Today in AgBioView from http://www.agbioworld.org - July 18, 2006
* The Biotechnology Culture Clash
* French GM Food on the Rise
* Biotech Corn Increases South Africans' Food Security
* Update on the African Biofortified Sorghum (ABS) Project
* Bt Cotton Effects on Various Insect Pests
* Journal of Commercial Biotechnology
* Texas Tech Assembles Team to
The Biotechnology Culture Clash
- Lee M. Silver, Science and Theology News, July 18, 2006 http://www.stnews.org/News-2909.htm
'Embedded religious perspectives in East and West create distinct responses to genetic engineering'
In the year 2000, my family and I spent nine months traveling across Asia. Since then I have traveled across most other areas of the world, most recently sub-Saharan Africa, talking to people about their spiritual beliefs and what they think about biotechnology in particular. I will describe my interpretations of what I saw and heard.
Differences in religious perspectives
If you look at the national law/political climate of embryonic research, you will notice three different areas: America, Europe (Mendocino, Calif., I include with Europe) and Asia. Asia, including Singapore, has a very liberal political climate when it comes to embryo research in contrast to the other two regions. Conversely, you get a very different picture in Europe and America on genetically engineered crops. In America you have positive national laws and political climate for genetically modified (GM) crops, whereas Europeans reject GM crops. And in Asia they accept GM. So you have these three different categorical responses to these two different technologies. Europe and America are essentially inverse, but Asia accepts everything.
All of Western culture is influenced greatly by Judeo-Christianity. The general idea we learn as children is that there is a master of the universe and there is a master plan. That's what directs our future. If you reject the church, it is not uncommon, judging from people I have talked to, to transfer this belief in a higher power from a material God in the sky to the material Earth below. Mother Nature becomes the master of the universe with a master plan, which is what has happened in Europe.
Some polls show that 78 percent of Americans believe in a Christian version of God as presented in the Bible. Europe has become very different in its religious beliefs, in a very specific way. The number of people who have traditional Christian beliefs and attend church is way, way down. Instead, what is rising is a belief in a higher power. And so Europeans answered, "Yes" to the statement, "I don't believe in a personal God, but I do believe in a higher power of some kind."
Asian culture and traditions are completely different from those in the West. Western spirits are discrete and static -- you are given a soul, you die, you go to heaven as a distinct individual. On the other hand, Eastern spirits evolve. The idea is that all spirits start off in the simplest organism and then, during each life, a plant or animal gains karma. When the body grows old, the spirit leaves the worn-out body behind and jumps into a new one. This is a very different perception of the world.
Human or not human
My colleague Robert George, a politics professor at Princeton University and member of the President's Council on Bioethics, says in The Clash of Orthodoxies: Law, Religion, and Morality in Crisis: "The scientific evidence establishes the fact that each of us was from conception a human being. Science, not religion, vindicates this crucial premise of the pro-life claim."
Is this really science? Or, is this just hidden theology? If early embryos are human beings, embryonic stem cell derivation is not only unethical, it's murderous because you're taking a human being apart and growing cells out of it. If early embryos are just a bunch of cells, embryo research is not really human research, it's cell research. I would call it "ethically innocuous" as opposed to murder.
The claimed scientific evidence works as follows: At any moment during development, there's no substantial change in the biology of the organism. Development is a continuous process — we know that. If we look at a baby, and then step back a nanosecond, she wouldn't be substantially different. Then go back another nanosecond, and there's no substantial change. It's all continuous change. If you accept that, then any cutoff for defining human beings is arbitrary, because if you draw an absolute line, on either side of that line are going to be organisms that are substantially equivalent. Therefore, all lines are arbitrary. And since a baby is a human being, an embryo is also.
The problem with this argument is that it is based on an unstated assumption. We instinctively believe that a thing either is or is not a human being. We have this either/or perception of life. And if something is either a human being or not, then this argument stands, because any line you draw arbitrarily is going to separate two organisms that are biologically equivalent. So how could one be a human being and the other one not be a human being?
The theology of embryos
This assumption comes from an interpretation of Genesis made by certain religious groups that strictly follow the Bible. Genesis 1:27 says, "God created man in His own image." And that is interpreted by some as meaning that God created man instantaneously. There can be no such thing as gradual creation, because then you have partial man, and man would not be in the image of God. There is no such thing as a partial God. God is absolute.
