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April 30, 2009


Ready to Rethink GM? Multi-Vitamin Corn Developed; More-Precise Genetic Engineering; More Crop for the Drop; Uganda to Plant GM Cotton


* Is the UK Ready to Rethink its Stance on G
* Corn Fortified With Vitamins Devised by Scientists
* More-Precise Genetic Engineering for Plants
* Plants Genes Get Fine Tailoring
* Sustainability and Crop Engineering
* Uganda: Ministry Clears GM Cotton, Planting to Start in May
* Scientific Intervention is the Future of Agriculture
* More Crop for the Drop

Is the UK Ready to Rethink its Stance on GM?

- Professor Rosie Hails, Planet Earth Online, April 28 2009 http://planetearth.nerc.ac.uk/blogs/story.aspx?id=403

'Faced with climate change and a global population pushing seven billion, we need serious solutions, says ecologist Rosie Hails. And like it or not, she thinks scientists, politicians and the public need to reconsider GM.'

In March, the United Nations announced the world's population would reach the seven billion mark early in 2012, and top nine billion by 2050. We are already failing to feed a significant proportion of the world's population: tonight, some 850-900 million people will go to bed hungry, but over the next 25-50 years we will need to double food production.

The same month, 2500 experts from 80 countries met in Copenhagen to discuss climate change. Their conclusions made worrying reading, not least because our ability to grow food is closely tied to our climate.

The latest evidence, they said, shows that the worst-case predictions made by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change are being realised. Temperature rises above 2°C will be difficult for societies to cope with and poor nations will fare worst. Above all, they warned, inaction is not an option.

The question is, what action should we take? As an ecologist, I have spent the past 25 years trying to understand how the natural world works. Above all, I've learned that ecosystems are complex things, and that the health of our economy is closely linked to the health of our environment.

Don't rule anything out
Solving problems like climate change and food shortages require a whole range of solutions. Science can help us find some of the solutions, but the scale and urgency of the task mean we can't afford to rule anything out. That should be our first action.

Secondly, we must be imaginative. We need to use agricultural land to deliver multiple services - to produce food and fuel at the same time as conserving biodiversity.

For example, most genetically-modified (GM) crops currently on the market are either herbicide tolerant or insect resistant. But there are several novel crops in the development pipeline - such as potatoes resistant to nematodes, crops that use nitrogen more efficiently and plants that could clean up contaminated land - which are much more imaginative. However, this wide variety of products all carry the same label of 'GM' because of the method by which the plants are produced. This hides the very different ways in which they may interact with the environment.

Thirdly, we need a change in legislation. Current environmental laws have many strengths but focus on risks and do not consider benefits. The regulatory focus is predominantly on GM, but what about the consequences of widespread introduction of other novel crops such as biofuels?

We have tough choices to make about how to feed a growing global population at the same time as mitigating and adapting to the effects of climate change. We need regulations that help us make the best decisions.

We need more holistic decision-making tools too. The world uses 25 million tonnes of pesticides a year. The production and application of herbicides, pesticides and fertilisers means intensive farming is a significant contributor to greenhouse gases. We should be using new decision-making tools - like the Advisory Committee on Releases to the Environment's Comparative Sustainability Assessment - to weigh up the risks and benefits of how we grow our food.

Put aside past prejudices
Finally, we need to behave like adults. That means being open minded, taking a fresh approach, and learning from our mistakes. As a society, we need to put aside past prejudices about GM crops so that we can debate what part they could play in solving some of our problems. Prejudice is apparent on both sides of the debate; we should neither overstate the risks nor overplay the benefits.

Scientists need to be able to conduct research without having their field trials vandalised, but the quid pro quo is that scientists must be more proactive in engaging in the public debate.

We are living in serious times. We need to rethink our relationship with the environment. In the past, humans thought themselves a species apart, and the environment as something to be exploited. We now understand how dependent we are on it - it's to time to act on that understanding and to manage our natural capital more wisely."

