* GM Crops Protect Neighbors from Pests
* Keeping Bollworm from the Door
* Australia: New Hope for GM Crops in WA
* Organic Misconceptions and Nutritional Genomics
* The Greening of Sub-Saharan Africa
* Agricultural innovation and economic growth in Africa
* Thailand Biotechnology - USDA Report
* Meetings that changed the world: Asilomar 1975: DNA modification secured
GM Crops Protect Neighbors from Pests
- Eurekalert, September 18, 2008 http://www.eurekalert.org/
Effects of Bt cotton on bollworms in China revealed in Science
A study in northern China indicates that genetically modified cotton, altered to express the insecticide, Bt, not only reduces pest populations among those crops, but also reduces pests among other nearby crops that have not been modified with Bt. These findings could offer promising new ideas for controlling pests and maximizing crop yields in the future.
The report will be published by the journal Science on Friday, 19 September. Science is the journal of AAAS, the nonprofit science society.
Dr. Kong-Ming Wu from the Chinese Academy of Agricultural Sciences in Beijing and colleagues analyzed data from 1997 to 2007 about the agriculture of Bt cotton in six provinces in northern China, covering 38 million hectares of farmland cultivated by 10 million resource-poor farmers. They compared that information with data on pest populations in the region, focusing on the cotton bollworm, a serious pest for Chinese farmers.
The researchers' results show that populations of the cotton bollworm were dramatically reduced with the introduction of Bt cotton, especially during the period from 2002 to 2006. They considered the contribution of temperature and rainfall along with the introduction of the genetically modified cotton, and confirmed that Bt cotton was responsible for the long-term suppression of the pests in the cotton and a host of other un-modified crops after 10 years. Dr. Wu and colleagues suggest that this may be because cotton is the main host for bollworm eggs, and reducing larval populations in the cotton consequently reduces the entire population and protects other crops.
Bt is an insecticide derived from the spores and toxic crystals of the bacteria Bacillus thuringiensis, and has been sold commercially since 1960. It is considered non-toxic to humans, animals, fish, plants, micro-organisms, and most insects. However, it is highly selective and lethal to caterpillars of moths and butterflies. Bt is currently registered and marketed for use as an insecticide in more than 50 countries worldwide. It does not contaminate groundwater because it degrades so rapidly.
The authors say that Bt technology gives China a new tool for pest control, and that all farmers in a Bt cotton-planting region will experience the benefits. "In 1992, cotton bollworms caused about a 30 percent loss in the cotton yield in northern China. Because of the high costs for pest control then, many farmers refused to plant cotton," said Dr. Wu in an email interview. "This case study of Bt cotton implies that other Bt crops, such as Bt rice, may also have great potential for agricultural practices in China. This success with Bt cotton could push forward the commercial processes of genetically modified crops in China."
Dr. Jian-Zhou Zhao, a co-author of the report, also highlights the health benefits of using Bt cotton. "Poisoning from other insecticides, and even death, was a big problem for cotton farmers in the 1990's," Zhou said. "Most farmers did not have proper protective clothes while applying insecticides with small backpack sprayers. This may be another reason that many farmers refused to plant cotton before Bt was available -- it was too dangerous and scary."
The use of Bt cotton and other genetically modified crops could provide a safer and more economical solution to pest control in many small farms around the world. Dr. Wu and the team of researchers, however, acknowledge that a major challenge to the success of Bt cotton is the potential for insects to evolve resistance to the insecticide. They insist that despite its considerable value, Bt cotton should still be considered only one component in the overall management of pests.
"Suppression of Cotton Bollworm in Multiple Crops in China in Areas with Bt Toxin-Containing Cotton," by Wu et al. Authors Kong-Ming Wu, Yan-Hui Lu, Hong-Qiang Feng, and Jian-Zhou Zhao are from the State Key Laboratory for Biology of Plant Diseases and Insect Pests, Institute of Plant Protection, Chinese Academy of Agricultural Sciences, Beijing, 100193, P. R. China.
Keeping Bollworm from the Door
- Jane Qiu, Nature News, Published online 18 September 2008 | Nature | doi:10.1038/news.2008.111
Genetically modified crops in China seem to protect their wild-type neighbours.
A ten-year study in northern China shows that large-scale cultivation of cotton plants genetically modified to produce an insecticidal toxin is associated with a reduction in pest populations in unmodified crops nearby. The finding adds to the ongoing debate about the role of genetic modification in pest control.