Embryonic stem cells can develop into an actual person. So, based on the definition of the U.S. National Academy of Sciences, embryonic stem cells are equivalent to embryos. Yet based on the molecular signals that you give the cells, the cells can change from embryonic to nonembryonic and back to embryonic. You can do this easily.
So then you can ask, "How many human beings are there in a dish of embryonic stem cells?" If there are a million cells in the dish, and you separate all the cells, then you have a million human beings. But you can then put them back together to form a single organism. What happened to the 999,999 human beings? Robert George would say they all died. Scientists would say that this is not a scientific question, but a theological question. Science can't answer the question because it is theological not scientific.
Genetically modified beliefs
Genesis 1:28–29 says, "God gave man dominion over every fish, bird, living creature and every seed-bearing plant." What does that mean? It means that plants and animals exist for our benefit and that belief extends into the idea that genetic modification of plants and animals is not inherently unethical. It doesn't mean that you might not worry about the effects on health or the environment, but that you use rational cost-benefit analyses to determine the legitimacy of any use of the technology.
Six of the top 10 countries producing GM crops in the year 2004 were in the Western Hemisphere, which is a traditionally Christian hemisphere. Europe has rejected GM crops, and so has Mendocino, Calif. China has rapidly advanced beyond the rest of the world.
The European proclamations all say, "We want to preserve Mother Nature. We don't want your American genetically modified crops. We don't want to harm Mother Nature." Genetic engineering is seen as a violation of Mother Nature's master plan.
The Europeans I have talked to couldn't care less about human embryos, but don't touch their crops, they say. The problem with this picture is that it is 99 percent artifice. There is almost nothing in Europe that is natural. Take the Loire Valley in France, for example. The corn growing there comes from Mexico; it doesn't belong there. The weeds growing along the side of the fields weren't growing there 1,000 years ago. They were selected by nature because they are able to grow alongside fields like that. None of the meadow trees were growing when Europe was forested -- those trees can't grow in the forest. All of this happened because of agriculture. Wild cattle, wolves, bears and all the other wild animals in Europe went extinct.
Western spirits are tightly bound to the material, either Jesus or the Earth. Eastern spirits are detachable. I went to cremation services all across India. The idea is that in this process, the spirit is going up to heaven and comes back down into another organism. In Buddhism, there is no single God and no master plan. As a consequence, the idea of playing god is meaningless.
China, India and Singapore -- which is so tiny that people there don't grow crops -- upset the Western mindset entirely. Singapore would grow crops if it could. But embryos are tiny and the country has a huge embryo research effort going on. Moreover, they're stealing a lot of scientists from America.
A woman I met in Sumatra, Indonesia, calls herself a Muslim, but her beliefs are purely Eastern. She says that she is reincarnated in her grandchildren. A quarter of her spirit goes into her grandchildren and other quarter portions of their spirits come from the other grandparents. And when I heard this, interpreted through her son, I realized that what she called spirits I would call genes.
Playing god only makes sense in the context of the traditional monotheism that prevails in America or the post-Christian monotheism of Mother Nature common in Europe. In Asian culture it doesn't make sense, which is the reason why there's no grassroots opposition there to either embryo research or genetically engineered crops.
Western humanitarians and environmentalists who oppose the current reigning policies on biotechnology and hope to benefit humanity and the environment need to take a place at the discussion table. It can happen only if they can separate subliminal spiritual beliefs from scientific evidence and theory.
Lee M. Silver is a professor of molecular biology and public affairs at the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs at Princeton University. This article is adapted from "Challenging Nature," remarks delivered at the Stevens Institute of Technology in Hoboken, N.J. Used with permission.
French GM Food on the Rise, Says Report
Food Navigator, July 18, 2006 http://www.foodnavigator.com
France is set for an explosion in GM corn planting this year, according to a recent USDA GAIN report.
The Global Agriculture Information Network (GAIN) study said that French Bt corn acreage is expected to boom from 500 ha in 2005 to 5,000 ha in 2006, as a result of the economic advantages experienced by Bt corn growers in 2005.