Professor Rosie Hails MBE is Head of Population, Molecular and Community Ecology at the Centre for Ecology & Hydrology, a member of the UK Government's Advisory Committee on Releases to the Environment (ACRE) and chair of the Natural Capital Initiative committee
Reader's comment

I do hope that the few opponents to this technology will put aside their reservations about this and accept that the overwhelming body of scientific opinion is in support of GM plant breeding. As one of the few farmers who has had the opportunity to stand up for what is obviously a beneficial and low risk option for us and the rest of the world Professor Hails is to be commended for trying to explain why we should accept the benefits that the genetic manipulation of crop plants offer. Jonathon Harrington, United Kingdom
Wednesday, 29 April 2009 - 13:43


Corn Fortified With Vitamins Devised by Scientists

- Karen Kaplan, April 28, 2009 http://www.latimes.com

'The genetic breakthrough marks the first time multiple vitamins have been engineered into a single plant. The enhanced crops would be a particular boon to diets in developing countries.'

Scientists have engineered vitamin-fortified corn designed to boost consumption of three key nutrients that are sorely lacking in the diets of millions of people in developing countries, according to a study published today.

The genetically modified African corn has bright orange kernels, reflecting the 169-fold increase in beta carotene, a precursor of vitamin A. The corn also has six times the normal amount of vitamin C and double the usual level of folate, researchers reported in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Though genetic engineering has been used to enhance vitamin content in a variety of crops -- including rice, potatoes, lettuce and tomatoes -- this is the first time scientists have been able to amplify multiple vitamins in a single plant.

"They really have made a major step forward here," said Martina Newell-McGloughlin, a plant pathologist at UC Davis who wasn't involved in the study. "I could see this transforming the field. It's just really cool stuff."

Corn breeders could potentially create the same plant by conventional means -- if they kept at it for several hundred years, Newell-McGloughlin said.

The researchers, from Spain and Germany, targeted this combination of vitamins because deficiencies in them cause many diseases in the developing world, said study leader Paul Christou of the University of Lleida in Spain. The beta carotene boost was the most dramatic because scientists are most familiar with the genes controlling that nutrient, he said.

The team inserted five genes from other organisms -- including rice and Escherichia coli -- into a popular South African white corn variety called M37W that Christou said is "completely devoid of vitamins." To embed the genes into the corn's DNA, the researchers attached them to microscopic gold particles and shot them into immature corn embryos in a laboratory dish. When the cells divided, they contained the new genes.

The scientists' method ensures that the five genes are inserted in the genome together, so that they stick together in subsequent generations. The genes have stayed intact over four generations so far, according to the study. These orange corn plants are just a proof of concept, the scientists added.

To grow in Africa, Central America or elsewhere, they would have to be crossed with the many corn varieties adapted to specific regions. That process could take 10 years, said Gary Toenniessen, an agriculture specialist at the Rockefeller Foundation in New York who is involved with the rollout of a genetically engineered crop, Golden Rice, fortified with beta carotene.

But most of the target countries in Africa don't have systems in place to evaluate and approve genetically modified crops, and several countries have banned them, Toenniessen said. "They're going to be up against quite a challenge to actually take a product like what they've produced and eventually get it out to farmers," he said.

Other scientists are using conventional breeding to make corn more nutritious. The nonprofit HarvestPlus initiative is trying to create crops with 15 micrograms of beta carotene per gram of corn. That's only one-quarter as much as the European researchers achieved, but it's 10 times the amount in run-of-the-mill yellow corn, said Kevin Pixley, who leads corn-breeding efforts at HarvestPlus.

Considering the resistance to genetically modified foods, conventional breeding is probably a better way to create fortified corn plants for poor farmers, said Pixley, who is based at the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center outside Mexico City. But in some cases, he said, genetic engineering is the only option.

"For certain other crops and nutrients, the naturally occurring genetic variation simply does not exist to allow achieving useful levels via conventional breeding," he said.

Transgenic multivitamin corn through biofortification of endosperm with three vitamins representing three distinct metabolic pathways

- Shaista Naqvi et al. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences

Summary at http://www.pnas.org/content/early/2009/04/27/0901412106


More-Precise Genetic Engineering for Plants

- Courtney Humphries, Technology Review, April 30, 2009 http://www.technologyreview.com

'New technology makes it possible to alter plant genes precisely and efficiently.'

Genetically engineering plants is a time-intensive process. Methods currently used to deliver genetic changes are imprecise, so it's often necessary to generate thousands of plants to find one that happens to have the desired alteration. Two papers in this week's Nature detail the use of a genetic technology that allows scientists to target plant genomes more precisely. The method, which has previously been used in animals and in human cells, can be used to introduce a new gene, make small changes in existing genes, or block a gene from being expressed; it also makes it possible to introduce several different genetic changes into the same plant.