The cotton bollworm, Helicoverpa armigera, is one of the most serious insect pests in Asia, attacking wheat, corn, soya beans, peanuts and vegetables as well as cotton. In the early 1990s, repeated bollworm outbreaks in China were barely contained. The heavy pesticide use that controlled them killed thousands of people each year, according to Huang Dafang, a biotechnology researcher at the Chinese Academy of Agricultural Sciences (CAAS) in Beijing.
Bollworm is susceptible to an insecticidal toxin made by the bacteria Bacillus thuringiensis, and China approved the commercial growth of cotton plants modified to produce this toxin in 1997. This Bt cotton is now grown on 4 million hectares in the country. A team led by Kong-Ming Wu, an entomologist at the CAAS Institute of Plant Protection, in Beijing, has monitored bollworm populations in an area of northern China since 1992. Their study area now contains 3 million hectares of Bt cotton and 22 million hectares of various other crops which the bollworm can infect.
The researchers report today in Science1 that, after Bt cotton was introduced, bollworm populations gradually declined not just in Bt cotton, but also in other crops. The greatest reduction was from 2002 to 2006. Using statistical analyses, the researchers found that the fall in bollworm populations correlated better with the amount of land devoted to Bt cotton than with patterns of temperature or rainfall.
To pinpoint the mechanism underlying the reduction, the team planted Bt cotton together with its conventional counterpart in a test field every year from 1998 to 2007. In the absence of pesticides, both types of crop contained similar densities of bollworm eggs, but the Bt cotton contained fewer larvae than its non-modified counterpart.
In northern China there are typically four generations of bollworm a year; the first generation tends to grow on wheat and then lays its eggs on cotton. The researchers thus suggest that the overall reduction in bollworms is because the eggs laid on modified cotton effectively find themselves in a 'dead end', reducing the size of the second generation.
"It's a very nice study with an impressive sample size," says David Andow, an entomologist at the University of Minnesota in St Paul. However, he says, it "does not rule out other factors that might affect the insect populations".
"If the insect feeds on a single host, as many rice pests do, one would not expect such accidents"
For example, although pesticide use dropped when Bt cotton was first introduced2, the rise in secondary pests, such as mirids, has led to more spraying since 200134. Whether this contributed to the further decline in bollworm populations from 2002 to 2006 remains to be seen, says Andow.
What about the rice?
Cotton is often grown as a monoculture in China, a practice which might be expected to carry a risk of Bt-resistance. As yet, little such resistance has been seen, despite the lack of proper management. Wu suspects that this is because of the other crops grown next to the Bt-cotton fields in settings where most farms are small, which offer a safety valve against resistance even while they benefit from the overall reduction of bollworm.
"Our study shows that genetic modification is a powerful way to control pests," says Wu. "Other Bt crops, such as Bt rice, may also have great potential for agricultural practices in China."
Kong Luen Heong, an entomologist at the International Rice Research Institute in Los Banos, Philippines, cautions that the strategy could not be applied to all pests. "If the insect feeds on a single host, as many rice pests do, one would not expect such accidents," he says.
In China, several Bt-producing rice varieties are waiting to be approved by the agricultural ministry for commercial use. If they were grown on a large scale without proper resistance management, there could be devastating consequences, says Heong.
1 We, K.-M. , Lu, Y.-H. , Feng, H.-Q. , Jiang, Y.-Y. & Zhao, J.-Z. Science 321, 1676-1678 (2008).
2 Huang, J. , Rozelle, S. , Pray, C. & Wang Q. Science 295, 674-677 (2002).
3 Wang, S. , Just, D. & Pinstrup-Andersen, P. Int. J. Biotechnol. 10, 113-120 (2008).
4 Wang, Z. et al. Agri. Sci. China (in the press).
Australia: New Hope for GM Crops in WA
- Ian Edwards, September 17, 2008 Via Agnet
The election of the Liberals to form a minority government in partnership with the Nationals offers new hope for breaking the current deadlock on the testing GM crops in Western Australia, and for an eventual lifting of the State Moratorium. The Liberal party supports a canola trial of up to 1000 ha in 2009, and the immediate approval of GM cotton in the Ord River region (Stage 2). They are also committed to a review of the existing Moratorium.