"The pervasive presence of the European corn borer in Southern France provides strong incentive for further expansion," wrote Marie-Cecile Henard. "Bt corn is viewed as providing an effective and profitable remedy against the European corn borer in this region, which contains 400,000 to 500,000 hectares, i.e., almost a third of the total French corn acreage."
However, Henard said that this incentive must be weighed against continued French consumer resistance. This week, Jose Bove and other high profile opponents of GM crops in France reaffirmed their commitment to destroy GM fields. According to Bove, around 40 per cent of GM trials were destroyed in the course of seven acts of sabotage.
But Henard believes that more and more farmers are being won over by pro-GM arguments. "While the French Biotech Bill is still pending in the Parliament, farmers are adopting coexistence practices based on studies by the French corn growers association (AGPM) and the recommendations of seed companies," she wrote.
The findings of this pro-GM study suggest that the historical rejection of GM technology in Europe is on the wane, with consumer acceptance not far away. The WTO of course famously ruled earlier this year that Europe had violated its trade rules by banning GM food imports between 1999 and 2003, a ruling welcomed by the US food industry that claimed the EU ban has cost them some $300 million a year in lost sales.
The EU's approach to GM food regulation has long been criticised on the other side of the Atlantic for having little theoretical basis, and pandering to the fears and prejudices of its citizens. The EU's precautionary principle for example, which rules that regulators should err on the side of caution, assumes that a prevention strategy is always appropriate.
A recent European Commission (EC) communique reads: 'decision-makers have to take into account fears generated by these perceptions and put in place preventative measures'. The pro-GM lobby believes that overly stringent regulations, based on public perceptions of danger rather than scientific evidence, have resulted in the unnecessary rejection of significant new GM-based products. Last week's GAIN study, following on from the WTO decision, will therefore be welcomed by this group.
The French pro-GM farm community is also still hoping to receive some legal clarity in the coexistence area. The French Biotech Bill, which will set rules on GM and non-GM coexistence was voted on by the Senate last March but, since May, has been languishing in the National Assembly.
Coexistence remains a controversial issue and politicians are wary of acting on this legislation in the current pre-presidential and Parliamentary campaign period before the elections of May 2007.
Indeed, it is clear that Member States still need to be convinced that introducing genetically modified ingredients into food production is acceptable. The Commission has asked EU members over ten times to vote on authorizing a GMO food or feed product, but in the large majority of cases, there was no agreement or simple deadlock.
Biotech White Corn Increases South Africans' Food Security
- Dennis Avery, American Daily, July 17, 2006 http://www.americandaily.com
Who says biotech crops help only big farmers?
In South Africa, small farmers have gained important food security by shifting to genetically modified varieties of their staple food, white corn, because it resists the corn borers that abound in South Africa's sub-tropics. Biotech farmers have harvested more than a month's worth of additional food for their families.
A recent study found that the Bt corn yielded four times as much grain as the farmers' own saved seeds, and 21 to 62 percent more grain than an improved corn variety without the Bt. This was during a relatively dry year, when the yields were low enough to be critical for food security. The biotech corn also produced far more high-quality kernels.
In one relatively dry year, the South African farmers averaged 63 kg of corn per kg of their own saved corn seeds. They harvested 187 kg from each kg they planted of conventional improved corn seed, and a whopping 246 kg from each kg of biotech seed.
The Bt corn actually raises yields by a higher percentage during rain-abundant years, when the corn borers are more active. However, the yield gain is less critical to the farm family in the wetter, better-yielding years.
The additional yield is vitally important because a farm's food shortfall must be covered by corn meal purchased from millers at much higher prices than the farmer usually gets for surplus grain.
The farmers judged that only about 15 percent of their corn from saved seed produced "excellent" kernels, and got just 23 percent "excellent" kernels from the conventional improved seed. The biotech corn, however, yielded 70 percent "excellent" kernels. The biotech variety isn't particularly known for its tasty kernels, so it is likely that the farmers were heavily influenced by the lack of visible worm damage, or even the worms themselves, present in the corn meal.
Biotech corn contains a natural toxin engineered into its tissues-"Bt" or Bacillus Thuringiensis-which is dangerous to caterpillars but not to people. The Bt protects the corn from borers more effectively and safely than any sprayed insecticide. It is even one of the pesticides approved for organic farmers, and has been used safely for 50 years.