"We now have some control over the plant's genetic code," says Daniel Voytas, lead author of one of the papers and a geneticist at the University of Minnesota. The technique not only allows for more precise changes, but it greatly increases the efficiency of generating genetically engineered plants for use as food or fuel, or for absorbing carbon and cleaning the environment. "If you can deliver a gene to the same location every time with precision, that might change the regulatory landscape and decrease the cost of creating these transgenic plants," he says.

Vipula Shukla, a scientist at Dow AgroSciences, who led the other study, says that for plant scientists, "all of the conventional tools that are available to us are based on methods that make random modifications to plant genomes." These methods include using a bacterial vector to transfer DNA into a plant cell, or physically blasting DNA-coated particles into cells. DNA introduced these ways, Shukla says, can land anywhere within the plant's genome and have unintended side effects like altering an existing gene or producing multiple copies of the gene of interest. Scientists typically generate many plants and then screen them to find the ones in which the desired change was successful.

Both of the new studies--one was led by Dow and another by an academic consortium--employed a gene-targeting technology called zinc finger nucleases--synthetic proteins that can precisely target locations in the genome and make specific genetic changes.

Zinc finger nucleases work by breaking both strands of DNA at a specific site in the genome. This double break prompts the cell's own repair machinery to patch the rift. The machinery will often search for a piece of DNA that is similar to the damaged region to copy and paste back into the genome. By supplying a piece of DNA that contains sequences from the original gene with the desired changes--either the addition of a new gene or a change in sequence--scientists can induce the cell to change the genetic code as it repairs the break. The technology can also be used to block a gene by taking advantage of another repair mechanism in which the cell simply joins the two broken ends back together, which often deletes or inserts new DNA sequences into the repair site, resulting in DNA code that can't be read properly.

The Dow group used the method to introduce two changes into maize, a plant that is often used for animal feed. The researchers targeted a gene involved in the production of phytates, chemicals in maize that most animals can't digest, and used the gene as a landing pad to insert another gene that gives the plant tolerance to herbicides. At the same time, they disrupted the target gene so that the plant produces fewer phytates, which Shukla says can also accumulate as waste in water runoff from farms. The ability to "stack" desired traits in this way is not easily performed with existing technologies.

The academic group used a similar method, developed by the Zinc Finger Consortium, an international team of researchers committed to developing a publicly available platform for engineering zinc finger nucleases. Rather than add a new gene into a plant, the researchers used zinc finger nucleases to introduce an altered genetic sequence into an existing gene in tobacco plants; the protein encoded by the gene is a target of herbicides, and the alterations make the plants herbicide resistant. Voytas says that being able to make such subtle changes within a gene will give researchers a new way to study plant biology.

The method still requires generating multiple plants and screening them to find the ones that were successfully altered, but the numbers are in the tens or hundreds, rather than the thousands or tens of thousands. Shukla estimates that the technology cuts the time required to engineer a plant by about half. The method also requires the creation of zinc finger nucleases that are specific to a particular application. Shukla says that Dow is already employing its platform for creating the molecules across its internal products as well as in academic research projects, and it's planning to license the technology for academic, commercial, and humanitarian use. Voytas says that the Zinc Finger Consortium is making its method available publicly and will be offering training sessions in the technique.

Matthew Porteus, a biochemist at the University of Texas at San Antonio, who wrote an accompanying editorial in Nature, says that the two papers are the first examples of investigators who have picked a gene of interest, designing zinc finger nucleases for that gene, and using the nucleases to create specific modifications in plants. Porteus, who has been investigating zinc finger nucleases as a method for gene therapy in humans, says that interest in zinc finger nucleases has been growing in the past few years. They are being used as a way to create precise mutations in zebra fish, and a human clinical trial is just beginning that will test the use of zinc finger nucleases to create genetic alterations in the T cells of patients with HIV, with the hope of making their cells better able to fight infection.


Plants Genes Get Fine Tailoring

- Heidi Ledford , 29 April 2009 | Nature | doi:10.1038/news.2009.415

'Technique allows plant researchers to target and replace specific genes.'

After decades of searching, plant biologists have found a way to selectively snip out one gene and replace it with another. The method promises to be a boon to both basic research and the creation of genetically engineered crops, observers say.