However, one should be cautious in making pronouncements at this early stage as Premier-elect Colin Barnett seeks to finalize his new cabinet. While the Nationals support the lifting of the ban on non-food crops their state president Wendy Duncan is on record (Geraldton Guardian 6/6/08) as supporting the former Carpenter Government's call for a halt to the approval of all GM foods in Australia until "independent scientific trials have been completed". She was also quoted as saying: "As far as GM food is concerned we believe that caution is the best way to go at this time". If she is given a Cabinet position in the new coalition government this could present some real challenges.
It should also be noted that the definition of "independent scientific trials" on food safety was totally distorted by the previous Labour government when Agriculture Minister Kim Chance appointed anti-GM activist Judy Carman to oversee a so-called "independent testing" study. She was funded by two sources - the WA government (~$90,000) and by Jeffrey Smith, author of two books with some extraordinary claims regarding the dangers of GM food. No protocols for the study were ever declared by Carman, and after nearly two years no results have materialized. Several leading academics in WA pointed out at the time that Carman has no previous publication track record in conducting animal feeding trials, and over 50 peer-reviewed scientific publications on animal feeding experiments are already available and have confirmed the safety of GM crops.
Anti-GM groups are lobbying most strongly on potential food safety issues, as they are clearly loosing the battle to establish any adverse environmental claims. During the state election Scott Kinnear inserted two-half page advertisements in the West Australian newspaper, sponsored by a group called GE-free Australia - a conglomerate of NGO groups such as Greenpeace, the NCF, organic faming groups and the Conservation Council of WA. They also have significant linkages to Labour and the Greens Party in WA, and were active in former Premier Alan Carpenter's attempt to make the ban on GM crops and uranium mining a major election issue. This strategy clearly backfired.
So what is the path forward? Clearly we must be united in our call for the new Government to review the existing State Moratorium - they have pledged to do this, and after a short settling in period they should be called to act upon this pledge. Companies producing GM canola seed will be looking for a clearly defined path to market if they are to return and test their products in WA. However, the positive signs for WA farmers are that the genetic supply industry will now in all likelihood be ready to re-engage with WA.
Organic Misconceptions and Nutritional Genomics
- Graeme O'Neill, Australian Life Scientist, September 17, 2008 http://www.biotechnews.com.au/index.php/id;1679203482
'Dean DellaPenna says we are in the midst of a golden period for research into plant metabolism.'
The comforting but questionable assumption that nature knows best strongly influences the food-buying preferences of Western consumers. The booming organic food industry takes the mindset a step further, by using only "natural" fertilisers and pesticides.
Unfortunately, hundreds of millions of people in the world's poorer nations suffer because "natural" does not mean optimal nutrition. Professor Dean DellaPenna, professor of biochemistry at Michigan State University, would like to make it so.
DellaPenna is a strong proponent of fine-tuning the metabolism of major crop species to improve both the concentration and balance of essential micronutrients like iron, the two major lipid-soluble vitamins - the vitamin A precursor, beta carotene, and vitamin E - and other minerals.
The world's No 1 human staple, rice, is naturally deficient in beta-carotene and iron. Some 400 million children in rice-eating countries suffer from poor vision and often blindness, because of vitamin A deficiency. Rice is also lacking in iron, causing anaemia and pregnancy complications in millions of women.
DellaPenna, a plenary speaker at ComBio 2008, will describe his current research on understanding and manipulating the synthesis of carotenoids and vitamin E - both important antioxidants - in plants.
While the need is most urgent in developing nations, DellaPenna is a vocal advocate for improving the nutritional properties of staple crops to deliver a healthier, more balanced diet in wealthy nations.
As Swiss researchers Ingo Potrykus and Peter Beyer, the inventors of beta-carotene-enriched "golden rice", learned, the challenges are not only technical. Western activists have convinced many risk-averse Western consumers that genetically modified crops pose unacceptable threats to the environment, and to their health.
Prince Charles, heir to the British throne, and Britain's largest producer of organic foods, declared a decade ago that scientists were "entering realms that belong to God, and God alone" by meddling with crop genes.
The prince returned to his theme in August this year, warning that big agribusiness corporations and their GM crops would be "the absolute destruction of everything, and the classic way of ensuring that there is no food in the future". But, in a sign of changing times, some UK newspaper columnists lampooned the prince's views.
