You are here

Genetic Engineering: Evolution or Revolution?

Genetic Engineering: Evolution or Revolution? header image
OSU researchers trying to improve plants and animals with biotechnology are in the middle of an international controversy.

To Oregon State University horticulturists Machteld Mok and her husband, David, transferring genetic traits between species is all in a day's work.

The Moks have been working to isolate the individual genes and hormones responsible for plant growth for the past 25 years.

"We started with enzymes, and now we're working with genetic engineering," Machteld Mok said.

Woman looking at DNA x-ray.

OSU horticulture researcher Machteld Mok checks a fingerprint of plant DNA on x-ray film. Photo: Lynn Ketchum

For example, tobacco plants crossed with a gene from yeast were better able to absorb iron from the alkaline soils of Eastern Oregon, without added soil amendments, David Mok said.

"So next we can ask 'What about using this with pears in Eastern Oregon?"

The basic genetic makeup of living organisms is surprisingly identical, Mok said, so isolating a genetic trait in one species makes it easier to "graft" it onto another species. This saves researchers time and money over conventional plant breeding within the same species.

However, convincing the public that genetic engineering-a new biotechnology-is both safe and beneficial may be a lot more difficult than rearranging genes, some scientists say. The Moks are among a growing group of OSU scientists who are spending less time in their laboratories and more time in public appearances to explain the benefits, goals and methods of their research.

"This has been an (overlooked) important endeavor for quite a while in other parts of the world," David Mok said. "Oregon has been very slow to understand that some additional education (about genetic engineering) is needed." For example, said Machteld Mok, if researchers identify and learn how individual genes trigger a particular growth response such as fast growth or bushiness, they can give plants an "extra" gene copy for that trait. The ultimate result might be that more food is grown on the same acre, thus helping to feed the earth's growing population, and leaving other land in a more natural state.

While genetic engineering could produce super crops, OSU entomologist Peter McEvoy believes everyone needs to be more cautious before introducing any new plant species into the U.S.

McEvoy, whose work involves using insects to attack noxious plants, said it is important for scientists to stop saying that engineered plants are no different than other plants, just because they appear similar.

"That has stifled research on the potential harm (of transgenic plants) and it is counterproductive, in my view," he said.

McEvoy advocates that the United States follow the example of New Zealand when it comes to introduction of new plant species.

"In New Zealand, (government regulators) take the attitude that 'If it's new to New Zealand, then it's subject to regulatory scrutiny,'" McEvoy said. "In contrast, we have a virtual open-door policy on introducing new plants into North America. A portion of those go on to become invasive weeds."

These "weeds" actually could begin as herbicide-resistant crops, McEvoy asserted. Canola, for example, is now engineered to be resistant to herbicides. But if a farmer plants a different crop the following year, last year's canola crop can emerge as a hardy weed in the same field.

Researchers at OSU are studying how to avoid such eventualities. They also are using genetic engineering in other research projects aimed at solving societal, environmental, agricultural, forestry and medical problems. They include:

* Bioremediation of environmental pollutants to purify treated wastewater.

* Use of sewage solids-politely called biomass-as fuel.

* Engineering trees that can easily be processed into pulp.

* Development of new sources of seed oil through plant improvement.

* Engineering of new vaccines for human diseases such as strep throat.

* Developing antioxidant vitamins to retain youthful health.

* Regulating the "biological clock" and other mechanisms of aging.

* Developing "chemoprevention" therapy to isolate and attack cancers before they develop.

Cornfield.

A field of genetically engineered corn. Each plant contains a gene from a bacterium. The gene produces a protein called "Bt" that injures or kills insect pests. Photo: Grant Heilman

In all, OSU has $50 million in long-term grants from federal, state and private sources to finance its genetic engineering research. Very little of that funding is tied to the companies that one day hope to market products developed with biotechnology, according to OSU administrators. This, they say, enables OSU to retain its neutrality on the evolving issues of how, when and where genetic engineering technology should be applied.

