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March 16, 2004


Cynicism, Greed And Mistrust; GM Against Global Warming


Today in AgBioView from www.agbioworld.org - March 17, 2004:

* A Rich Crop Of Cynicism, Greed And Mistrust
* GM Could Help Plants Adapt to CO2 Warming - Expert
* Meacherism
* Piero Morandini's Question on IPR Issues
* Bt Corn and Its Threat (?) to Mexican Land Races
* Maize 'Allergy' Raises Hackles
* Not So Uncommon Bedfellows: Traavik and Mae-Wan Ho
* Questions and Answers on Filipino Maize and Professor Traavik
* Evogene Fights Nature and Stigma
* Fear and Loathing In the GMO Market
* Is Modifying Genes Playing God?

A Rich Crop Of Cynicism, Greed And Mistrust

- John Kay, Financial Times (London, England) March 17, 2004

Last week, the government announced that it would approve a strain of genetically modified maize, but would not allow the planting of similarly modified oilseed rape or sugar beet. The decision was said to be based on environmental considerations. The maize promoted biodiversity, the rape and beet reduced it.

For biodiversity, read weeds. The environmental damage at issue is exactly the same as the damage you do with a hoe in a flower bed. Weeds were well controlled in the trials of GM rape and beet. But the field with GM maize displayed more "biodiversity" than its non-GM counterpart - there were species in it the farmer had not intended to be there. This was because a more powerful, and soon to be restricted, herbicide was used on the non-GM maize.

I am not kidding. I wish I were. These experiments could not conceivably have produced data to support or allay public worries about GM crops. There is no reason for anyone to have changed their mind about GM after hearing these results, and no evidence that anyone did.

The background is a loss of public confidence in the commitment and competence of government to promote food safety. This problem is most acute in Britain, where official statements about "mad cow" disease and foot-and-mouth disease were subsequently found to be unjustified and untrue. Rebuilding trust will be a slow process. It will not be achieved through specious experiments. At best, the GM trials were a comprehensive waste of time and money; at worst, a sham to allow ministers to claim scientific supp

Humans rightly feel uneasy about playing God in the creation of new species. But the juicy steak, the nourishing wheat grain, the loyal dog and the affectionate cat never existed in a state of nature. They are the product of generations of selective breeding and hybridisation. The development of new strains of hybrid corn - the green revolution - has been the single most important factor reducing world poverty in the past 50 years. We have engaged in genetic manipulation since agriculture was invented.

Through selection, hybridisation and GM you can create new varieties that are dangerous and life-threatening, or you can create varieties that are better and safer to eat. The search for generalisations about the consequences of GM for health and the environment is as foolish as asking whether scientific research is good for health and the environment.

If government policy is cynical and foolish, the same is true of the groups that campaign against GM. They have largely abandoned attempts to present specific arguments about adverse consequences of GM crops - wisely so, since there is no evidence of such adverse consequences. It is easier, or at least less intellectually demanding, to chant slogans and trample fields planted with GM crops and to profess concern about pollution - the contamination of natural products through the spread of GM. But the analo technique, not an additive that scientists mix into our food. Opponents of GM exploit public ignorance to stimulate vague unease that has no substantive basis.

And yet the actions of the companies that promote GM are, if possible, even more cynical and foolish. Throughout history, people have embraced new technology when it has offered better products or lower prices. But the GM seeds for which approval is sought are not nicer to eat, safer to use or cheaper to buy. They have been modified to encourage farmers to use other products made by the same companies. Why should a sceptical public support GM when the businesses promoting it are not only the principal bene also probably the only ones?

Genetics is the most exciting of today's new technologies and has the potential to revolutionise nutrition and medicine. As with all scientific developments, there is potential for both good and harm. Maximising the benefit requires thoughtful regulation, informed debate and visionary businesses. Instead, we are patronised by a discredited government department, misled by campaign groups that are more interested in publicity than in the truth and let down by companies whose self-interest is so obvious and it has proved self-defeating. May biodiversity choke them all.

[ http://www.johnkay.com ]www.johnkay.com

GM Could Help Plants Adapt to CO2 Warming - Expert

- Jeremy Lovell, Reuters, Mar 16, 2004

Genetic engineering might offer a way of reducing the impact of global warming on indigenous species of plants and trees, a scientist said on Tuesday. Simon Thornton-Wood, head of science at Britain's Royal Horticultural Society (RHS), told Reuters that genetic modification (GM) could offer a solution to the steady rise in temperatures.

"There are solutions to all the sorts of problems like climate change, and all the pest and disease problems that we have today...and the answer might in large part be GM," he said on the margins of an RHS science exchange meeting in London.

Earlier this month, Britain approved the commercial planting of genetically modified maize cattle feed, prompting warnings of a flood of what critics call Frankenstein foods. "It is certainly true that scientists can foresee ways in which GM could help. It is a question of whether public opinion is going to allow scientists to make those explorations," Thornton-Wood said.