DellaPenna believes scientists need to do a better job of educating public. "The reality is that if you go into a supermarket, nearly every food has been genetically modified in some way," he says.
"Most of the produce - even organic produce - is mutant. Humans have been selecting for particular mutations for 10,000 years, and we have been using chemical and radiation mutagenesis for decades."
Chemical mutagens and cobalt-60 radiation are very harsh mutagens, which typically cause dozens random mutations in seeds. "Breeders must pick through the mutants for traits they like, then try to get rid mid of many unwanted mutations as they can," DellaPenna says.
"Recombinant DNA technology is actually more precise - we can now determine exactly where a transgene has gone into a chromosome, what other genes are in that region, and assess the likelihood that there might be unintended consequence on nearby genes.
"There is a misconception out there that organic foods are safer than genetically engineered foods. My view is that we would have the best of both worlds if we can develop GE crops to resist pests, fungus and viral diseases, and other types of problems, and grow them with minimal pesticides - or even organically, without pesticides - but that's almost heresy."
DellaPenna says micronutrient deficiencies were a problem in industrialised nations at the beginning of the 19th century, and were corrected by adding the missing nutrients. Fortifying foods like breakfast cereals with iron and vitamins, and, more recently, folate and omega-3 fatty acids, remains common practice.
"But we can't do that in developing nations because of supply-chain problems," he says. "You can grow a variety of vegetables to provide a balanced diet, but that's simply unrealistic in most target populations, where staple crops account for between 50 to 95 per cent of total nutrient intake."
The obvious solution is to make the changes directly in the foods, so the solution is delivered pre-packaged in the seed, not by supplementation.
"We can deliver folate in rice, and vitamin E, which may also help stabilise lipids in the rice grain and inhibit it from going rancid. Vitamin E is required for good immune function, and for cell-membrane integrity."
DellaPenna says the required data are obtained by studying model systems to identify the genes involved in the various metabolic pathways. But in some cases, the approach will merely require directed breeding, using variant alleles of genes already present in the crop.
DellaPenna's team, and other research groups, have dissected the carotenoid biosynthetic pathway and identified the genes involved - their work underpinned the achievement of Beyer and Potrykus in engineering "golden rice" to synthesise beta-carotene, using transgenes from bacteria and daffodil.
"Fifty per cent of the world's population lives on rice, and if you want to make them sufficient in vitamin A and folate, the best solution is to engineer these pathways directly into the grain," he says.
"But the bottom line is that we must improve the nutritional properties of our food crops as soon as we can, by whatever means we can."
A US research project, led by Dr Edward Buckler of Cornell University's Institute of Genomic Diversity, has identified natural allelic variants in the lycopene epsilon cyclase (lycE) gene in maize, associated with a threefold difference in concentrations of provitamin A compounds in maize.
Researchers identified four natural polymorphisms that explained 58 per cent of the variation in levels of alpha and beta carotene, and beta cryptoxanthin in maize.
One of the lycE alleles decreases activity in one leg of a biosynthetic pathway, and directs more carbon into the other, resulting in higher levels of beta-carotene in maize kernels.
"It's a beautiful example of the interweaving of basic science and targeted breeding," DellaPenna says. "Some of these alleles are already present in late-stage breeding lines, so breeders can go in and select fourth-or fifth generation material to develop high provitamin A varieties."
DellaPenna says his research group has pioneered the concept of "nutritional genomics": as fully sequenced genomes become available for important crop species, it is apparent that many of the compounds researchers are interested in have dual functions.
Provitamin A is needed to prevent macular degeneration of the retina. "We initially worked on provitamin A compounds from the plant side - how they are made, and their role in photosynthesis."
In plants, they are involved in oxygen production, and in limiting oxidative damage.
"The third area we are working hard is using natural variation to help us how compounds are made and modified within the plants - for example, we can take petunia lines, cross them, then select in subsequent generations for genetic variation underlying particular biosynthetic pathways.
"We can do that for metabolites as well, by cloning quantitative trait loci (QTLs) in Arabidopsis. Many of those linkages are going to be important selection targets in crops - they increase levels of vitamin E, specific carotenoids, and the bioavalability of minerals like iron.
"Iron is certainly the major limiting micronutrient in the human diet. One of the reasons for iron deficiency and anaemia in developing countries is that iron in plant tissues is much less bioavailable than in animal products.
