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    The People Side Of GMO Crops: Part I
    By Steve Savage | October 7th 2013 10:07 PM | 13 comments | Print | E-mail | Track Comments
    About Steve

    Trained as a plant pathologist (Ph.D. UC Davis 1982), I've worked now for >30 years in many aspects of agricultural technology (Colorado State...

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    As with any new technology, the development and commercialization of biotech crops is a story about people.  Its a story about people with ideas and vision; people who did hard and creative work; people who took career or business risks, and people who integrated this new technology into the complex business of farming.  By various artifacts of my educational and career path, I've been in a position to know many of these people as friends and colleagues over the last 36 years.  Their story is important, but it tends to get lost in much of the conversation about biotech crops.

    Many narratives about "GMOs" leave out the people side, presenting it instead as some faceless, monolithic phenomenon devoid of human inspiration, intention and influence. Thats not how it happened.  Other narratives about "GMOs" demonize those who made biotech crops a reality. Such portrayals are neither fair or accurate.  The real stories of these people matter, because trust in a technology is greatly influenced by what people believe about those behind it.

    That is why I'd like to write about what I have observed about these real and trust-worthypeople over the years. I'll start with the period 1976-1982.

    It Started On "The Farm"

    Stanford
    Stanford has the unlikely nickname, "The Farm"

    I first heard of genetic engineering in 1976 while a senior at Stanford University in a graduate level biochemistry class. The professors lecturing on the exciting new science of molecular biology were Paul Berg, Stanley Cohen and Herbert Boyer.  These basic researchers were doing purely lab work with no commercial motivation, but in the process, they ended up inventing "recombinant DNA technology." At the point of my introduction, the science was still young (key experiments started in 1971).  The Stanford researchers discovered the enzymatic "tools" to cut and paste genes and other key pieces of DNA.  From the beginning it was clear that these discoveries had a huge range of potential applications in basic research, medicine, pharmaceuticals, bio-materials and bio-processing.  It also had potential for agriculture. It was an exciting time, but it took many years for all this to unfold in practical applications.  Berg later received the Nobel Prize for his work and the patents that came from the work of Cohen and Boyer became some of the most widely licensed in history (they became a huge source of research dollars for Stanford).  Genetic engineering, GMO if you will, started in the labs of people who were focused on academic research.

    The setting for the first biotech safety conference
    The setting for the first biotech safety conference

    Safety First

    It is significant to note that these and other early genetic engineering researchers took special precautions from the very beginning to make sure that they were not creating something in their labs which could be dangerous.  Paul Berg was instrumental in organizing the 1975 Asilomar Conference, a gathering of scientists designed to carefully consider all the ramifications of this new science of "genetic engineering." The outcome of that conference helped guide the NIH (National Institutes of Health) to set guidelines for lab safety regarding biotechnology.  The original rules were severely restrictive, and were only relaxed a bit after much experience and increased understanding.  I'd be interested whether any of my readers are aware of other technologies for which such precautions were taken at such an early a stage?  This standard of thoughtfully trying to anticipate any risks or issues carried forward as the science developed.

    
Off To Davis To Become An Aggie

    The iconic water tower at UC Davis
    The iconic water tower at UC Davis

    Many biology students from my generation went on to pursue the various applications of genetic engineering.  Although I was fascinated by what I had learned about this basic science, I was interested in a much more applied science called Plant Pathology - the study of diseases of plants.  So, in 1977 I started graduate work at the University of California, Davis - an actual ag school.  My research was field oriented and I got my first exposure to farming and farmers.  However, one aspect of my project involved lab work, and the particular equipment I needed was in the adjoining labs of Dr. Robert Shepherd and Dr. Tsune Kosuge.  Both labs worked on topics which were of great importance to the brand new science of plant genetic engineering.  So, my education about biotech continued.


    My lab-mates at Davis were pursing very basic research needed to answer two key questions:  "How can we get new genes into the nucleus of a plant cell?" and "How will we get those genes to express" - to be turned on in the cells of the plant as desired?


    A Virus Disease of...Cauliflower?