"We don't get much support from industry," said Michael Burke, the associate dean of OSU's College of Agricultural Sciences. Burke, also an associate director of the OSU Agriculture Experiment Station, represents the university on the National Agricultural Biotechnology Council.

"We (OSU) get accused of being funded by Novartis or Monsanto (companies trying to produce products with genetic engineering), but that's somewhat fictional," Burke said. "Most of our funding comes from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the National Science Foundation, the National Institutes of Health and commodity commissions like the Oregon Wheat Commission.

"None of them have a vested interest in genetic engineering," he said. "We do pick up some (money) from the Novartises, Monsantos and DuPonts, but the amount is extremely small."

The goals of genetic engineering research at OSU are to seek solutions to problems in the environment, agriculture, medicine and forestry, to name a few areas.

For example, Steven Strauss, an OSU forestry professor, has researched how trees can be improved to grow faster and put more of their energy into wood stems rather than into flowers.

Researcher in plant lab.

OSU forestry professor Steve Strauss is using genetic engineering to create hybrid poplar trees that grow faster and have other desirable qualities. Poplar farming has developed as harvests from national forests have declined. The trees are used for paper and other wood products. Photo: Lynn Ketchum

Genetic alteration to remove the flowers also would relieve most concerns about genetic pollution by engineered trees, Strauss said. He believes that improved growth of farmed trees could reduce the pressure to harvest native forests.

OSU microbiologist Dennis Hruby studies cells to better understand how they become diseased or cancerous. Genetic engineering might be able to identify and stop this process before it starts.

Hruby also is working to develop new animal and human vaccines as part of a team of researchers who are studying the interactions of invading microbes and their target host cells.

For the past 12 years, OSU plant physiologist Terri Lomax has been studying fundamental plant genetics. "We're trying to understand how plant hormones work at the cellular level," Lomax said. "This plays a role in almost all aspects of plant development-how tall, how many side branches."

Using mutants of tomatoes that grow down in response to gravity, instead of up, and genes that make tomatoes gold instead of red, Lomax is working to develop an ornamental species of tomato. At the same time, she is using genetic engineering as a tool to isolate the gene that controls the direction of plant growth.

Eventually, Lomax hopes to perfect a new nursery tomato for hanging baskets. Such a plant could produce-in any sunny window-a cascade of golden fruit for apartment dwellers.

Steve Knapp, a professor of crop and soil science at OSU, is working on ways to genetically engineer certain seed plants to make them produce more oil for use in everything from cosmetics to detergents. Creating these new crops means new opportunities for growers and consumers.

Monarch butterfly.

A study at Cornell University showed that a crop genetically altered to fight off pests also would harm non-target monarch butterflies. Photo: Grant Heilman

In all, more than 90 OSU scientists from six colleges are involved in the university's Center for Gene Research and Biotechnology. All the scientists are listed on a website

For information, those who do not have access to the Internet can write:

Russel H. Meints
Director, Center for Gene Research and Biotechnology
Oregon State University
3021 Ag & Life Sciences Building
Corvallis, OR 97331-7303

In coming months, visitors to the website might expect descriptions of genetic engineering research and its goals on the website to become easier to understand. Part of the center's plan is to make genetic engineering research more accessible and understandable to the public.

"It's pretty complex, but not so complex that most people shouldn't be able to understand it," Lomax said. "We just need to do a better job of explaining it."

That means answering some tough questions about the more controversial aspects of genetic engineering, as well as its potential benefits.

Peter Bloome, the associate director of OSU's Extension Service, said the university could fulfill a valuable educational function by addressing questions about "gene escape" of engineered organisms and other issues. He would like to see OSU host forums on the ethics and morality of reengineering life at the genetic level to suit human needs.

By initially ignoring such concerns, biotechnical companies created many unfounded fears about the technology, he said.

"The biggest concern (on the part of many) was the unwillingness of genetic engineering's proponents to admit that there will be unintended consequences," Bloome said.

The result has been that in Europe, Asia and now the United States, some consumers already have made up their minds that genetic engineering is too dangerous.