"For example, 30 to 40 per cent of the total iron content of a hamburger might end up in the bloodstream, but if the equivalent amount were available in rice, maize or wheat, only 5 per cent would end up in the bloodstream, because other compounds in plants inhibit iron uptake.
"But there are also compounds in plants that stimulate iron uptake through the intestines. Using natural variation and QTLs to identify the genes involved in the Arabidopsis model system, we can investigate how the proteins or enzymes involved influence iron uptake by human intestinal epithelia cells in culture.
"In the longer term, we can move those genes into crops and they should have an enormous benefit on human nutrition, without changing the amount of iron in plants. If we could double or triple iron availability, it would have major benefits for people's ability to work, to increase their red cell counts, and improve their immune responses."
DellaPenna says his team and others are still sifting through massive amounts of plant genomic data, to identify the genes involved in these metabolic pathways, and to determine how they evolved. He says plants actually have composite genomes derived from multiple endosymbiotic events during their evolution - for example, their acquisition of chloroplasts and mitochondria.
To date, his team has identified only single-gene variation influencing these metabolic pathways; it hopes to identify natural variants of transcription-factor genes that regulate entire pathways. Because transcription factors drive coordinated networks of scores to hundreds genes, they offer prospects for more metabolic bang-for-the-buck.
In terms of industrial applications, some plant groups specialise in synthesising novel compounds like morphine and other alkaloids.
"We can identify a shortlist of genes that might be involved in the synthesis pathway, then mass-spec all the compounds they produce," he says. "We're only scratching the surface of what is going on out there in the plant world. Much of the interesting variation has no visible effect on the phenotype of the plant - it's only apparent at the biochemical level. As the instruments get better, we're getting bigger telescopes that allow us to see many more things."
The natural-variation approach relieves researchers of having to make assumptions about what is important. Mother Nature may not know what is best for humans, but she is at least telling researchers what is important, he says.
The Greening of Sub-Saharan Africa
- ScienceDaily (Sep. 18, 2008)
The green revolution that has led to food being far more abundant now than forty years ago in South America and Asia has all-but bypasses Sub-Saharan Africa as that region's population trebled over that time period.
Now, writing in the International Journal of Technology and Globalisation, researchers in The Netherlands point to possible causes for this disparity and offer hope of reversing the trend based on a technological approach.
Agricultural production expert Prem Bindraban, plant breeder Huub Loeffler, and ecologist Rudy Rabbinge of Wageningen University and Research Centre in The Netherlands, highlight the disparity between growing food availability across the globe compared with Sub-Saharan Africa (SSA). Food has increased by almost one third per person over the last forty years but has decreased by 12% in SSA.
Currently 90% of the SSA population lives in rural areas and 70% of the labour force works in the agricultural sector. This figure is higher for some countries, including Burundi. As such, agriculture is an important economic sector that generates 30-60% of Gross Domestic Product. Nevertheless, the population has increased from 200 million in 1960 to 600 million today and finds 180 million people malnourished in SSA.
With most poor people living in rural regions and employed in agriculture, they explain that there is new interest in how farming and food production might drive overall development. Bindraban and colleagues emphasise how agricultural development has served as a "stepping stone for overall economic development in developed nations and in newly developing economies in Asia".
While there have been a few isolated successes in development, modern agricultural technology, including genetically modified crops, modern pesticides, fertilisers and irrigation methods, mono-cropping for bulk production, has not spread widely to benefit the entire continent. "For agriculture to develop, proper market and institutional conditions should catalyse the process that is initiated by technologies, as has been found for the green revolution," the researchers explain.
Agricultural innovation and economic growth in Africa: renewing international cooperation
- Calestous Juma, Int J Technology and Globalisation, 2008, Vol. 4, No.3, pp. 256 - 275. Excerpted below--
Abstract: Rising food prices and the associated political upheavals have rekindled interest in international cooperation on food security in particular and economic development in general. This paper argues that efforts to promote food security in sub-Saharan Africa need take into account three key issues: food security is inseparable from economic development; science and innovation are a necessary part of economic development; universities in most countries are engines of development and must be so in Africa as well. Industrialised countries and Africa should to forge long-term cooperation in advancing specific technology missions in fields such as biotechnology.