    My little bit of bench space was in Shepherd's lab which worked on virus diseases including Turnip Mosaic and Garlic Mosaic Virus (the smell of the later often permeated the lab as samples were ground up for analysis).  The lab was also one of a few around the world that worked on CaMV (Cauliflower Mosaic Virus).  That is a rather minor disease, but it was of interest because it is a DNA plant virus while most plant viruses are RNA viruses.  Several of my lab mates were "sequencing" that virus, meaning that they were figuring out the pattern of A,T,G and C bases in its genetic code.  The methods they used are humorously crude by modern standards and it took them more than a year to get the sequence - something that would probably take less than a day with modern equipment.  In any case, there was a hope that once the genetic code of CaMV was understood, it might be possible to use that virus as a way to move a new, desired gene into a plant.  After all, the virus manages to do that for its own purposes.  That goal never materialized because the virus protein capsule was too small to "package" a useful gene, but CaMV turned out to be important for a different reason.


    You can’t fit much DNA in these little virus particles
    You can’t fit much DNA in these little virus particles

    A gene "promoter" is a part of the DNA sequence that sits in front of a gene and tells tells cells how and when to express that gene - usually meaning to have the cell make the protein for which it codes.  It turned out that a promoter from CaMV called "35S" eventually became the most widely used promoter for transgenic crops of the first generation - both in research and commercial use. At the time, however, the team in the Shepherd lab was just doing basic research, mainly with the hope of getting out some good publications.  35S was actually first described and patented by a group at Rockefeller University.


    Nature's Genetic Engineer

    Graphic about how agrobacterium works, not that we understand
    Graphic about how agrobacterium works, not that we understand

    The neighboring lab (Dr. Kosuge's) also had equipment I needed.  The graduate students, technicians and post-docs there all worked on a soil microbe called Agrobacterium tumifaciens which causes a disease of many plants called "Crown Gall."  Agrobacterium is nature's "genetic engineer."  When it gets into a plant injury it is able to inject a circular piece of its DNA (a plasmid) into the exposed cells.  Then, the genes from the bacterium start functioning in the plant.  The bacterium "engineers" the plant to provide itself with both a protective home and an exclusive food supply based on two unique amino acids only it can use.






    Crown gall on a grapevine
    Crown gall on a grapevine

    Many labs were trying to figure out the details of how Agrobacterium does that, and Kosuge's group was one of them.  The goal was to "disarm" that "Ti Plasmid" so that it would no longer make the plant sick, but maintain its natural function of inserting genes. Only by understanding the detailed regions of the Ti plasmid would it be possible to only insert desirable genes.  Other approaches were being tried in other labs.  Ultimately, a tamed version of Nature's genetic engineer became the most desirable way to put new traits into a plant.   The researchers in Kosuge's lab were all just making small contributions to that ultimate development.  Many labs around the world were working on the same thing.


    The atmosphere in both of these labs was one of excitement about a distant goal of making a positive contribution to the future food supply, but it was also a group of people excited about being on the cutting edge of a field of science.  Commercial applications were a distant concept at that point.  As with those at Stanford, these researchers were concerned about making sure their work was safe.  Dr. Kosuge was instrumental in convening a major conference of "Risk Assessment in Biotechnology" that was held in Davis in 1988 and which I'll describe later.  Most of the people coming out of these labs went on to the sort of academic jobs all of us were shooting for at the time, but some moved on into the next chapter of plant biotechnology which began in the very early 1980s - the small, start-up companies.  I hope to write about that phase sometime soon.


    You are welcome to comment here and/or to write me at savage.sd@gmail.com


    Image of the Stanford Quad in 1978 from Wikimedia Commons

    Asilomar State Beach image from Wikipedia

    UC Davis water tower image from the UC Davis website

    Agrobacterium graphic from Nature

    Grape crown gall image from Bill Moller of UC Davis (he was one of my advisors there)








