwhelming, and most cut roses have almost no odour at all," says
Two years ago, in Philadelphia, Dobres helped found a company called
NovaFlora that aims to remedy this sorry state of affairs. One of their
projects involves inserting a gene into roses that would enable their
petals to produce lemon fragrance molecules. The gene encodes an enzyme
called limonene synthase, which citrus plants use to synthesise scent
molecules known as monoterpenes. The researchers have already given the
gene to petunias and are waiting for their first crop of what they hope
will be a lemon scented transgenic flower. Limonene synthase is only one
way to perk up scentless plants. "There are hundreds of different
monoterpenes out there, synthesised by different enyzymes," says Dobres.
Not to mention two other major types of plant fragrance molecule. In
future, predicts Dobres, genetic engineers will be able to create
finely-tuned fragrances to order in almost any plant. Among the many
possibilities would be lemon scented golf courses and GM camomile lawns
that are much easier to maintain than the traditional kind. And as for the
idea of Calvin Klein scented GM roses. "That would be dynamite," says
Dobres. "That's something we definitely aspire to."
Of course, achieving all this won't be easy. The scent molecules that
transgenic plants make will be produced in vain if they remain trapped
inside their tissues. One reason many commercial cut flowers are so
odourless in the first place is that breeders select for tough petals with
waxy coats. Then again, perhaps genetic engineering could be used to make
these coats permeable to scent molecules.
It can certainly be used to alter the shape, form and number of flowers
that a plant produces. Knowledge of the gene code which specifies the
physical arrangement of a flower's sepals, petals, stamens and carpels is
so advanced that it is already possible to design "fantasy flowers" that
have any of these organs in any position in the flower. And genetic
engineers can also alter when a plant flowers.
At the University of Leicester, Garry Whitelam and his colleagues have
engineered asters so that they flower in the middle of winter, not just in
summer. Growing conventional cut flowers in greenhouses in winter is
expensive because of the extra lighting needed to make them flower. In a
bid to cut costs, the researchers manipulated an aster gene so that it
would produce higher than normal levels of a phytochrome protein that
enables plants to sense changes in daylength. The GM asters required only 6
hours of daylight to flower compared with the usual 14.
And when it comes to manipulating the sex lives of plants, this is only the
tip of the iceberg, thanks in no small part to "Arabidopsis thaliana". In
less than two decades this unprepossessing weed with white flowers has
risen from obscurity to become the megastar of plant science. The
attraction for researchers is that it has an unusually small genome and
grows to maturity in just six weeks. And in the 1980s, they decided to make
it their fruit fly - the model organism they would mine for important genes
involved in plant development.
In the past few years, such genes have been tumbling out of " Arabidopsis"
labs, turning the heads of plant biotechnologists everywhere. Three years
ago, for instance, Detlef Weigel of the Salk Institute in La Jolla and Ove
Nilsson at the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences in Umea
identified two genes in "Arabidopsis" that act as master switches for
triggering flower formation at the ends of shoots.
When the researchers engineered "Arabidopsis" so that the genes would be
active all over the plant, every shoot produced a flower. And when they
inserted one of the two genes, "leafy", into aspen, a tree that normally
takes up to two decades to flower was fertile after two months. A
spectacular result given that slow sexual development is the bugbear of
Death signal Other researchers are exploring ways of using "Arabidopsis"
genes to do the exact opposite - prevent flowering. And not just to prevent
transgenes spreading into wild relatives. For annual crops such as lettuce
and potato plants, flowering is a prelude to death. It sends a signal to
the leaves telling them to shut down photosynthesis. Blocking that signal
might mean farmers could grow the crops for longer and perhaps get bigger
yields because the plants would no longer need to invest resources in
Nobody has engineered crops this way yet, but the discovery of an "
Arabidopsis" gene called "Frigida" could encourage researchers to try. In
the weed, the gene seems to function as its name suggests - to prevent
flowering, or at least to delay it until winter is over. "It would be nice
to stick the gene into sugar beet and see what happens," says Caroline
Dean, at the John Innes Centre in Norwich.
In future, farmers and growers may even use chemical sprays to make their
genetically engineered plants flower on cue.
Earlier this year, Brian Tomsett and Mark Caddick at the University of
Liverpool used an alcohol-sensitive gene from a fungi to make the
activities of plant genes controllable from the outside. Simply drenching
the roots of the engineered plant with alcohol was sufficient to switch on
a gene that stunted growth.
And why stop there ? Why not manipulate plants so that they can change, on
cue, their colour or fragrance ? Why not engineer fast growing hedges whose
growth can be "switched off" once they reach the required height ? Why
not... create a GM world ?
For more science news see http://www.newscientist.com
--Dan in Sunny Puerto Rico--
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