5.4 Collaborating on new technology missions Capturing the wave of emerging technologies is an effective way to galvanise cooperation between African and industrialised countries. The USA, for example, has a long history of using its technological pre-eminence to bolster economic strength among its South East Asian allies. Efforts to promote the migration of the semi-conductor industry to South East Asian countries such as South Korea and Taiwan are an illustration of this (Hung et al., 2006).20 Similarly, the Green Revolution was an act of science and innovation diplomacy (Juma, 2005).21 Today, emerging fields of biological innovations (which include the application of living processes to economic activities in fields such as agriculture, health, industry and environment) represent new opportunities for cooperation between the USA and Africa (Juma, 2002).22
But exploration of technology missions should not be limited to biological innovations. In addition to information and telecommunications technologies, there are extensive opportunities to collaborate in a wide range of infrastructure related fields such as energy and transportation as well as others. Biological innovations are therefore used here purely to illustrate emerging opportunities.
Cooperation in biological innovations can build on the High Level Panel on Modern Biotechnology of the AU and the New Partnership for Africa's Development (NEPAD) (Juma and Serageldin, 2007).23 Its report, Freedom to Innovate: Biotechnology in Africa's Development, proposes a 20-year African Biotechnology Strategy with specific regional technology goals to be implemented through the RECs and to develop and harmonise national and regional regulations that promote the application and safe use of modern biotechnology. The African Ministerial Council on Science and Technology (AMCOST) has already endorsed the proposal.
The panel's main recommendations include the need for individual countries in central, eastern, western, northern and southern Africa to work together at the regional level to scale up the development of biotechnology. It focuses on the key role of clusters of expertise, sharing knowledge, creative ideas, and personnel, and working on problems and projects collaboratively.
The report also recommends the need to:
• outline priority areas in biotechnology that are of relevance to Africa's development • identify critical capabilities needed for the development and safe use of biotechnology
• craft appropriate regulatory measures to advance research, commercialisation, trade and consumer protection
• offer strategies for creating and building regional and local biotechnology initiatives in Africa.
The report pays particular attention to the role human capabilities and institutional innovation. It calls for reforms in existing knowledge-based institutions, especially universities, to serve as centres of diffusion of new biotechnologies into the economy. It stresses the need to develop and expand national and regional human resources development strategies that include:
• biotechnology curricula that focus on specific areas and targets that offer high economic potential for the regions and the continent • a consortium of clearly identified and designated universities that develop and offer regional biotechnology training courses • a focus on female recruitment in the sciences and engineering.
Much of the biotechnology knowledge for Africa's development is currently available in Africa and other parts of the world. But Africa lacks appropriate institutions that can search, identify acquire and transform such knowledge in goods and services. This is a primary function of the modern African university (Bell and Juma, 2007)
Africa may not have benefited from the Green Revolution partly because its institutional arrangements were not in tune with what was possible in Africa. But changes in African governments, the explosive growth in scientific and technical knowledge, and the availability of inspirational institutional models now make, it possible for the USA and Africa to forge new partnerships.
Indeed, African countries are starting to redesign their economic policies with technological considerations in mind. Much of the new thinking has been inspired by the rapid diffusion of practical applications in the information and telecommunications technologies. Mobile phones, for example, have had discernible impacts on communication. Many countries are looking for equivalents of the mobile phone for other sectors such as energy, agriculture, industry and transportation. Many of them are starting to reflect these factors in their foreign policy.
Industrialised countries are in a better position than any other country to lead in forging partnerships with Africa designed to transfer skills and knowledge. Demand for higher education is exploding in Africa, and assistance by these countries would be greatly welcomed. Such an effort would serve the needs of both diplomacy and food security by providing funding for cooperation in agricultural science and in education and training in general, perhaps specifically to enable industrialised country universities to pair with African counterparts. Working together will allow industrialised country researchers and their African counterpart to adapt today's knowledge to African conditions and will effectively transfer skills. It will also expand cooperation with other universities around the world with relevant experiences. This is a historical opportunity that the industrialised countries and Africa cannot afford to miss, for the health of millions of people, for economic development.
(Juma is at Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, Harvard Kennedy School, 79 John F. Kennedy Street, Cambridge, MA 02138, USA).
- Preechajarn, S. 2008. USDA Foreign Agricultural Service GAIN Report. No. TH8113: 9 pages.