Scientists predict that average temperatures could rise by around two degrees centigrade over the next half-century, pushing temperate growing zones steadily northwards. Thornton-Smith said that while such a change appeared on the surface to be minimal, it would actually have a potentially catastrophic impact on growing conditions for all types of plants from fruits to flowers.

"Really it is quite significant because so many plants that we are familiar with require the particular conditions of -- in the case of our fruit -- frost early in the season," he said. While at face value it might seem good news for people that northern summers and winters might get warmer, the same might not be true for plants. "There is the question of whether other conditions like the soil type actually occur in the new climatic zones.

"For instance those Mediterranean plants which from a summer point of view are now ideally placed in Britain, might be faced with waterlogging and those sorts of problems in the winter," Thornton-Wood said. While it would be preferable to actually change practices like high-volume carbon dioxide release that have led to climate change, most of what is predicted is already in the pipeline and therefore unstoppable.

Genetic modification could help mitigate some of the worst effects, Thornton-Wood said. "This is more than a debate about food safety. This is a debate that could touch on some quite unexpected aspects of our lives. "It is no longer a matter of what you are buying in your supermarket. It is the very environment in which you live," he added.


- Alan D B Malcolm, London SW5 9DP; The author is Chief Executive of the Institute of Biology (UK).

The views here are his personal ones. (forwarded by Meredith Lloyd Evans )

From time to time all languages need some new words Opponents of new technologies in England gave us Luddites, while the French gave us saboteur which we then plagiarised.

Both these groups of people were indeed threatened by the advent of new technology. If you were made redundant as a cotton spinner or farm labourer because a new machine came along, your chance of re employment in the days before supermarket check outs and call centres was slim. In the absence of a welfare state, your prospects were not good. Hopeless though we now perceive their cases to have been, their concern and opposition was driven by very clear self interest (and indeed concern for their families)

But what is the word for someone who opposes the application of new technology for use by others who might benefit, when he / she has no practical interest one way or another ?

A new eponym is called for. A meacherite is one who meaches. (In French we have the noun meacheur and the verb meacher as in vous meachez or nous

Let us look at some examples of the neologisms in use

Cotton does not grow in the English countryside. In those countries (China, India etc) where it is an important crop, control of the highly destructive boll weevil is through the application of highly neurotoxic organophosphate insecticides. Such chemicals cause serious health problems (sometimes even death) for those who have to use them. The introduction of new cotton plants that produce a natural biodegradable insectide that obviates the need for these horrible chemicals sounds like manna from heaven (or from the plant breeders laboratory). We in England consume the products every time we buy a pair of knickers. A meacher blathers on about Frankenpants, as if by wrapping ones genitals in the material, terrible things might happen to our eggs or sperm.

Farmers in Brazil have been so desperate to get their hands on the seeds of herbicide resistant soya (also missing from UK agriculture) that they have been smuggling them across the border from Argentina where the government has encouraged its farmers to use these new plants. The Brazilian government has now acceded to public demand and now also endorses their use. We in England consume the products (emulsifier, starch and protein) with every fish finger, salad dressing, cake and biscuit going. The meaching brigade (les gens qui meachent) want to ban imports of such material, oblivious of the fact that the derivatives in the food chain contain no DNA (genes) of any sort and are in fact completely unchanged from the ingredients in traditional use.

We can now see that a meacherite is one opposed to farmers less well off than himself, benefitting from the new seeds. Opposition is not motivated by selfishness (indeed most are regarded as left wing). The problem is based in their ignorance as to how traditional plant breeding has been conducted during the last few decades. Chemical mutagens are used to soak the seeds, or radioactivity blasts the little darlings and forces them into producing new mutants, in much the same way as carcinogens and radiation can give rise to mutations in mammals and which can lead to cancer. Thousands of mutants are made that are then tested to see which ones have improved characteristics and the remainder are then binned. Anyone with an open mind would recognise that the use of GM technology is simply a much more efficient way of making new varieties.

Cotton and soya are not grown in the UK. Not much cotton pollen seems likely to blow from China into Norfolk and pollute the local arable crops. Which plant is waiting to receive the unwanted advances of soya seeds wafting 4,000 miles across the Atlantic ?

It is rumoured that the Scottish Parliament is contemplating preventing farmers in Hampshire from growing GM maize, and hence forcing them to continue spraying their crop with insecticides. Since it so cold up North that noone since the Romans left has attempted to grow maize within 200 miles of Hadrian's wall, one might ask "Why ?" The answer is that the Parliament has been meacherised.