    Comments

    Bonny Bonobo alias Brat
    Safety First
    It is significant to note that these and other early genetic engineering researchers took special precautions from the very beginning to make sure that they were not creating something in their labs which could be dangerous.  Paul Berg was instrumental in organizing the 1975 Asilomar Conference, a gathering of scientists designed to carefully consider all the ramifications of this new science of "genetic engineering." The outcome of that conference helped guide the NIH (National Institutes of Health) to set guidelines for lab safety regarding biotechnology.  The original rules were severely restrictive, and were only relaxed a bit after much experience and increased understanding.  I'd be interested whether any of my readers are aware of other technologies for which such precautions were taken at such an early a stage?  This standard of thoughtfully trying to anticipate any risks or issues carried forward as the science developed.
    The atmosphere in both of these labs was one of excitement about a distant goal of making a positive contribution to the future food supply, but it was also a group of people excited about being on the cutting edge of a field of science.  
    Commercial applications were a distant concept at that point.  As with those at Stanford, these researchers were concerned about making sure their work was safe.  Dr. Kosuge was instrumental in convening a major conference of "Risk Assessment in Biotechnology" that was held in Davis in 1988 and which I'll describe later.  Most of the people coming out of these labs went on to the sort of academic jobs all of us were shooting for at the time, but some moved on into the next chapter of plant biotechnology which began in the very early 1980s - the small, start-up companies.
    Steve, I have enjoyed reading your article about the 'people side' of GMO crops showing an important aspect of GE that is often overlooked.  I can imagine how excited you all were to be part of such exciting new technology with so much promise.

    Unfortunately big companies with big influence on governments have since copyrighted GE products such as GMO seeds, employed hundreds of scientists with their inevitable main goal of satisfying their shareholders with big profit margins and they have also become heavily involved in the science of genetic engineering. Consequently many people then lost their trust in some of these equally important aspects of genetic engineering because of what they perceived as potential risks to their health, heritage and freedom of choice. I was one of those people until recently.

    However, now that I personally have suddenly become aware of how globally, bad agricultural practices are causing potentially up to 90% of motor neurone disease (MND) otherwise known as Lou Gehrig's Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS) as well as up to 90% of millions of worldwide cases of Alzheimer's and Parkinson's neurodegenerative diseases from people accidentally ingesting toxic blue green algae and β-Methylamino-L-alanine, or BMAA that is bioaccumulating in our food and water, I feel very differently about the future need for some of these GE and GMOs to improve these agricultural practices. 

    The toxic blue green algae blooms of cyanobacteria and the resultant BMAA are being caused by massive toxic run offs into our waterways from excessive spraying of fertilizers, pesticides, fungicides and herbicides, so it has become obvious to me that genetic engineering of agricultural plants to require less of these toxins has got to be part of a much more sensible approach for the future of global agriculture practices. 

    I wanted to post a recent link in the comments section of your article called 'When A New Technology Saved The French Wine Industry' but unfortunately comments are now closed there. In that article you described how 'Amy Harmon's excellent, recent article in the New York Times describes how the Florida orange juice industry may soon be wiped-out because of a new bacterial disease spread by an introduced insect.  It looks like there could be a technology-fix for the problem using genetic engineering.  The question is whether the growers will get to apply that solution.'


    This new article describes how excessive spraying of pesticides on the citrus trees, to try to kill the Asian Citrus psyllid that you had reported on, is now killing bees which are essential for pollinating the threatened citrus trees and their fruit. The article describes how they are now proposing to introduce another foreign insect, a parasitic wasp! 

    These kind of untested environmental experiments are already known to be very dangerous. Just look at the disastrous release of cane toads in Australia to supposedly kill the cane beetle that it then totally ignored! Instead foreign cane toads have been responsible for environmental devastation and mass extinctions in Australia that are still ongoing.
    The pesticides involved in the Florida incident were purportedly used to control Asian citrus psyllid, which can spread a disease, Huanglongbing (HLB), or citrus greening, to trees. A pysllid that is infected with HLB can transfer the bacterium every time it feeds on a tree, and once a tree is infected with the disease there is no known cure. The disease can lie dormant for several years before tests are able to detect it. In California, efforts are currently underway to introduce parasitic wasps from the Asian citrus psyllid’s native range. 
    Teams of invasive species experts have recently released tamarixia wasps to try to combat the pysllids in urban areas across southern California. The wasps curb pysllid populations by laying eggs inside the psyllid nymph’s stomach. As the eggs hatch, larvae slowly eat away at the nymph. The teams hope that after the wasps hatch they will fly to neighboring trees and lay eggs in new nymphs and establish a growing population. Even though the team is only about a year and a half into this effort, at some release sites the population of psyllids has dramatically declined.
    Given that one in every three bites of food is dependent on pollination, and that commercial beekeeping adds between $20 to $30 billion dollars in economic value to agriculture each year, it is imperative that action is taken to protect bees and other pollinators. Beyond Pesticides’ BEE Protective supports nationwide local action to protect honey bees and other pollinators from pesticides.