Since the biotech seed costs more than conventional seed corn, the farmer loses his additional investment in years when the borer pressure is light. However, South African farmers can't easily predict when the borers will be bad. The borers attack according to a complex relationship involving rainfall, rainfall timing, and the maturity dates of the corn. Dry growing seasons generally have lighter borer infestations, but a dry planting season may turn into a wet growing season.
South African farmers are now planting more than a million acres per year to biotech crops, mostly corn, cotton and soybeans. Bethuel Gumede, a small farmer who plants cotton with the Bt gene, says, "I get enough yield with this type of new cotton-close to 30 to 40 bales on 3 hectares-that I'm able to pay school fees for my kids and to save some of the money so I can plant the next season."
The higher yields from the biotech crops also mean it will take less farmland to feed and clothe Africa's expanding human population in the years ahead-an important factor in protecting Africa's unique wildlife.
DENNIS T. AVERY is a senior fellow for Hudson Institute in Washington, D.C. and is the Director for Center for Global Food Issues (www.cgfi.org). He was formerly a senior analyst for the Department of State. Readers may write him at Post Office Box 202, Churchville, VA 24421.
African Biofortified Sorghum (ABS) Project
The African Biofortified Sorghum (ABS) project has become aware of different comments in the public domain regarding its application for a contained greenhouse experiment. We wish to state and clarify as follows:
1. The ABS Project has full confidence in the South African regulatory process and is committed to abiding with the requirements of the National Department of Agriculture (NDA);
2. The ABS Project - through one of nine consortium members - the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) - made an application for a contained greenhouse experiment;
3. The Executive Council of the Directorate Genetic Resources Management, the South African GM regulatory body, as within their area of responsibility, has not approved the application at this time;
4. The ABS Project is engaged with the National Department of Agriculture to clarify the issues raised and provide additional information sought.
Therefore, there has been no conclusion of the granting of the permit.
This project seeks to develop a more nutritious and easily digestible sorghum that contains increased levels of essential amino acids, especially lysine, increased levels of vitamins, and more available iron and zinc. A prototype, containing increased levels of the amino acid lysine, has already been successfully developed.
The project is one of 34 projects by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation (BMGF). It brings together scientific teams from Africa Harvest; agricultural company Pioneer Hi-Bred International, a subsidiary of DuPont; the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research in South Africa; the Forum for Agricultural Research in Africa (FARA), the African; Agricultural Technology Foundation (AATF), the International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics (ICRISAT) and the Universities of Pretoria (South Africa) and California Berkeley (USA).
Research Studies Bt Cotton Effects on Various Insect Pests
- Cropbiotech Update, July 14, 2006 http://www.isaaa.org
The cotton bollworm, Helicoverpa armigera (Hubner), is one of the most devastating pests of cotton, cereals, and food crops worldwide. Farmers control this pest through chemical means, but indiscriminate use of these control methods can also lead H. armigera to develop resistance to insecticides. It is thus important to determine what agro-climatic conditions determine the effectiveness of insecticides, as well as their coordinated use with insect-resistant transgenic crops, so that farmers may still be able to practice sustainable crop production.
H.C. Sharma and G. Pampapathya of the International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics (ICRISAT) report on the "Influence of transgenic cotton on the relative abundance and damage by target and non-target insect pests under different protection regimes in India." Their work is published in a recent issue of Crop Protection.
Scientists grew transgenic cotton hybrids, their conventional counterparts, commercial varieties, and indigenous cotton under insecticide protected and unprotected conditions during the 2002-2004 rainy seasons. They then measured egg and larval density, damage to various cotton plant parts, seed cotton yield, and the effect of transgenic cotton and insecticides on non-target insect pests.
Major findings include the following: 1) there were no significant differences in egg-laying behavior of H. armigera under both protected and unprotected conditions; 2) there were fewer larvae on transgenic hybrids, but only in conditions of high infestation; 3) with few exceptions, bollworm damage in squares and bolls was significantly lower in the transgenic cotton hybrids than in the non-transgenic ones; 4) there were no significant differences in seed cotton yield under moderate infestation levels, but yields of transgenic hybrids were significantly greater during high infestation; and 5) there were no differences between transgenic and non-transgenic hybrids in their relative susceptibility to the cotton jassid, serpentine leaf miner, white fly, green bug, ash weevil, and red cotton bug.