Tell the Oxford English Dictionary to hold the "M's" - there is a new entry on the way

Piero Morandini's Question

- Drew Kershen

Piero asked: >As far as I could understand Monsanto RR canola is being given to >farmers for planting only if they sign a contract binding them to >give back the variety after use. Basically, as far as I can
>understand, they do not own the seed but they are simply given a
for cultivation. Is this correct? Is there any other >transgenic crop that is being "lent" to farmers like RR ready >canola? Do you know the reason for this policy? Is it because >otherwise farmers would quickly propagate the seed and produce their >own seed stock without of buying it every year? All crops protected by intellectual property, however created, are sold under contracts that restrict the farmer's from saving seed. For example, the American court decision of J.E.M. AgSupply, Inc. v. Pioneer Hi-Bred factually involved a crop created through traditional breeding by Pioneer and for which Pioneer had a patent. Pioneer won a patent infringement case against J.E.M. AgSupply.

The contract allows the farmer to cultivate the crop and sell it for any market that does not involve further reproductive growth. Hence, farmers produce the crop and sell the crop for food, feed or other non-reproductive uses. Farmers own the crop for non-reproductive markets. However, the contract prohibits the farmer from saving seed for further reproductive uses. These contracts are not unique to the United States. While the precise clauses in the contracts may vary due to the domestic laws of the nation in which the crop is being grown, similar contracts are used in European countries, Australia, and other nations where the nation allows intellectual property rights in plants. These contracts first became wide-spread with the adoption of the Plant Variety Protection Treaty (UPOV) in the 1960s beginning in Europe.

These contracts have been used for many years, even prior to the 1960s, and predate transgenic crops. These contracts are not unique to Monsanto; all companies that produce crops protected by intellectual property rights use contracts to protect their intellectual property rights. Why do seed breeders holding intellectual property rights in the seeds and plants use these contracts? Companies use these contracts to protect their research and development investment in creating the crop. If the company did not use a contract restricting farmers from saving seeds, farmers would only buy seed once from the company. Depending upon the price of the seeds and the competitive market, a one-time sale is rarely sufficient to recover the research and development costs for the company.

Bt Corn and Its Threat (?) to Mexican Land Races and Maize Biodiversity!

- Sivramiah Shantharam (sshantharam@biologistics.us)

It is becoming really egregious that even scientific panels and academies keep pandering to scare mongers and legitimize the baseless allegations and accusations that somehow GM crops will contaminate biodiversity of the crops and make them disappear. The issue of disappearing biodiversity, loss of land races or wild and weedy relatives of any crop is much to do with destruction of habitats and overall environmental degradation, and of course modern agriculture is a part of that human activity, and much less with GM crops that have been here for less than a decade and still represent a miniscule fraction of total number of crop varieties grown. The fact is that all the empirical evidence shows that GM crops contribute to overall environmental protection by cutting down on excessive chemical inputs, and if it contribute to grow more on less land, then all the more better. Sadly, critics of GM technology do not care to recognize or much less acknowledge this fact to further their own vested interests.

The recent press report (International Herald Tribune, March 13-14, 2004) regarding how GM maize might to make Mexican maize land races disappear and attributed to NAFTA Commission's coordinator Chantal Line Carpentier is yet another mindless attempt to reinforce the fear psychosis. It was really unwise on the part of Ms. Carpentier to make premature statement like that when the commission's is still in the making and the recently announced Mexican governments report on the subject has also not been made public.

What has happened in this constantly burning GM controversy is that responsible scientists, commissions, committees and academies are not speaking with one voice and clarify the situation and inform the debate with facts, figures and sound analysis of the issues. The media adds to the complications by giving sensational headlines that adds fuel to the controversy. On top of it, most of the press reports, due to space limits, are brief and necessarily incomplete, but elegantly serve the cause of biotechnology detractors. All of this amounts to combined disservice to the improvement of agriculture.

Professor Tom Degregori is right in dissecting Ms. Carpentier's quotes from the media. Ms. Carpentier's laments on how Mexican government does not have resources to conserve their own land races are nothing new. That is why international agriculture research centers were created with international support for almost forty years now. CIMMYT located in Mexico has done a commendable job of collecting land races of maize and wheat from all around the world and preserving them, and the effort goes on. These germplasm centers are maintained not only for posterity, but also for public good and any plant breeder in developing countries would attest to this fact.

But for these international germplasm collections, they would have had no access to precious germplasm from their own countries for breeding purposes. The system has done a great service to the world agriculture and the entire world agricultural committee must be applauded for such an international effort. Equally gratifying is that even some developing countries like India, China and The Philippines have also maintained their own germplasm collections that are serving the agricultural research. Only those who use the collections from these centers know the value and benefits of the services provided by these centers. Yes, there may problems in their maintenance and service and some may have not served one or the other individual or country at times, but overall, these centers have provided great service to the international agricultural research community.

A report by Pardy et al. (an IFPRI publication of 1999) clearly demonstrates there are more than 17,000 maize accessions and 123,000 wheat accessions at CIMMYT maintained at a cost of $ 8 million. There is a great deal of deliberations about framing equitable policies for access and benefit sharing for these germplasm collections, and once sound policy framework is put in place, there should not be much of controversy in maintaining these collections and using them to improve modern crop varieties. Recently, a Global Conservation Trust has been established to provide better service in the area of germplasm, and private sector multinationals have made huge financial contributions to support these efforts.

