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July 2, 2002


Chapela and Galileo


Anyone want to send a letter to the editor?

You can email letters to the Guardian at the following address:
letters@guardian.co.uk, fax them to 0207 837 4530, or post them to:
119 Farringdon Road,
London EC1R 3ER

For information and resources about this issue, see


GM: And yet it moves

The Guardian
Friday May 24, 2002
By Ignacio H Chapela

From his position as editor of Nature, Philip Campbell has provided the
world with measured and intelligent leadership in biology, at a time of
radical transformations in our discipline. It is puzzling that he would
have chosen to side with a vociferous minority in obfuscating the reality
of the contamination of one of the world's main crops with transgenic DNA
of industrial origin (Letters, May 15).

Perhaps the key lies in his tacit acknowledgment, albeit by dismissal, of
the enormous pressures on anyone working in or around the biological
sciences ever since we were set on a collision course with commercial
interests. He is right in pointing out that modern science should not be -
and is not normally - carried out through the obscurantist practices
exposed by George Monbiot (The fake persuaders, May 14). But Philip
Campbell's participation, however reluctant, in these practices seems to
be further evidence of the insidious challenges facing open discourse in

Our discovery of transgenic DNA in Mexican landraces of maize has never
been seriously challenged and continues to be confirmed. There is no
legitimate reason why we should have acquiesced in Nature's insinuations
for a retraction, or why Nature should have taken the unprecedented
measure of unilaterally withdrawing its support for our paper, which its
own peer-review system recognised as valid and important.

Neither of the two letters published by Nature, purportedly showing fatal
flaws in our paper, ever questioned our main discovery. All results to
date from our laboratory, as well as those from independent studies using
a variety of methods, continue to support our statements (Mexico's vital
gene reservoir polluted by modified maize, April 19). It is perplexing
that Nature would have chosen to side with the opinion of a single critic,
against the concordant indications of a tandem of independent reviewers
appointed by the journal itself, and against all empirical evidence.

Science has progressed in modern times by the presentation of results
which are subsequently refined or rectified by further empirical work. As
Nature well knows, the self-perpetuating genetic contamination of our
crops will remain as an undeniable ecological reality for others to
confirm. But will we, as a society, have the independent, public
infrastructure to confront this and other similar challenges derived from
our transformation of the biosphere?

The coordinated attempt to discredit our discoveries in the public piazza
sends a chilling message to those who would dare ask important but
uncomfortable questions and find their truthful answers. It is an assault
on the very foundation of science.

Against those who would like to bury from public view the reality of the
uncontrolled movement of transgenic DNA in the environment, I can only
echo the words of Galileo: "Eppur si muove" [And yet it moves].

Ignacio H Chapela
Berkeley, California

For information and resources about this issue, see

The editors of Transgenic Research:

"No credible scientific evidence is presented in the [Chapela and Quist]
paper to support claims made by the authors that gene flow between
transgenic maize and traditional maize landraces has taken place."
biodiversity. To assess any threat to biodiversity, the researchers would
have had to identify the phenotype of the maize they collected, something
they did not do. He, too, argues that the presence of one or two new genes
in the creole maize varieties would be unlikely to cause their


But Lemaux and other critics arenít buying it. ìTheyíre saying that the
[hybrid and introgressed] genomes were completely unstable all the time,î
she says. ìIíve worked with transgenic corn for 10 years, and Iíve never
seen anything like that.î To search for transgenic DNA, Quist and Chapela
took sample ears of maize from two locations in Oaxaca in October and
November 2000 and tested them using the polymerase chain reaction. PCR
amplification detects particular snippets of DNA by multiplying them to
observable levels. Unfortunately, notes molecular biologist Marilyn
Warburton of the Mexico-based International Maize and Wheat Improvement
Center (CIMMYT), PCR is so sensitive that minute traces of laboratory
contaminants can create false-positive results. ìIf you get a positive
result, you have to check it repeatedly,î

Warburton says. ìAnd even then you need to confirm it by another method to
be completely sure youíre not fooling your self.î Chapela and Quist did
not report performing such additional tests.


What's the bottom line? Chapela's "research" is probably not a case of
witting fraud, just another activist "scientist" finding what he
desperately wanted to find. But the serious question is, Why did the
editors of one of the world's leading scientific journals choose to abet
him in his anti-biotech campaign by publishing his sloppy work? One has to
wonder if perhaps their scientific judgments are being clouded by their
ideological concerns.

Date: 5 Apr 2002 11:05:53 -0800
Subject: Corn
From: "Matt Metz" Press Release from Matthew
Metz on Transgenic Corn in

Department of Microbiology, University of Wasington, Seattle

The Quist and Chapela study is a testament to technical incompetence.
Their mishandling of molecular biology made it so that no quantifiable
results can ever be had from their specimens, and totally erroneous
conclusions were made. Evidence for the presence of transgenic DNA in
Mexican maize remains dubious and empirical. The conclusions that there
was, ìa high frequency of transgene insertion into a variety of genomic
contextsî and that transgenes, ìbecome re-assortedî are more mysticism
than science. This could have been avoided had the authors ever been true
to the scientific method by paying attention to the possibility that their
hypotheses and data were flawed. Instead the authors continue to evade
taking responsibility for their errors, and continue to misrepresent prior
literature as being consistent with their beliefs. The authors have
indiscriminately accused their critics of financial conflicts of interest.
They happen to be fervent anti-genetic engineering activists. They failed
to carefully scrutinize their own data, and it would seem that an
ideological conflict encouraged this lapse in scientific integrity.

This piece of bad science has contributed only confusion to issues raised
by the possibility of transgenic corn being present in Mexico. Some
important points are:

1.Transgenic DNA is subject to the same constraints as other DNA in a
genome and does not behave like an infectious agent.

2.The characteristics of maize landraces have been robust in the face of
decades of exposure to commercial varieties, and there is no evidence that
the latest commercial varieties will displace these characteristics. In
fact, if any transgenic DNA is actually present in traditional varieties
it demonstrates that the traditional and transgenic characteristics can

3.Farmers have selected variation that appears in their fields for
millennia. They should not be relegated to the role of museum keepers of
static ëtraditional varietiesí. Numerous international seed banks keep
stores of important crop diversity.

4.Cultivated corn is not a wild population, it is a domesticated and
continually human-manipulated population.

Matt Metz
Postdoctoral Fellow
University of Washington, Seattle