Although the Thai Cabinet revoked the ban on biotech field trials in Thailand in December 2007, government and private sector stakeholders voiced frustration because the Cabinet's new requirements are considered too restrictive. According to these stakeholders, the requirement to hold public hearings for field trial approval is unclear and provides an avenue for anti-biotech NGOs to become a part of the Government's decision-making process. In addition, the requirement that the field trials must be submitted for Cabinet approval on a case-by-case basis makes approvals subject to political decision-makers, many of whom are opposed to advancing biotechnology in Thailand.
Meetings that changed the world: Asilomar 1975: DNA modification secured
Paul Berg, Nature 455, 290-291 (18 September 2008)
'The California meeting set standards allowing geneticists to push research to its limits without endangering public health. Organizer Paul Berg asks if another such meeting could resolve today's controversies.'
Today, the benefits of genetic engineering, and the risks and ethical dilemmas that it presents, are part of everyday public discourse, thrashed out in newspaper columns and by politicians and commentators everywhere. In the early 1970s, it was a very different picture. Scientists were only just learning how to manipulate DNA from various sources into combinations that were not known to exist naturally. Although they were confident that the new technology offered considerable opportunities, the potential health and environmental risks were unclear.
The people who sounded the alarm about this new line of experimentation were not politicians, religious groups or journalists, as one might expect: they were scientists. They called for a worldwide moratorium on the work, followed by an international conference of experts at which the nature and magnitude of the risks could be assessed. At that gathering, the International Congress on Recombinant DNA Molecules, held at the Asilomar Conference Center in Pacific Grove, California, in February 1975, it was agreed that the research should continue but under stringent guidelines. The conference marked the beginning of an exceptional era for science and for the public discussion of science policy.
Some of the concerns about recombinant DNA experimentation stemmed from my own work with the Simian Virus 40 (SV40), which can produce tumours in rodents. My aim was to use SV40 to introduce new genes into mammalian cells. Because the DNA of SV40 can integrate into the chromosomes of infected cells, I reasoned that any 'foreign DNA' associated with it would also become part of the infected cell's genetic make-up, and consequently we might be able to study the foreign DNA's expression in mammalian cells. To test this, we inserted a segment of DNA containing three Escherichia coli genes responsible for the metabolism of the sugar galactose into the genome of the Simian Virus.
Meetings that changed the worldAsilomar 1975: DNA modification secured
Several scientists feared that bacteria carrying SV40 DNA might escape and cause cancer in people infected, so we chose to defer our experiments until we could be sure that the risk was nonexistent. Most researchers, like me, acknowledged that the new technology opened extraordinary avenues for genetics and could ultimately lead to exceptional opportunities in medicine, agriculture and industry. But we conceded that unfettered pursuit of these goals might have unforeseen and damaging consequences for human health and Earth's ecosystems.
Earlier, in mid-1974, I had led a committee that communicated those concerns to the president of the US National Academy of Sciences and published them in Science, Nature and in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. We recommended a voluntary moratorium on certain recombinant DNA experiments that were considered potentially hazardous. The committee was particularly concerned that introduced genes could change normally innocuous microbes into cancer-causing agents or into human pathogens, resistant to antibiotics or able to produce dangerous toxins.
Scientists around the world hotly debated the wisdom of our call for caution, and the press had a field day conjuring up fantastical 'what if' scenarios. Yet the moratorium was universally observed in academic and industrial research centres. Meanwhile, the public seemed comforted by the fact that the freeze had been proposed by the very people who had helped to develop the technology.
We also proposed an international conference at which scientists and appropriate experts could assess the risks of recombinant DNA technology and devise ways of reducing them. With the backing of the National Academy of Sciences and the National Institutes of Health, I and four others - David Baltimore, Sydney Brenner, Richard Roblin and Maxine Singer - drew up the agenda for the conference. Its main aim was to consider whether to lift the voluntary moratorium and, if so, what conditions to impose to ensure that the research could proceed safely. Non-scientists were also encouraged to join in, and the approximately 140 participants included scientists, lawyers, journalists and government officials.
The press had a field day conjuring up fantastical 'what if' scenarios.
As might be expected, there was considerable disagreement during the conference about the existence and magnitude of the purported risks. Some biologists and public officials were certain that recombinant DNA research was flirting with disaster and that lifting the moratorium would be a blunder. Others argued that the research was safe. Heated discussions carried on during the breaks, at meal times, over drinks and well into the small hours. I was struck by how often scientists willingly acknowledged the risks in other's experiments but not in their own. Brenner repeatedly warned of the consequences of doing nothing, predicting that such apparently self-serving behaviour would be publicly condemned and that government interference or even legislation would follow.