    Surely people can learn to see that your proposal of well researched and extensively safety tested genetic engineering solution to control the aphid citrus pest would be a much better, less riskier option for everyone concerned and especially for the planet? If they can't then I believe that it is a matter of trust and that instead of fighting the anti-GMO protesters with insults and derision more effort needs to be made to educate them and build up their trust by even giving concessions such as GMO labelling. It wouldn't be long before people would then realize that honey from bees that are collecting pollen from flowers that are not being blasted with pesticides is much safer than honey from GE plants and flowers that have been genetically engineered to be bacteria, mould or pest resistant without so many harmful toxins being excessively sprayed on our plants, killing bees and running off into our waterways to poison us further with BMAA bioaccumulative neurodegenerative  diseases.

    My article about researchers identifying a potential blue green algae cause & L-Serine treatment for Lou Gehrig's ALS, MND, Parkinsons & Alzheimers is at http://www.science20.com/forums/medicine
    sdsavage
    Helen,I can't really respond to all you have said above.  I will be writing about the patent issue in subsequent parts of this "people of biotech" article and as part of that I will be explaining that patent activity in the realm of plant biotech isn't just about big companies at all - a tremendous number of patents were filed by universities and small companies.  I think the functions of patents, good or bad, are actually quite different than how they are most often presented, but I'll leave that for that post.

    As for the Blue Green Algae issue, I have not had any chance to look into that.  I don't; however, see the connection to agriculture.

    Steve
    Steve Savage
    Bonny Bonobo alias Brat
    As for the Blue Green Algae issue, I have not had any chance to look into that.  I don't; however, see the connection to agriculture.
    Thanks for replying Steve. This Australian Government Blue-green algae (cyanobacteria) and water quality fact sheet by the Department of Sustainability, Environment, Water, Population and Communities describes the connection between agriculture and blue green algae or rather cyanobacteria as does Wiki's eutrophication article.

    Do you think that there is any chance that the citrus growers will explore genetic engineering (GE) solutions to their current disastrous bacterial disease and introduced insects problems? Are there already GE citrus plants being developed to try to solve these problems regardless? I'm looking forward to your post about  the functions of patents, good or bad in your next 'people of biotech' article, its a very interesting subject that seems to get a lot of bad press possibly unfairly?
    My article about researchers identifying a potential blue green algae cause & L-Serine treatment for Lou Gehrig's ALS, MND, Parkinsons & Alzheimers is at http://www.science20.com/forums/medicine
    sdsavage
    Helen,OK, eutrophication is at least partially an ag issue (many municipalities are also contributors via sewage systems and lawns).  The solution to that is no-till farming and fertilization through drip irrigation where that is an option.

    The Florida citrus industry supported quite a bit of GE work to address Citrus Greening, and one of those looks very promising.  Amy Harmon wrote a great piece on that for NYT.

    <!--StartFragment--> <!--EndFragment-->
    http://www.nytimes.com/2013/07/28/science/a-race-to-save-the-orange-by-altering-its-dna.html?hpw&_r=0

    The patent thing may be a couple of posts down the line

    Steve

    Steve Savage
    Bonny Bonobo alias Brat
    Helen,OK, eutrophication is at least partially an ag issue (many municipalities are also contributors via sewage systems and lawns).  The solution to that is no-till farming and fertilization through drip irrigation where that is an option.
    Yes Steve, also there is precision farming for sustainable agriculture that I think I remember you mentioning in an earlier article of yours. It utilizes 'precision agriculture' to reduce nutrient pollution
    My article about researchers identifying a potential blue green algae cause & L-Serine treatment for Lou Gehrig's ALS, MND, Parkinsons & Alzheimers is at http://www.science20.com/forums/medicine
    hmmm...the people side of the GMO movement? Why not include India's people info on GMO?
    What's that you say? Over 40,000 farmers committed suicide over crop failures when switching
    to GMO seeds. Can we count the farmers as part of your GMO people concept. Also, why
    are so many nations...the really big ones...resisting the taint of GMO? They are people too.
    I really don't care about the career upbringing in Monsanto-type corps. It's just not appealing.
    I recall that when several companies researching bee-pollination failures began to point the
    finger at MONSANTO...why...gosh...MONSANTO simply bought the companies to quiet them.
    That's another people view ya know...corp buyouts. The situation is very messy...and would
    only be allowed in the United States....where $$$ is MUCH MORE IMPORTANT THAN PEOPLE.