Coming back to the GM maize "contaminating" Mexican land races, it is really absurd to even suggest it. It was always well know that in an open pollinated crop like maize, gene transfer was bound to happen and what anyone has proved in crying about Bt gene having been found in non-target land races of Oxaxa is to prove that fact. But, whenever anyone cries foul about this "contamination" or "pollution" of wild and weedy relatives or land races is that they fail to mention how difficult it is for a native farmer to maintain these land races on his farm.

Land races are so genetically fragile that they cannot be maintained without human intervention. Mexican farmers in the high lands have struggled to maintain them by constantly crossing any new maize variety that they can get hold of to preserve those land races on their farms. They have called it creolilization (from Creoles who developed this practice). If a new variety like Bt corn is used for that purpose, I don't see how that is going to destroy the land race. None of the critics of GM crops with respect to their relationship to biodiversity have showed a pathway of the destruction or disappearance of land races due to out crossing from GM crops. In the first international meeting organized by the Ministry of External Affairs on the Oxaca episode that took place in Florence, Italy in 2002, I asked this same question to the experts and the critics and there were no answers forthcoming.

CIMMYT did a commendable service to agriculture by addressing these same issues at a week long international meeting it organized way back in 1996 at which a galaxy of truly outstanding experts deliberated and found no reason to be unduly concerned about the introduction of GM maize into centers of diversity or origin. This same question was also addressed by an international group of maize and wheat experts that I helped organize in 1994 on behalf of USDA, APHIS in 1994 at Keystone, Colorado. In spite of these questions having been addressed competently, it is unfortunate the same issues keep cropping up for creating endless controversies.

People should draw satisfaction from the fact that countless scientific experts who really know and understand the value of biodiversity and land races for their breeding program have studied the issue and have taken appropriate measures to protect land races, wild and weedy relatives of cultivated crops for proper use. Plant breeders truly know the importance of variation and they also know how to preserve them, and that is being done in a professional manner.

What is needed urgently is for the scientific community as a whole to take an unequivocal stand on this issue and keep repeating it from as many platforms as there are just like the activists do.

By the way, has anyone stopped to think about how many millions of dollars are being spent in the face of dwindling research funding in the name of biosafety assessment of these issues when the answers are all well known. If those same precious dollars were to be spent on much needed R&D, we may all be well on our way to solving real problems of the suffering people.

Maize 'Allergy' Raises Hackles

- New Scientist, March 6, 2004

Claims that pollen from genetically modified maize caused allergies in 39 villagers in the Philippines have been met with a great deal of scepticism. The claims were announced at a fringe meeting of anti-GM campaigners during a convention in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, which met to discuss the Cartagena protocol on biosafety. It is claimed that the villagers developed fevers, skin conditions, and respiratory difficulties during 4Q 2003, caused by exposure to pollen from a nearby field of Dekalb 818 YG, one of Monsanto's genetically modified maize varieties. Monsanto has condemned the announcement as alarmist.

Terje Traavik of the Norwegian Institute of Gene Ecology in Tromse says that he found in blood samples from the villagers antibodies to Bt toxin, the pesticide Monsanto engineered into the maize to protect it from weevils and moth larvae. The results are only "preliminary". Also an immune response is not necessarily an indication of an illness.

Monsanto says the maize has been grown around the world for about 7 years without any similar reports.

Not So Uncommon Bedfellows: Traavik and Mae-Wan Ho

- Roger Morton

Traavik is also the guy that Mae-Wan Ho turns to so that she can re-define naked DNA for her own purposes.

According to a document on the ISIS web site (Unregulated Hazards 'Naked' and 'Free' Nucleic Acids. http://www.i-sis.org.uk/naked.php) Traavik states that : 'Naked' nucleic acids are DNA/RNA produced in the laboratory and intended for use in, or as the result of genetic engineering (Traavik, T. 1999).'

So Ho and and Traavik define Naked DNA to mean any DNA made in the laboratory for the purposes of genetic engineering. In other words according to ISIS scientists transgenic DNA = Naked DNA.

By this definition a transgene incorporated into a plant chromosome and covered with histones and other chromatin proteins is "naked DNA".

ISIS' definition of 'naked DNA' differs from what the general scientific community understand to be meant by the term 'naked DNA'. To the general scientific community 'naked DNA' is DNA from any source (whether created by recombinant DNA techniques or not) that has been purified away from the large amounts of nuclear proteins that normally surround the DNA in the living organism. Traavick and co do not appear to understand that transgenic DNA - DNA made by joining the DNA of two different organisms together in the laboratory - can be naked - when it is in a pure form in the laboratory or it can be non-naked - when incorporated into an organism. Similarly non-transgenic DNA can be naked - when someone purifies a sample of it in the laboratory - or it can be non-naked - when it is present inside an organism.