The technique relies on enzymes called zinc-finger nucleases, which bind to specific sites in a genome and then cut nearby strands of DNA. When the cell repairs the cut DNA, the gap can be either simply sealed — in effect deleting the targeted gene — or filled in with a new gene. Zinc-finger nucleases have recently been used to create human immune cells that are resistant to HIV (see 'Designer protein tackles HIV').

Now, that technique has been expanded to include plants. In papers published online today by Nature, two independent groups of researchers report that the technique can also be used to engineer herbicide-resistant corn and tobacco.

"It's a great achievement," says David Ow, a plant biologist at the US Department of Agriculture Plant Gene Expression Center in Albany, California. "The fact that two groups have succeeded is very promising."
A troubled history

Plant biologists have long been frustrated by the lack of a simple method for either deleting a specific gene from the genome or replacing it with another gene. Even Arabidopsis thaliana, the fast-growing weed with a small genome favoured by many plant biologists as a model system, has not been amenable to targeted gene replacement. "To have a really good model system you need targeted gene replacement," says Joseph Ecker, a plant biologist at the Salk Institute for Biological Studies in La Jolla, California. "We've been kind of limping along without it."

Sporadic reports of plant gene-replacement strategies have come and gone, but none has been versatile or efficient enough for wide-scale use. In 1997, a Nature paper reporting targeted gene disruption in Arabidopsis raised the hopes of many plant researchers. "When that paper came out, we all thought 'This is it,'" says Ow. "Unfortunately it didn't pan out. The frequency [of success] was very low."

One problem is that plants tend to have big, complex genomes, chock full of large families of genes with very similar DNA sequences, says Vipula Shukla, a scientific group leader at Dow AgroSciences in Indianapolis, Indiana. That makes targeting a specific gene more difficult. "The challenges associated with any kind of sequence-specific modification in plants are profound," she says.

For one of the new studies, Shukla and her colleagues at Dow AgroSciences teamed up with Sangamo BioSciences, a company based in Richmond, California, that has developed a proprietary method for engineering zinc-finger nucleases. The team has used zinc fingers to replace a gene called IPK1 with an herbicide-resistance gene.

Meanwhile, the other study is the work of a research team led by Daniel Voytas, a plant biologist at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis and a member of the Zinc Finger Consortium, a group of academic researchers united to develop open-access zinc-finger technology (see 'The fate of fingers'). Voytas's group has engineered herbicide-resistant tobacco by inserting specific mutations into a gene called SuR.
Effective but costly

Both groups have replaced their selected genes at a frequency much higher than anyone has achieved before, says Ow. But some technical hurdles could remain. For instance, designing zinc fingers that target only one gene will probably still be a challenge, says Holger Puchta, a plant biologist at Karlsruhe University in Germany who is developing zinc-finger nucleases for use in Arabidopsis. "Many zinc-finger nucleases also cut other sites with similar sequences," he says. "This is still a big problem in all organisms."

Shukla notes that her team was able to target IPK1 without affecting a 98%-identical gene called IPK2. Voytas' team was also able to target their gene without hitting another gene that is 96% identical. But Voytas adds that some of the zinc-finger nucleases the team studied did cleave both genes, even after preliminary studies in cell cultures suggested the nucleases were specific.

Dow AgroSciences may collaborate with another company to make its technology platform available to plant researchers, but pricing has not been determined. Meanwhile, Keith Joung, a member of the Zinc Finger Consortium and a researcher at Harvard Medical School in Boston, says that zinc-fingers cost his team about $1,000 to make. But his laboratory has extensive experience with the technique, Young says, and costs could be higher for other labs.

The technique could also assuage a common concern about transgenic crops. "One argument that is often used — in part correctly — is that when we create transgenic plants, we insert the transgene somewhere in the genome, and we don't know exactly where it happens to insert," says Wilhelm Gruissem, a plant biologist at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich. "Now you can target the transgene to a specific location."


Sustainability and Crop Engineering

- Jared Flesher, NY Times Online/Blog, April 30, 2009 http://greeninc.blogs.nytimes.com

Genetically modified cotton was held up as an example of sustainable genetic modification at a conference this week.

A three-day conference — “Feeding a Hot and Hungry Planet: The Challenge of Making More Food and Fewer Greenhouse Gases” — kicked off at Princeton University Wednesday, bringing together scientists and agricultural experts from across the globe.