    Hank
    Over 40,000 farmers committed suicide over crop failures when switching
    to GMO seeds.
    What? That is just made-up nonsense. You could blame the position of the moon for Indian suicides.  Female suicides are higher than farmers, do you blame GMOs for that? Farming suicides went up in 1995 but there was no GM cotton until 2002.  Did farmers proactively commit suicide knowing GM cotton would some day be in their country?
    Actually it's not made-up nonsense, although the problem is a bit more complex than stated. Farmers have been prone to suicide because of indebtedness, especially to loan sharks, so that is as much cultural as anything. However, a recent increase in such suicides is due to the fact that Bt cotton doesn't seem to have been as economically productive as originally thought.

    Bt cotton’s success, it appears, lasted merely five years. Since then, yields have been falling and pest attacks going up. India’s only GM crop has been genetically altered to destroy cotton-eating pests.
    http://www.hindustantimes.com/News-Feed/Business/Ministry-blames-Btcotton-for-farmer-suicides/Article1-830798.aspx

    Hank
    Oh, you are just going to keep moving the goalposts.  Well, okay, science is always going to be wrong because people will give up replying to you, and that will lead you to believe you are correct.
    How is acknowledging that Bt cotton didn't live up to India's expectations moving goalposts? Who said anything about science being wrong? For that matter what does science have to do with it? Are you truly so agenda-driven that you can't see anything except "anti-science goblins" under every bed?

    Instead of assuming that everything is nonsense unless it's part of your personal belief system, perhaps you might consider reading something to get more of the nuances of how the world actually works. Everything isn't about promoting your book.

    Hank
    I didn't mention a book, how did you even know I wrote a book? I don't discuss Bt cotton in my book, nor do I discuss India, so you clearly haven't read it and know nothing about it, just like Bt cotton. You first claimed that Bt cotton caused Indian suicides - 7 years before Bt cotton was introduced - then you decided to introduce another unsubstantiated assertion. You're going to keep doing it but that has nothing to do with my belief system, it has to do with how you have already acted.
    Your book promotion is all over your profile, so it's not hard to find out. I never made any claims about Indian suicides beyond the point that recent increases were linked to poor economic showings of Bt cotton. I never said that Bt cotton "caused" the suicides. I said the problem was more complex and due to indebtedness. There's nothing unsubstantiated in these assertions.

    Your point about suicides occurring 7 years before Bt cotton was introduced is meaningless. No one has suggested that Indian farmers haven't had these kinds of debt problems for years and that the suicides are linked to the indebtedness issues and loan sharks. But Bt cotton was supposed to be more economically viable, and yet with it's failure to deliver, costs to farmers have gone up, once again, driving up suicide rates because of economics.

    You're the only one making unsubstantiated claims, in terms of what you claim I said and in terms of what you think Indian suicides mean.

    sdsavage
    To all,
    The "Indian Suicide" issue is indeed both complex and tragic.  Suicide is a widespread issue in Indian culture in general with farmers being only one segment where that occurs.  The "farm credit" system these is something more akin to the Mafia than to the sort of lenders one would desire.  There was also some sort of death payment to families from the government that further encouraged this.  In any case, this isn't something that was "caused by GMO crops" or by Monsanto or any other Western entity.  Small-scale farmers in India and China (some 12 million all together) have used biotech cotton with substantial benefits.  The fact that they continue to plant Bt cotton means that they see benefits.  To assume otherwise is to disrespect these people who, like farmers everywhere, work very hard and take major financial risks every year.   I was in a meeting when Rattan Lal, the Nobel Prize-winning soil scientist and native of India responded to a question about the suicide issue.  He patiently explained that based on his conversations with agronomists from India, there was no substance to the "biotech caused farmer suicides" myth. Many others with real, "on the ground" experience in India say the same.
    Steve Savage