Why does Traavik like to define DNA that could be covered with histone proteins as "naked DNA"? Is he just stupid or does he have an ulterior motive? I have long wondered this myself. But now it is obvious to me. Now that Naked DNA and transgenic DNA are synonyms Traaviks friend, Dr Ho, can make statements like this:

"scientific reports (1) dating back to the early 1990s had already indicated **transgenic DNA** could pass through the intestine and the placenta, and become incorporated into the blood cells, liver and spleen cells and cells of the foetus and newborn " [Quoting ISIS from ([2]) Emphasis added]

If you actually read the referenced paper - Doerfler and Schubbert 1998
([1]) - you find that it is a study where large amounts of purified M13 baceriophage were fed to mice. Ie this is a study which uses naked DNA. But because of Traavik's redefinition of naked DNA to mean transgenic DNA Ho justifies her statement.

References: [1] Doerfler, W. and Schubbert, R. (1998). Uptake of foreign DNA from the environment: the gastroinestinal tract and the placenta as portals of entry, Wien Klin Wochenschr. 110, 40-44.p. 40.

[2] "ISIS Contribution to ACNFP/Food Standards Agency Open Meeting 13 November 2002" http://www.i-sis.org.uk/FSAopenmeeting.php ]

Questions With Regard To Filipino Maize and Professor Traavik

- From: Charles Rader, rader@ll.mit.edu

Is Travik connecting human illness with exposure to the Bt toxin? In the press reports I see reference to his detecting antibodies to Bt toxin in the blood of subjects experiencing various kinds of discomfort. But I don't, in my mind, assume that antibodies are a bad thing. I hope, for example, that I still have antibodies circulating in my blood induced by exposure to vaccinations. Where antibodies become a bad thing is when the immune system overreacts. Has this been alleged?

I know that there have been cases of farm workers showing a reaction to ordinary Bt sprays, the whole bacteria in powdered form. Are these reactions due to the Bt toxin, or to one or more of the other zillions of substances in the bacterium. Do any of the cry proteins have a different history of provoking reactions than others?

Several of the articles contradicting Traavik contain the statement that there is no Bt toxin in the pollen of Mon 810 maize. I haven't been able to confirm this and I don't think it is true. All I have seen in the literature is that Bt toxin in Mon 810 pollen is measured at about 90 parts per billion. This is much less than the whole plant average of order 10 ppm, but it isn't zero and I'm completely unable to guess whether it is an amount large enough to have a biological impact as a potential allergen. ----

Response from Steve Taylor, Allergy Expert, University of Nebraska; sltaylor@unlnotes.unl.edu

Dr. Rader, your questions are quite relevant so am happy to try to provide answers.

First of all, the presence of circulating antibodies especially if IgG or IgM would only indicate exposure. As you indicate, that is not necessarily a bad thing. Humans have antibodies to all sorts of proteins that they have encountered. I have heard some immunologists indicate that the presence of circulating antibodies is an indication that the protein is capable of causing allergic sensitization. To me, that is akin to saying that the protein is antigenic (and presumably all proteins are to some
degree) because isotype switching could conceivably occur. But, I would expect to see circulating IgE antibodies, positive skin tests, etc. in serum from individuals with exposure and allergic symptoms.

There is one report in the medical literature about occupational allergies to Bt spray products in farm workers. Of course, exposure could be comparatively quite high in such situations. The scientist who did this study presented his results (which have now been published somewhere) to the EPA's StarLink panel; he indicated that the results might have been due to the Cry proteins. But, he certainly did not prove that. More likely these reactions were to the other materials that exist in the spray products - spore coat and other antigenic materials. This question does need somewhat more investigation in my judgment but I would not yet conclude that there is any real hard evidence of allergic reactions to Cry proteins in occupational settings. Of course, all of this testimony was sort of irrelevant to the Cry9c debate anyhow because the workers were exposed to other Cry proteins. Science does not yet know if there are any differences among the Cry proteins in this respect.

Mon810 pollen contains very little Cry protein; the 90 ppb figure is correct, I think. I am always careful about saying that nothing remains; I have heard that comment in the news media too. 90 ppb is a low amount but zero is even lower. I always figure that claiming zero simply represents a challenge to analytical chemists who seem to have the ability to prove the statement to be factually incorrect. I would be amazed if such low levels of Cry proteins in maize pollen would elicit allergic sensitization and reactivity. Of course, these folks might be reacting to maize pollen because it does naturally contain a rather well documented allergen. Out here in Cornhusker country, we do have farmers who are allergic to maize pollen. ----

Response from Rick Roush

In the absence of any publications or even web postings directly from the man himself, it's hard to know just what Travik is claiming. All we can rely on are the media reports, and in those, he most certainly implicates human illness from exposure to the Bt toxin, including headache, dizziness, extreme stomach pain, vomiting and allergies.