The turning point
What turned the debate around was the suggestion to assign a risk estimate to the different types of experiments envisaged, and to apply safety guidelines of varying stringency according to the degree of risk. This system worked on two levels. The first was physical containment, whereby the degree of risk was matched with the type of laboratory facility required. So, experiments with little or no risk could be done on an open bench; those with some risk might require laminar flow hoods; a high risk might necessitate an airlock and a laboratory under negative pressure; whereas experiments using known human pathogens would be either prohibited or restricted to specialized facilities. Brenner suggested this should be supplemented with an additional, biological level of containment to minimize the damage should engineered organisms escape into the environment. Thus in cloning experiments that were judged to be of little or no risk, researchers could work on relatively innocuous organisms such as widely used lab strains of E. coli and Bacillus subtilis; riskier experiments would have to use bacteria that had been genetically modified so they could not survive outside the laboratory.
Participants agreed on the final day of the conference that research should continue, but under stringent restrictions. The recommendations formed the basis of the official US guidelines on research involving recombinant DNA, issued in July 1976. They have proved remarkably effective.
In the 33 years since Asilomar, researchers around the world have carried out countless experiments with recombinant DNA without reported incident. Many of these experiments were inconceivable in 1975, yet as far as we know, none has been a hazard to public health. Moreover, the fear among scientists that artificially moving DNA among species would have profound effects on natural processes has substantially disappeared with the discovery that such exchanges occur in nature.
The promised land
What of the benefits of allowing researchers to continue to work with recombinant DNA? In 1975, many scientists predicted that the technology would soon yield important drugs, industrial products and improved agricultural varieties.
In fact, such developments have taken longer than anticipated. Some have never been realized because identifying the genes responsible for producing certain products or conditions, and learning how to manipulate them usefully has been more difficult than expected. Since the mid-1980s, however, the number of products has risen continually. Genetically modified hormones, vaccines, therapeutic agents and diagnostic tools are enhancing medical practice. Genetically engineered food plants are being grown and sold for consumption in both developed and developing countries. A thriving biotechnology industry has created products, jobs and wealth for scientists and others. Very few Asilomar attendees foresaw this great potential - nor could we have predicted the pace at which our fundamental understanding of biology has grown.
Apart from laying the foundations for an effective safety regime, what else did Asilomar achieve? First and foremost, I feel that scientists were able to gain the public's trust - something that is now much more difficult for researchers working in biotechnology. Because some 15% of the participants at Asilomar were from the media, the public was well informed about the deliberations, as well as the bickering, accusations, wavering views and ultimately the consensus. Many scientists feared that a public debate would place crippling restrictions on molecular biology, but the effort encouraged responsible discussion that led to a consensus that most researchers supported.
Could an Asilomar-type conference help resolve some of the controversies now confronting scientists and the public - such as over fetal tissue, embryonic stem-cell research, somatic and germ-line gene therapy and the genetic modification of food crops? I believe that it would be much more difficult to organize such an event today. In the 1970s, most of the scientists engaged in recombinant DNA research were working in public institutions and were therefore able to get together and voice opinions without having to look over their shoulders. This is no longer the case - as many scientists now work for private companies where commercial considerations are paramount.
Related to this is that so many issues in science and technology today are beset by economic self-interest and, increasingly, by nearly irreconcilable ethical and religious conflicts, as well as by challenges to deeply held social values. A conference that sets out to find a consensus among such contentious views would, I believe, be doomed to acrimony and policy stagnation.
That said, there is a lesson in Asilomar for all of science: the best way to respond to concerns created by emerging knowledge or early-stage technologies is for scientists from publicly-funded institutions to find common cause with the wider public about the best way to regulate - as early as possible. Once scientists from corporations begin to dominate the research enterprise, it will simply be too late.
For more Meetings that Changed the World, see http://www.nature.com/nature/focus/meetings
(Paul Berg was one of the organizers of the International Congress on Recombinant DNA Molecules held in Asilomar, 24-27 February 1975. He is Cahill professor emeritus of biochemistry, and director emeritus of the Beckman Center of Molecular and Genetic Medicine, at Stanford University. He received the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1980 and the US National Medal of Science in 1983)