According to the authors, results suggest that it would be useful to combine transgenic resistance to H. armigera with plant characteristics conferring resistance to the target or non-target insect pests in the region in order to realize the full potential of transgenic plants for sustainable crop production.
Subscribers to the journal can read the complete article through http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.cropro.2005.11.002
Uproar in Peru Over Diarrhea Treatment Grown in Transgenic Rice
Rick Vecchio, Santa Barbara News Press, July 14, 2006 http://www.newspress.com
Lima, Peru - It should have been a triumphant moment for Dr. Nelly Zavaleta when many of the diarrhea-stricken babies she treated with an experimental U.S. drug got better quicker than expected.
Instead, one of Peru's top scientists finds herself a target of a criminal investigation, a professional ethics complaint and at the center of a global debate over food crops genetically engineered with human genes to produce drugs.
Zavaleta gave the babies an anti-diarrheal derived from rice genetically engineered to produce two key proteins in mother's milk. Last month, the Germany-based International Academy of Life Sciences, a biopharming advocate, hailed her research as a ''revolutionary development.''
Zavaleta's yearlong study at the Institute of Nutritional Investigation found that out of 140 babies hospitalized with serious diarrhea attacks, those given the proteins added to a standard rehydration solution recovered quicker - 3.67 days versus 5.21 days. The outcome is impressive, especially considering that diarrhea kills about 2 million children under age five every year. In Peru, it claims the lives of more than 7,000 children annually.
The experimental medicine Zavaleta administered is made by the U.S. biotechnology company Ventria Biosciences, which has amassed a large number of critics who complain it is recklessly developing a technology that threatens the safety of conventional food crops.
Many U.S. opponents, including conventional rice farmers, fear genetically engineered rice will inadvertently mix with their crops and cause them economic harm. ''It's not even just real contamination,'' said Rebecca Spector of the Center for Food Safety, which opposes biotechnology in agriculture. ''It's also the threat of the contamination that could cause farmers to lose their markets.''
Rice interests in California drove Ventria's experimental work out of the state in 2004, after Japanese customers said they wouldn't buy the rice if Ventria were allowed to set up shop.
To date, not one biopharmed drug has come close to market approval by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. That hasn't stopped U.S. biopharming companies from conducting clinical human trials of treatments grown in tobacco, corn and duckweed to fight everything from cancer and hepatitis C to cavities.
Ventria, a tiny Sacramento, Calif.-based firm, has defied the intense opposition, plowing ahead in North Carolina with cultivation of genetically altered rice, spliced to produce the human mother's milk proteins. Those proteins - lactoferrin and lysozyme - help people hydrate and lessen the severity and duration of diarrhea attacks, Peru's second biggest killer of children under 5 and a scourge throughout the developing world.
Zavaleta's troubles don't stem from the controversy over whether food crops should be used to make medicines. They are the result, instead, of accusations she endangered her young patients' health. The accuser is Dr. Herberth Cuba. A gynecologist, Cuba runs the small but vocal nonprofit Peruvian Medical Association, which claims without foundation to represent all Peru's licensed physicians.
Cuba complained to prosecutors that Zavaleta's experiments, in two public hospitals, were dangerous because they used ''transgenetic products that haven't been approved in any nation, not even in the country of origin, the United States.''
Peru was chosen for the study, he said, because it is a poor developing nation with lax enforcement of laws that Cuba insists strictly prohibit any medical experiments on children, with violations punishable by up to four years in prison.
Dr. Luis Bromley, chief of forensic investigations in Peru's attorney general's office, called Cuba's interpretation of the law wrong. Clinical trials involving children are permitted with informed parental consent and a lengthy approval process, he said. Zavaleta maintains she adhered to all the requirements. ''All steps were followed with the ethics committees, with the approvals, with the parental consent,'' she said.
Dr. Justo Padilla, director of investigation at Peru's state-run Specialized Institute of Children's Health, which oversaw Zavaleta's research, said three independent scientific groups validated the research's safety before the trial began in August 2004. Among them were the Investigational Review Board at the University of California, Davis and a nine-member Peruvian ethics committee. Nevertheless, Cuba's complaint must be fully investigated to ensure the clinical trial followed the rules to the letter, authorities say.