To the best of my knowledge, all reactions to ordinary Bt sprays are to the other substances in the bacterium. To the best of my knowledge, no one has found any evidence of allergies to the Cry toxins that are actually used in GM plants. Steve Taylor would probably know better.

Also to the best of my knowledge, Mon 810 maize contain low but measurable levels of Cry protein. About 90 parts per billion seems right to me. Steve Taylor is better placed to comment than me about whether this is enough to cause an allergy.

The following may be the Bt spray paper to which Steve refers.

Bernstein, I.L et al. (1999) Immune responses in farm workers after exposure to Bacillus thuringiensis pesticides. Environ. Health Perspect., 107, 7, pp. 575-582

Abstract: Although health risks to pesticides containing Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) have been minimal, the potential allergenicity of these organisms has not been evaluated. Therefore, a health survey was conducted in farm workers before and after exposure to Bt pesticides. Farm workers who picked vegetables that required Bt pesticide spraying were evaluated before the initial spraying operation (n = 48) and 1 and 4 months after (n = 32 and 20, respectively). Two groups of low- (n = 44) and medium- (n =
34) exposure workers not directly exposed to Bt spraying were also assessed.

The investigation included questionnaires, nasal/mouth lavages, ventilatory function assessment, and skin tests to indigenous aeroallergens and to a variety of Bt spore and vegetative preparations. To authenticate exposure to the organism present in the commercial preparation, isolates from lavage specimens were tested for Bt genes by DNA-DNA hybridization. Humoral immunoglobulin G (IgG) and immunoglobulin E
(IgE) antibody responses to spore and vegetative Bt extracts were assayed. There was no evidence of occupationally related respiratory symptoms.

Positive skin-prick tests to several spore extracts were seen chiefly in exposed workers. In particular, there was a significant (p < 0.05) increase in the number of positive skin tests to spore extracts 1 and 4 months after exposure to Bt spray. The number of positive skin test responses was also significantly higher in high (p < 0.05) than in low- or medium-exposure workers. The majority of nasal lavage cultures from exposed workers was positive for the commercial Bt organism, as demonstrated by specific molecular genetic probes. Specific IgE antibodies were present in more high-exposure workers (p < 0.05) than in the low and medium groups. Specific IgG antibodies occurred more in the high (p < 0.05) than in the low-exposure group. Specific IgG and IgE antibodies to vegetative organisms were present in all groups of workers.

Exposure to Bt sprays may lead to allergic skin sensitization and induction of IgE and IgG antibodies, or both. Key words: Bacillus thuringiensis, Bt genes, farm workers, IgE sensitization, IgG antibodies, nasal lavage, pesticides. Environ Health Perspect 107:575-582 (1999). [Online 7 June 1999] http://ehpnet1.niehs.nih.gov/docs/1999/107p575-582bernstein/abstract.html

Evogene Fights Nature and Stigma

- Nicky Blackburn, The Jerusalem Post, March 12, 2004

If the management of agro-biotechnology company, Evogene were asked to carry out a 30-second elevator speech, it might well fail it. "The technology is very complicated," warns Ofer Haviv, the Rehovot company's chief operating officer, as he opens up a 46- page presentation.

Asked half-way through if he wouldn't mind turning the computer off, both Haviv, and his CEO, Dr. Hagai Karchi, are momentarily lost for words and soon revert back to the document in question.

The truth is that Haviv and Karchi have got to be a great deal more convincing with their marketing if they are going to persuade an emerging industry and a suspicious media that their products, designed to help agriculturalists develop superior crops through genome remodeling, are unique, particularly in the sensitive and controversial sector of genetically modified foods.

Genetically modified foods, or organisms (GMO), are plants that have been genetically altered by genome from other species, such as bacteria, or animals. In the current generation, these new super plants can be bred with resistance to disease, insects, and drought, or to have specific qualities like a sweeter taste, or a higher starch content. In the next, there is talk of bananas that contain vaccines against cholera and hepatitis, or peanuts that have no allergens, or even maize which produces an enzyme to help people suffering from cystic fibrosis. Today, just five genetically modified crops are being grown widely - cotton, maize, soya beans, corn, and canola.

GM crops were first introduced to the market about 10 years ago, and while the industry is still emerging, it is growing rapidly. Today the market is worth about $4 billion annually. The US has already adopted the technology, and it is just emerging in countries such as Brazil, Argentina, Canada, and China, a major producer of traditional and biotech crops such as cotton and tomato. The total acreage of GM crops being grown around the world now equals the size of France, and Karchi says he expects this figure to jump dramatically as China begins to adopt the technology on a large scale.

Despite the ongoing growth, however, there is a great deal of hostility to GM foods. In Europe, public antipathy to the crops is particularly strong, and there is an outright ban on GMO products. This ban has had a knock-on effect in many other countries around the world, including Israel, which does not import or grow GM crops.