In the past year, the European Union has banned or labeled most genetically engineered foods right off the grocery shelves in England, Germany and France pending more research into their long-term effects. Consumers in Japan, Taiwan and now the United States have expressed similar reservations about consuming genetically engineered foods.

Industry has taken notice.

Child carrying buckets.

Leaders in some developing countries say they need the fruits of genetic engineering technology to feed and clothe their people. Photo: Andy Duncan

Last summer Gerber Foods, the world's largest manufacturer of baby food, announced it no longer would use genetically engineered crops in its product line. The decision was made, company officials said, not because such crops were unsafe but because they didn't want mothers to have any reservations about their products. Others are concerned that genetically engineered crops actually could harm other life forms. These concerns intensified after a study at Cornell University last May indicated that pollen from genetically engineered corn may harm monarch butterflies. The corn had been engineered with a bacterial gene to help the plant produce a protein called Bt (Bacillus thuringiensis), which kills corn pests.

Strauss, the OSU forestry researcher, said the study raised interesting and valuable questions, but it wasn't conclusive.

"The study was preliminary, based only on lab work, not field trials. And it didn't address whether spraying pesticides on the corn would have been more harmful (to the butterflies)," Strauss said. Despite its preliminary nature, the study was enough to prompt demand for more information about the effects of Bt corn pollen on monarch butterflies.

Some people took their concerns to the streets. Last fall, people dressed as monarch butterflies to protest against genetic engineering technology during demonstrations at Seattle's contentious World Trade Organization conference. Strauss had a first-hand sample last summer of the fear that genetic engineering can inspire when he traveled to a biotechnology conference in London.

On the eve of the conference, protesters jumped a fence and destroyed Great Britain's only test plots of genetically engineered forest trees.

These demonstrators viewed genetic engineering as dangerous tampering with nature. Some opponents have dubbed genetic engineering "Frankenscience."

Police and demonstrator with megaphones.

Demonstrators at a recent World Trade Organization meeting in Seattle. Some protests were aimed at genetic engineering. Photo: Grant Heilman

Although Strauss believes genetic engineering is only as dangerous as its application, he said he realizes that the future of the technology rests with the public-the final judge of how science should be applied to products it consumes.

Michael Burke hopes OSU's next project involving genetic engineering will be to provide a forum and expertise to launch an on-going public discussion about the future of the technology.

"OSU has been involved with developing this technology from the beginning," said Burke. "Now it is a good time to involve people who can address social, cultural, religious issues and see where we want to go next."

For Courtney Campbell, an OSU philosophy professor, the discussion already has begun.

In 1997, a representative from President Clinton's Bioethics Advisory Commission asked Campbell to write some background papers on the religious perspectives on human cloning.

Because of OSU's mission and research focus, Campbell created a class for the winter 1999 term on ethics and biotechnology. He used the example of genetic engineering to prompt discussions on the great questions of human existence: Who are we? What is our destiny? How can we influence that destiny? "We are in such a new world with genetics now," Campbell said.

Scientists using genetic engineering may understand the science, but they too wonder how the public will define the use of genetic technology in an enlightened democratic society. Steve Strauss' current research project is aimed at providing basic answers about genetic engineering technology that could help dispel fears and clarify the public debate. The research seeks to answer: With what kinds of genes, and under what circumstances, would the "escape" of an engineered organism, through cross pollination, create a problem, or harm a native species?

Terri Lomax said she is taking the issue to K-12 students through her involvement with Science Connections. This school education program brings students to OSU, where experts answer questions about genetic engineering and other science-related issues.

Woman looking at plant.

OSU botanist Terri Lomax is using genetic engineering to study fundamental plant physiology. This mutant tomato plant grows down instead of up in response to gravity. Photo: Bob Rost

Russ Meints, director of OSU's Center for Gene Research and Biotechnology, is organizing seminars to provide more information and discussion forums on genetic engineering. Still in the planning stages, such seminars would be for media, the public and professionals who want more direction about priorities, protocol, politics and directions for the technology.