No matter that many in Peru's medical elite consider Cuba an irresponsible political gadfly who exaggerates facts to maximize publicity. ''He's becoming tiresome already in a situation that is alarmist and irresponsible,'' said Dr. Amador Vargas, dean of the Medical College of Peru, which has licensing and disciplinary oversight over the country's 46,000 physicians. The group's lawyer says Cuba faces several disciplinary charges and that his medical association has only about 200 members.
Asked for comment, Cuba replied: ''They're all lies. That's all. Thank you.''
Zavaleta's supporters lament how Cuba's complaint has hurt what they consider important, judicious research. The treatment she administered could potentially put a huge dent in a chronic cycle of health problems associated with diarrhea, they believe, including malnutrition, infection, pneumonia and anemia, suffered by millions of children.
''It makes great political grist that foreigners are coming in and using genetically engineered materials on Peruvian children. That sounds pretty scary,'' said Dr. William Greenough III, a Johns Hopkins University professor and expert in pediatric and geriatric diarrhea.
''The fact of the matter is that we're taking purified, normal human breast milk proteins that have been exhaustively tested as to whether you could or could not even develop an allergy from them - which you can't,'' he said.
Greenough said the breast milk proteins can be produced in rice at a fraction of the cost of traditional laboratory methods, putting it ''within reach of kids in very poor countries.'' He has developed and commercially manufactures a normal rice-based oral rehydration treatment that he says lessens diarrhea's impact but does nothing to prevent it.
Greenough said he is using one of Ventria's breast milk proteins in a U.S. study to try to halt a common diarrhea that afflicts hospitalized elderly patients when they receive large doses of antibiotics. ''So we're not testing it in Peru because we can't test it in the United States,'' he said. ''We're testing it in both arenas.''
Neither Greenough nor Ventria would provide details on the study's sample or where it was taking place. Dr. Delia Bethell, Ventria's vice president of clinical development, said results would be published next year. Ventria's chief executive, Scott Deeter, says the anti-diarrheal treatment that proved so promising in Peru is just the beginning.
He envisions putting Ventria's transgenic products within economic reach of poor countries around the world: ''Plants are the most abundant source of affordable proteins on earth, which is why they are being developed as the ideal factory for affordable health products.''
Journal of Commercial Biotechnology
Published by Palgrave Macmillan, it is a peer-reviewed, professional journal publishes article in a wide range of subjects covering amongst other things ethical, commercial, legal and regulatory issues affecting biopharmaceutical, agrochemical and environmental companies, in particular the many diverse issues facing SMEs.
The journal is aimed at the bioscience business professional as well as being essential reading for the pharmaceutical industry, technology transfer organisations, academics and entrepreneurs. Organisations whose representatives have demonstrated their expertise in recent issues include Genzyme, Merck, GlaxoSmithKline, KPMG, Ernst & Young, Deutsche Bank, ReedSmith and Bird & Bird.
Details of the journal's readership, aims and scope, Editorial Board and instructions for authors can be found on our website at http://www.palgrave-journals.com/jcb/index.html
Articles tend to range between 2,500 and 5,000 words in length. Please note that we do not charge authors for submissions. A free electronic sample copy of the Journal is available to download from http://www.ingentaconnect.com/content/pal/jcb/2005/00000012/00000001
Texas Tech Assembles Team to Create Better Cotton
- Eric Dexheimer, July 16, 2006, Austin American-Statesman http://www.statesman.com
Lubbock - In 1998, Bayer CropScience introduced a new seed to West Texas cotton farmers. Developed in Australia, the FiberMax seed seemed incompatible with the High Plains' harsh winds and short growing season, and the German company's expectations were low. It assigned a single salesman to hawk the new product.
Yet the seed took in a way no one could have imagined. In 2004, Texas farmers harvested more cotton than ever before, breaking a 55-year record. Last year they harvested even more. Ideal growing weather was one reason. But, mysteriously, FiberMax, which last year made up about 80 percent of the High Plains harvest, was another.
"It's like when your car is acting up and you kick it in the tire and it suddenly runs better," says Dick Auld, chairman of the Plant and Soil Science Department at Texas Tech University. "It's great that it's running again. But it would also be helpful to know why."