EVOGENE, A subsidiary of life sciences company, Compugen, offers a more palatable version of GM crops. Instead of introducing genes from other kingdoms such as bacteria or animal, Evogene's evolution accelerator technology, the EvoXellerator, introduces genes from the same plant, a process the company calls EMO (Evogene modified organism). The platform mimics, directs, and accelerates evolutionary processes in plants to avoid the limitations of genetic variation that occur in normal breeding techniques.

"This is definitely something that could happen in nature, but in nature it would take between 10 to 30 years, and millions and millions of crossings per plant," says Haviv. "We are trying to do what nature is doing, but we are directing and accelerating the changes."

Aside from the EvoXellerator, Evogene offers customers a number of different products, which together form an integrated service. Firstly, it offers an advanced computational tool, adapted from Compugen's LEADS research engine, which can help customers predict and isolate sets of high quality gene and promoter candidates in specific problem areas. This capability helps reduce a major bottleneck in today's product development sector.

The company also offers a promoter mining tool (ProMine), which can generate a library of thousands of predicted DNA regulatory elements. In addition it offers high throughput breeding (HTB), which can rapidly identify desirable traits generated by the EvoXellerator, and can also deliver breeding projects in a shorter time and lower cost than traditional techniques, according to the company. This was initially implemented in the tomato, and is now being expanded to other crops.

To manage these different tools, Evogene has created a proprietary information management system to track the vast amount of data generated. This data base manages the knowledge created in the development process.

Evogene put its tools to the test with an 18-month project to create drought and saline resistant tomatoes, which are good for desert climates. The project was successfully completed this quarter. Evogene was founded by Karchi in 2000, as a division of Compugen, which set it up to see if its computational tool for the human genome system could also be used for plants. Evogene was spun off in January 2002 with $900,000 from Compugen.

At the end of 2002, Evogene raised $2m. from GlenRock Israel, Tzina Management and Enterprise, and private US and European investors, including biotech guru Martin Gerstel. In February, the company raised a further $1.5m. from the same investors. The money is to be used to accelerate strategic cooperation, and to continue development of internal projects.

Evogene's first customer was Metabogal, a private Israeli developer of plant-cell culture based platforms. In October 2002, the two companies signed an agreement to jointly develop platforms for genetic engineering and remodeling of plant cells for the improved production of therapeutic recombinant proteins. Recombinant proteins are made from cloned DNA sequences, which usually encode an enzyme or protein with a known function. The two companies also intend to jointly develop new DNA Regulatory Elements (DREs), which are expected to enhance the yield of selected recombinant proteins.

Collaboration with industry partners is one of the most important ways that Evogene hopes to make money since it ensures revenues. To attract industry attention, Karchi understands that Evogene must bring research from the universities, and apply it commercially. "Today there's a development gap between academia and industry," explains Karchi, who has a Phd. From the Weizmann Institute, but who has also worked in industry for over 20 years. "Academia offers molecules and DNA, but industry wants products. Evogene overcomes this gap. We act as a bridge between the two sectors. We offer seed companies a more mature, stable, and focused product. This is very unique."

Haviv says that in the next year, Evogene is likely to ink several new collaborative agreements with a number of industry players. Evogene is also exploring a number of its own projects. There are currently three on the go, including key trait improvements in cotton; gene and promoter discovery in monocots (rice, maize and cereals), and a proprietary platform for the production of therapeutic proteins in plants.

Karchi admits that these projects bring much greater risk; on the other hand, if they are successful, they will bring a much larger pay-off.

Evogene has signed a partnership agreement with Verdant Partners, a crop genetics industry investment banking and consulting group, that will act as Evogene's business development arm. Verdant, which has a global client base, is possibly the only investment bank in the world dedicated to plant genetics

At present, Karchi believes that Evogene is the only company offering a viable alternative to the more extreme GMO market. Competitors include the research departments of big name biotech players such as Dow AgriSciences. In the long term, however, he says he does not really view them as rivals, but more as partners.

"It's a huge field, no one can do everything," says Haviv. "With the recession, and the problems over the GMO issue, these companies are looking for outsourcing. They know they cannot do everything alone."

This is not an easy field, either. Karchi points to the agribusiness giant Syngenta, which invested a great deal of money in its genetic data division, only to finally close its doors.

Now Evogene has completed its platform, sales will begin later this year. Though the company has just raised money, Karchi admits that Evogene is likely to be looking for larger VC funding in another year.

Despite the problems attached to the GMO market, Karchi believes that more and more GM crops will be grown in the coming years.

"It's only a question of time," he says.


Fear and Loathing In the GMO Market

Some describe it as an answer to the world's starving multitudes, others call it "frankenfood," but one thing is clear, the debate about genetically modified food is raging fiercely all over the world, and it is not about to end soon.