The use of corn, cotton, and soybean crops that are genetically modified to be resistant to certain pests or herbicides is already widespread in many parts of the world, so all the big issues were on the table — including whether genetically modified crops are “sustainable.”

Maarten Chrispeels, an expert in molecular agriculture at the University of California, San Diego, began his keynote address by addressing that question.

“The toolkit that we are now developing is absolutely amazing,” he said in outlining advances in biotechnology that will allow sustainable traits in plants species to be propagated in ways that wouldn’t be possible in nature. By way of example, he pointed to the success of Nerica rice, which took the high yields of Asian rice and combined them with the excellent durability of African rice.

Meanwhile, Carl Pray, a professor in the Department of Agricultural, Food and Resource Economics at Rutgers University, presented findings that show the use of cotton engineered to contain a gene from the soil bacterium Bacillus thuringiensis — known as Bt cotton — has resulted in significantly reduced pesticide use in China, and dramatically increased yields in India. (The modified cotton is pest-resistant.)

But others at the conference said that, in the bigger picture, genetically modified crops have failed to live up to their early promise.

“The benefits have not yet been that great from the environmental standpoint, or even from a production standpoint,” according to Tim Searchinger, a research scholar at the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs at Princeton University. “At least from published studies, Bt cotton is it.”

Others experts, including Wayne Parrott, a plant genomics researcher at the University of Georgia College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences, called for patience.
“We’re in the era of the first black and white television,” Mr. Parrott said. “We haven’t gotten to color televisions, and we’re nowhere near a flat screen yet.”


Presentations will be online on June 1: http://www.princeton.edu/morefoodlesscarbon/


Uganda: Ministry Clears GM Cotton, Planting to Start in May

- Ronald Kalyango, AllAfrica, April 22, 2009 http://allafrica.com/

Kampala — Genetically modified cotton will be planted at different sites in May and June this year, an official has revealed.

"We are on the right track. The technology providers are positive. They have visited all the sites and at last the trails which had delayed for the last seven years are going to be conducted," said Dr.Tilahun Zeweldu, who has been at the forefront of Bt. Cotton research.

Confined field trials are studies that are made by scientists to collect data on any new varieties developed at research stations within the country or outside. The importation of the seeds followed the granting of an importation permit by the crop protection department of the agriculture ministry in February.

Speaking recently at a stakeholders meeting at Mosa Court in Kampala, the Monsanto South Africa's business development manager, Danie Olivier, said the trials would be conducted for three consecutive seasons. "The confined field trial will help Ugandan scientists gather information to use when the crop is commercialised," said Olivier.

The Monsanto Company is an American multinational agricultural biotechnology corporation and the leading producer of genetically engineered seed, holding 70%-100% market share for various crops.

It is charged with the responsibility of providing the technology which will be tested at the National Semi-Arid Resources Research Institute (NaSARRI) in Serere, Soroti and at the prisons farm in Mobuku, Kasese. Uganda has been targeting the Bt (Bacillus thuringiensis) with a bacterium gene for tolerance to Bollworm pests and the Roundup Ready (RR) cotton with resistance to the Roundup herbicide for the control of weeds.


Scientific Intervention is the Future of Agriculture

- Joshua Kato, New Vision (Uganda), April 28 2009 http://allafrica.com/stories/200904290107.html

Kampala — Biotechnology is a system where bioscience is used on research to identify better yielding crops that resist certain diseases and separate other diseases that attack crops.

"The use of biotechnology eases the process of solving problems that would have taken years to solve," says Dr. Andrew Kiggundu, the head of the biotechnology centre at Kawanda. Experts in bioscience are located at key research centres in Uganda, including Kawanda and Namulonge.

Being a new system in Uganda, however, it is still dogged by beliefs that, experts say, are misconceived. "All the misconceptions about biotechnology are not true. I have been in this field for many years. I have eaten foods that have been generated this way, but I do not have trees growing over my head," Dr. Arinaitwe, who is in charge of adding vital nutrients to matooke, says.

Dr. Arinaitwe says bananas are the most consumed food in Uganda, although they lack vital elements like Vitamin A and iron. In using biotechnology, bananas can be fortified with these major growth elements. Dr. Titus Alicai maintains that, had it not been for biotechnology, the fight against a range of viruses ravaging crops across the country would have been much slower.