The mystery surrounding the huge success of FiberMax highlights how, even after 8,000 years of human cultivation and manipulation, there is still plenty that researchers don't understand about the white puffy crop. Although FiberMax is a conventional hybrid variety made by crossing plant breeds, teams of scientists recently have been racing to identify the most basic building blocks of the plant in the hopes of constructing a better one from the genes up.
Cotton is as essential to the fabric of life here as, well, sports. In 2001, when Texas Tech's men's basketball team needed a breakthrough, it lured Bobby Knight, the violent-savant of college basketball, to Lubbock. So, when the school decided it was time to improve its boll-handling, it found another superstar.
This spring, Gov. Rick Perry handed Texas Tech $2 million from his discretionary Emerging Technology Fund to nab Thea Wilkins, a world-renowned cotton expert from the University of California. A sort of Christopher Columbus of genetics, her specialty is figuring out what makes cotton cotton. She's already identified, for instance, which genes on a chromosome are used to produce cotton fiber. Once located, these genes can be turned on or off to create huge leaps forward for the industry.
Cotton brings nearly $5 billion a year to the state's economy, and West Texas is home to the largest single patch in the world. Twenty percent of the country's bounty grows in the 41 counties surrounding Lubbock.
So, here, where cotton is king, Auld has spent the past several years building a genetic dream team. Expectations are high. Auld says Wilkins already has cotton innovations in the pipeline that could be ready as early as next year.
"The technology created through (her) research would amount to . . . a statewide impact of nearly $10 billion," he predicted in his proposal to the governor. "We're going for the home run," says Randy Allen, a molecular biologist at Tech who'll work with Wilkins.
"There are going to be careers made," promises Auld. "There are going to be fortunes made."
Virtually unheard of a mere decade ago, genetically engineered plants today make up much of the nation's harvest. Nine of every 10 soybeans in this country have had their DNA modified in some way. The cotton crop is just behind that, and corn is quickly catching up.
Yet in some ways engineered agriculture has been a huge disappointment. Science has created plants successful at resisting certain pests. But farmers are still waiting for the so-called second generation of miracle crops to arrive. Where, for instance, are the cold-tolerant corn, the healthier soybeans, or the cotton that can be grown with less water? Each was promised years ago.
"The industry has picked off the low-hanging fruit, the easy technology," says Gregory Jaffe, director of the Biotechnology Project for the Center for Science in the Public Interest. In a study he wrote last year, Jaffe found that after producing a few blockbuster innovations that helped farmers and made a few big companies rich, biotech companies slowed their research considerably.
First-generation products are still profitable, and further genetic advancements have proven difficult, Jaffe says, so the industry has stagnated: "Only a small fraction of the potential benefits from this powerful technology have been realized."
Cotton is particularly primed for a breakthrough. Despite isolated success stories, the quality of cotton fiber overall is actually declining. One reason is mankind's efforts to create a better plant. Like purebred animals bred for looks that are predisposed to health problems, cotton that has been grown to select for certain traits yields more lint but is less resistant to extreme temperatures and unusually wet or dry conditions than its natural ancestors, experts say. "Maybe we've tamed cotton too much," says Auld.
The industry is also beginning to pay a price for the show-stopping early successes of genetic modification. The top-selling pest- and herbicide-resistant seeds were developed nearly a decade ago by inserting desirable genetic traits onto a strain of cotton now considered obsolete. As a result, many farmers have ignored new higher-quality, more productive varieties for the convenience of older seeds that may be easier to grow.
Crops are genetically altered by introducing new DNA, commonly from certain bacteria that can carry and insert their DNA into hosts, that adds a new trait or modifies the host plant's own genes. The process has worried some farmers and consumers anxious about everything from the unknown effects of eating lab-created foods to the potential havoc an inadvertently released Franken-crop might wreak on the natural ecosystem.
They're not Dick Auld's concerns. Like the crisp, white-coated scientists in optimistic 1950s newsreels, he has cast his lot with the future. "I have a philosophy," says Auld. "If you have a chance, mess with the gene pool."
About three times a year, Auld, a New Mexico native and Vietnam veteran with a doctorate in plant science, experiences what he calls a "God moment": an opportunity to meddle with nature. Most recently, he planted a foreign variety of prickly pear without thorns near his vacation home, hoping that cross-pollination might eventually make the native varieties less painful to run into. Auld has also spent his career messing with crop varieties in the hopes of creating better plants. Most recently, he's been dousing cotton seeds with different chemicals to see what pops out. It might be something useful - a boll with whiter fiber, say. Or, like some of the cotton planted in his 24-acre research plot, the plant might wither and die for no apparent reason.