When the British government announced on Tuesday that it would approve commercial plantings of genetically modified maize, MPs, environmentalists, and millions of ordinary citizens complained vociferously that it would ruin the countryside and harm human health.

In a report in The Independent, environmental group Greenpeace announced that thousands of people were ready to fight this decision "in the fields, the streets, the courts, and the supermarkets."

Even in the US, which has been the major proponent of the new foods, protests are growing. In March, Mendocino County in California became the first in the US to ban genetically modified crops and animals, setting a new precedent. The ban was approved despite opposition from biotech companies like Monsanto and DuPont, which have successfully defeated other ban attempts elsewhere in the US. Similar bills are now being planned in other Californian counties.

China, which only recently agreed to start growing GMO crops on a wider scale, is also showing some hesitation about how to proceed in the wake of the European Union ban on the crops. Some Chinese provinces have declared that they want to remain GM free.

One of the main arguments against GMO is that it has not been tested sufficiently to determine whether it could cause health problems either when consumed directly or indirectly from livestock fed with genetically modified grains. The second is that the technology could ruin the countryside by contaminating both conventional and organic crops. A report from The Independent in March suggested that two-thirds of all crops in the US have been contaminated by genetically modified strains.

There are also fears that "super" food, could lead to the rise of a "super" weed.

Critics suggest that governments, particularly the US government, are putting corporate interests ahead of public interest.

Proponents of the technology say that the new disease and insect resistant GM food will address world hunger and health problems, and at the same time will offer substantial benefits to farmers. Dr. Hagai Karchi, the CEO of Evogene, dismisses the arguments as "ignorance."

"Three hundred million Americans have been eating GMO food for 10 years and no one has complained. It hasn't affected their health," he says. "People are just afraid. They say they have never eaten this type of food before or this type of bacteria, and they don't know what impact it will have. Every time there is a revolution, people are scared."

Karchi also believes that it is only a matter of time before GMO crops are introduced to Europe, and estimates that within five to 10 years, GM crops will be grown all over the world.

"This is the future," he says.

He believes acceptance for GM crops will finally come when the biotech industry develops a crop that offers a health benefit to the person eating it.

"If you eat a banana and it controls your cholesterol, people will start to take notice," he says. Alternatively, he says, GMO food will become more popular, even in Europe where GM foods are likely to be labeled, if the price of GM crops is lower than traditional ones.

Whatever the debate, one thing is clear. The more GMO crops planted, the more the new strains will infiltrate into traditional crops. And one cannot help but wonder what impact this will have on the world's food supply, when the next generation of GMO crops is planted - crops that contain drugs to treat a variety of illnesses and diseases.

Is Modifying Genes Playing God?

- Mark Walker, Betterhumans, March 16, 2004

'There's no easy answer, because it's not clear what it means to play God nor whether it's bad'

Out of bounds? The charge of "playing God" is more complex than most people realize, says Mark Walker

A good question for sure. So often we hear the charge that some pursuit -- particularly when new technology is involved -- is tantamount to "playing God." This charge runs together two lines of thought that we need to separate if we are to do justice to the issue. First, there is what we might think of as the demarcation question: Do genetic modifications count as playing God? Second, there is the morality question: What reason is there for believing that it is wrong to play God? Let us take these in turn.

Is genetic modification playing God?

The demarcation question requires some way of classifying actions as either playing God or not playing God. The most extreme view is that any modification of genes counts as playing God. The glib answer here is that if this extreme view is correct then many of us our guilty of playing God, since sexual reproduction involves the modification of genes. Our genomes are unique composites formed from contributions from our mother and father. Presumably no one takes seriously such an extreme view, for then each of us would be an example of our parents having played God.

It is fair to say, then, that a less extreme view must be at issue. One such view is that modifying genes in any sort of planned manner is playing God, perhaps justified by the thought that to do so would be to attempt to design living beings according to our own precepts. This position must classify all forms of genetic engineering as playing God, as well as all forms of eugenics, as both activities involve genetic planning. On this criterion we would have to admit that most of our domestic animals and crops are a result of humans playing God. Every breed of dog has been selectively bred for certain traits, as have animals we use for food, such as cows, pigs and chickens. The fact that we are so comfortable using eugenic procedures on animals and plants, coupled with the fact that playing God is thought to be a serious charge, suggests that we ought to look for a more restrictive definition of what counts as playing God.

If you have reached this point and think that I haven't answered the question of whether modifying genes is playing God and should be stopped, you are correct. We so often hear the assertion that modifying genes is tantamount to playing God, as if this settled the matter. Those who think the issue is so easily settled should ask how they are determining what constitutes playing God and why this is bad. Similarly, those who reject the objection because they don't believe in God should realize that the objection can stand regardless. My theme is that the issues here are less clear and more complex than one might be lead to believe.

Full Article at http://www.betterhumans.com/Features/Ask_an_Expert/answer.aspx?articleID=2004-03-16-1