A lot is riding on what the public decides and many-including Peter Bloome-are eagerly awaiting the outcome. His grandfather, father and an uncle died of prostate cancer and three uncles have been diagnosed with the disease. Bloome, who has grandsons and nephews, hopes to see the day when genetic engineering technology can isolate and prevent prostate cancer before it begins.

"Technology is neither good nor bad," he said. "It is how we choose to use it that makes the difference."

HOW THE TECHNOLOGY BECAME CONTROVERSIAL

The leaders of the companies that launched genetically engineered crops three years ago now say they learned a valuable lesson the hard way: The customer is always right.

Protests against genetically engineered organisms in Europe, Asia and at the World Trade Conference in Seattle last fall originated after genetic engineering technology showed up unannounced-and uninvited-at the world's dinner table.

How did a technology that can engineer vitamin A into rice, thus preventing cases of blindness in poor nations, come to be labeled "Frankenscience"?

Peter Bloome, the associate director of Oregon State University's Extension Service, said a British delegate to an international conference on genetically modified food said it best: "He told us 'You were blinded by the elegance of your own technology,'" Bloome said.

Monsanto, an international biotechnology pioneer, began marketing genetically engineered corn, soybeans and other crops to the public just over three years ago.

Researchers genetically altered corn with the bacterium Bacillus thurengiensis, or Bt for short. Bt corn appealed to growers for several reasons:

First, it grows with built-in insecticides against its chief pest, the European corn borer.

Second, corn and soybeans can be engineered to resist the active ingredient in the popular herbicide Round Up, which is manufactured by Monsanto.

Woman holding plant.

OSU weed scientist Carol Mallory-Smith holds a sugar beet plant genetically altered to be resistant to Round-up. The herbicide will kill the weed twisted around the sugar beet plant. Photo: Lynn Ketchum

Suddenly, growers could spray their entire crop with Round Up any time they wished, effectively killing the weeds but leaving the crop unharmed. Suddenly, farmers didn't need to spray pesticides.

Genetically modified crops began popping up all over.

By 1998, growers in the United States had planted some 37 million acres of genetically modified soybeans and 25 million acres of Bt corn. That acreage translates to about half the nation's soybeans, and more than a third of its corn.

In South America, up to 90 percent of the soybeans are genetically engineered.

Genetically engineered crops and medicines can be found in Oregon, too. Genetically engineered Bt potatoes have been growing in the fields of eastern Oregon since 1995, said Gary Reed, an entomologist and the superintendent of OSU's Hermiston Agricultural Research and Extension Center. Such potatoes, developed commercially, were tested at the center before going into farmers' fields (see "Bug Off," in the Summer/Fall 1993 issue of Oregon's Agricultural Progress, page 24).

Dennis Hruby, an OSU microbiologist, said insulin long has been manufactured using E. coli bacteria; Hepatitis B vaccine is manufactured using yeast. Blood clotting medicines and many human hormone-based drugs also are made with genetic engineering technology.

Hruby said that most people still don't know how many medicines are manufactured using genetic engineering because biotechnology companies-which manufacture both pharmaceuticals and pesticides-don't want the publicity.

But ignorance was not bliss for either the companies or the consuming public. Just as European consumer and environmental activists began questioning the safety of genetic engineering technology, they discovered that genetically engineered products were already being sold in everything from corn chips to soda pop and soy milk.

Reacting defensively to criticism, biotechnology companies fanned opposition by dismissing concerns without answering them.

"We scientists do kind of a poor job of telling people what we're doing," said Carol Mallory-Smith, a crop scientist at OSU who has used genetic engineering in her research.

"Saying to someone that something is 'not known to have any harmful effects' is not the same as saying it's safe," she said.

Among the main questions about genetic engineering that still await answers:

* Gene "escape." What if genetically engineered crops resistant to herbicides cross-pollinate with weeds to create a species more noxious than kudzu, blackberry or Scotch broom?

* Should we allow biotechnology companies to slightly alter the genetics of a crop, patent it, then force everyone to buy it?