"What I do is like a doctor removing an appendix with a shotgun," he admits. "I get the appendix, but the patient doesn't always survive."
Even if he's successful, it takes at least eight years to breed a new plant. And Auld, 57, is becoming impatient. "I'm getting too old to take a one-in-50,000 shot," he complains. "I want a one-in-50 shot, or a one-in-10."
Which is where Thea Wilkins comes in. If old-school plant breeders like Auld are still stumbling around randomly hoping to bump into the next big breakthrough, Wilkins, working in her laboratory, is halfway toward creating a detailed map showing the way.
Those who get to read it first will reap the rewards. "A lot of people in academia still believe it's a sin to make money," says Auld. "I believe it's a sin not to." He calculates that a marketable genetic innovation sold to an agribusiness could immediately earn its inventor and the university $2 million to $4 million a year.
'There is no bad cotton," insists Eric Hequet, a fabric researcher at the International Textile Center on the outskirts of downtown Lubbock. "There are only different uses." After a career studying cotton that took him from his native France to Africa, Hequet was recruited by Auld to Lubbock nine years ago. "When people heard I was moving here, they said, 'Are you crazy?' But for cotton, this is it; there's no place like this in the world," he says. "Of course, when you've lived 10 years in Chad, anyplace looks good."
Inside Hequet's sprawling lab, a high-tech iron presses cotton bolls to measure stickiness. It may seem trivial, but with cotton, small details can have huge consequences. Aphids leave bolls tacky, which dramatically lowers their value. In 1995, West Texas suffered an outbreak of sticky cotton. Once word got out, farmers here lost hundreds of millions of dollars when they were forced to slash prices.
It took several years for the area to recover. Hequet's other machines dissect cotton fiber in exacting detail. One measures air forced through bolls to determine fiber size. Another uses a special camera to calculate whiteness. In an adjacent lab, an infrared microscope linked to a computer displays the cellular variability in each individual fiber. Another machine, invented by Hequet, uses a laser beam to quantify wrinkles. The good cotton is traced back to the plant, which is crossbred to make a better one. Bad cotton is tossed.
The importance of an individual cotton fiber is hard to overstate. Each one is a huge single cell. As it sprouts from a seed, it forms a straw, which fills up with cellulose. How quickly and thoroughly this happens can be a matter of profit or loss.
For years, West Texas has been known for growing second-class short fibers, under an inch, generally used to make blue jeans and T-shirts. But longer fibers spin into better yarn and are used to make fancy shirts and hip high-end dresses. Hequet calculated that if High Plains farmers could pull another quarter-inch out of each cotton fiber, it would add $100 million per year to their profits.
If the first generation of genetic research made seeds easier to grow, the next aims for a better fiber. Wilkins wonders: How do you make a fiber in the first place? Once you know that, you can make a better one.
"Can we make flame-retardant fibers?" she asks. "Less than 1 percent of the carpet industry is cotton because cotton is flammable. If we could break into that - that'd be huge. Or what about cotton that grows in different colors? Cotton fibers are also used to make currency: Could we use DNA analysis to track counterfeit money to a specific bale?"
Wilkins didn't always sweat the mysteries of cotton. When she first moved to the rural Georgia cotton belt, she thought, "Oh, my God, what have I done?"
But she started attending classes at a nearby university and stumbled into a biology major. Since then, she's spent her career attempting to crack cotton's entire hereditary code - a surprisingly complex job. Though many of cotton's genes already have been identified, their precise purposes haven't been pinpointed. It's like having a phone book full of telephone numbers, but no names or addresses to go with them.
As many as half of cotton's estimated 80,000 genes are involved in making the fiber. Identifying which gene does what, and where it might be found, and then fiddling with that information to construct a better plant, is a mind-bending combination of intuition and perseverance. "It's more art as it is science in some cases," says Wilkins.
After three decades of waiting, Auld is ready for a breakthrough. "I figure I have about 10 years of work left here, and there's so much to do," he says. "We could stumble onto something big tomorrow. But I'm getting tired of dumb luck."