In the last 30 years, viruses have attacked coffee, cassava, bananas and other crops. Between 1993 and 1999, cassava was almost wiped out of the country by the cassava mosaic virus "But this process (biotechnology) helps scientists split and identify the exact viruses that are disturbing crops," he says.

The process may involve picking plant cells from one crop species and mixing it with cells from another crop species to create a better product. Under the banana fortification project, cells from crops rich in vitamins and iron are mixed with banana cells to create a banana that is rich in vitamins and iron. The public must be sensitised about the advantages of agricultural biotechnology for the programmes to succeed


More Crop for the Drop

- Henry I. Miller, Los Angeles Times, April 27, 2009 http://www.latimes.com

'More drought-resistant plants are available through genetic modification, if only government would get out of the way.'

America's politicians and government officials have been slow to grasp the importance of societal resilience -- the ability to recover from or adapt to adversity. Sufficient resilience can minimize the risks of major, debilitating disruptions -- whether they be economic ones, such as the current recession, or unavoidable natural disasters.

Take the ability to cope with droughts, for example. Science, technology and intelligent planning cannot eliminate them, but they can mitigate their effects. Or at least they could, if only federal policy makers and local regulations permitted it.

Gene-splicing, sometimes called genetic modification, offers plant breeders the tools to make old crop plants do spectacular new things. In the United States and two dozen other countries, farmers are using gene-spliced crop varieties to produce higher yields, with lower inputs and reduced environmental impact.

In spite of research being hampered by resistance from activists and discouraged by governmental over-regulation, gene-spliced crop varieties are slowly but surely trickling out of the development pipeline in many parts of the world. Most of these new varieties are designed to be resistant to pests and diseases, or to be resistant to herbicides, so that farmers can more effectively control weeds while adopting more environment-friendly no-till farming practices and more benign herbicides. Other varieties possess improved nutritional quality. But the greatest boon of all, to food security and to the environment in the long term, may be the ability of new crop varieties to tolerate periods of drought and other water-related stresses.

Where water is scarce, the development of crop varieties that grow under conditions of low moisture or temporary drought could boost yields and lengthen the time that farmland is productive. Even where irrigation is feasible, plants that use water more efficiently are needed. Agriculture accounts for about 70% of the world's freshwater consumption -- and more in areas of intensive farming and arid or semi-arid conditions, such as in California. So the introduction of plants that grow with less water would free up much of that essential resource for other uses.

Plant biologists have identified genes that regulate water use and transferred them into important crop plants. These new varieties grow with smaller amounts of water or with lower-quality water, such as recycled water or water high in natural mineral salts. In 2004, for example, Egyptian researchers showed that by transferring a single gene from barley to wheat, the plants can tolerate reduced watering for a longer period of time. This new, drought-resistant variety requires only one-eighth as much irrigation as conventional wheat, and in some deserts can be cultivated with rainfall alone.

Aside from new varieties that have lower water requirements, pest- and disease-resistant gene-spliced crop varieties also make water use more efficient indirectly. Because much of the loss to insects and diseases occurs after the plants are fully grown, the use of gene-spliced varieties that have higher post-harvest yields means that the farming (and irrigation) of fewer plants can produce the same total amount of food. We get more crop for the drop.

However, unscientific and overly burdensome regulation by the Environmental Protection Agency and the U.S. Department of Agriculture in this country -- and by national regulators and the United Nations elsewhere -- has raised the cost of producing new plant varieties and kept potentially important crops off the market. This deeply entrenched, discriminatory and excessive regulation -- which flies in the face of scientific consensus that gene-splicing is basically an extension of earlier crop improvement methods -- adds tens of millions of dollars to the development costs of new gene-spliced crop varieties. Higher costs and the endless controversy translate to fewer products in the pipeline and fewer companies competing to make them. Less competition means higher prices.

California offers a stark lesson in how wrongheaded public policy can impair resilience. Although severe drought afflicts much of California, over the last few years four of the state's counties have banned the cultivation or sale of gene-spliced plants, including those that are drought-resistant.

If individually and collectively we are to meet economic, environmental and public health challenges, we need plenty of options and opportunities for innovation -- and the wealth to pursue them. In society, as in evolutionary biology, survival demands resilience. But in large and small ways, unimaginative, shortsighted politicians and venal activists have conspired to limit our options, constrain economic growth and make real solutions elusive.

Henry I. Miller, a physician and molecular biologist, is a fellow at Stanford University's Hoover Institution.