* Has the technology advanced too far ahead of long-range testing?

Those are important questions, said Reed, but the public needs to consider the reality of what it will mean to farmers if Bt technology is rejected:

"Saying no to (genetically engineered organisms) is like saying yes, go ahead and apply millions of pounds of insecticides and herbicides on American agricultural fields," he said.

Also, Reed said European biotechnology companies have a vested interest in seeing U.S. biotechnology rejected.

"At the same time that (some) Europeans are rejecting genetically engineered products, European companies are going full steam ahead on their own biotechnology programs," he said.

The research focus in the United States now is aimed at increasing public confidence in the technology and the regulatory process, said Russel Meints, an OSU professor of botany and plant pathology who is the director of OSU's Center for Gene Research and Biotechnology.

Both genetic engineering research and the products it generates are subject to tight regulation. "Oregon State University, along with other universities in the U.S., must follow a set of safety guidelines (developed) by the National Institutes of Health," he said.

A biosafety committee and a biosafety office both oversee research projects at OSU to ensure that they do not pose hazards to humans, animals or the environment.

Once research generates real products, the chief oversight organization is the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service, or APHIS for short.

APHIS requires field testing of genetically engineered plants and certain organisms. Also involved are the USDA's Food and Safety Inspection Service, the Department of Health and Human Services, the Food and Drug Administration and, where relevant, the Environmental Protection Agency.

Even for laboratory use, genetically engineered organisms must be researched according to safety guidelines established by the Department of Health and Human Service's National Institutes of Health. Confident that these many regulatory agencies would provide all the public assurance the public needed, industry spokespeople dismissed concerns about genetic engineering as the product of fear and ignorance.

Even if that is true, perceptions can be powerful, said Dan McGrath, an OSU Extension Service specialist based in Marion County.

"You can't argue with your customers," McGrath said. "There are important buyers who are negotiating with food processors in the Willamette Valley around this issue, and they don't want GMOs (genetically manufactured organisms) in their products."

Biotechnology giants might agree, now.

"Unfortunately, many in the industry have been reluctant to address concerns about the risks of biotechnology," said Charles O. Holliday Jr., the chief executive of DuPont. "But we have to listen to the people who are now raising alarms. We don't have all the answers, and to pretend we do, or to brush off concerns as unfounded is to be arrogant and reckless."

During a press conference last fall, Robert Shapiro, the beleaguered CEO of Monsanto, was curt in answering questions about the company's role in the genetic engineering controversy.

"If you are asking me if we have made mistakes, and if we have learned from them, I would have to say yes, we have."

Monsanto has since withdrawn its controversial proposed "Terminator" technology, which would have rendered genetically engineered plants sterile. The company had hoped such technology would quiet concerns about gene escape.

Instead, "Terminator" raised an international furor about exporting sterile crops to poor nations that rely on seed gathered from the last harvest to plant the next crop.

Now the agricultural products of genetic engineering have been virtually banned from grocery shelves in England, Germany, France and parts of Asia.

In the United States, consumers increasingly are calling for labeling of genetically engineered products. Such a proposal has gained support from U.S. lawmakers.

Most now think some kind of label-possibly with a toll-free number or website address to answer questions-is likely to identify genetically engineered products in the near future.

Whether such a label will reassure consumers or warn them away, as it has in Europe and Japan, awaits a verdict from the court of public opinion.

BIOENGINEERED PRODUCTS

Here is a summary of genetically engineered products that have been approved for commercial use in the United States since 1990. The lists represent a variety of manufacturers. Most alterations were accomplished through introduction of a bacterium or a virus.

The companies that developed these products are Monsanto, DuPont, DeKalb and Plant Genetic Systems, Merk and Amgin, to name a few.

Corn

* Resistant to larvae of the European corn borer moth.

* Resistant to the herbicides glyphosate and glufosinate.

* Sterile male plants created to safeguard against wild sowing.

Cotton

* Resistant to the herbicides bromoxynil, glyphosate and sulfonylurea, which control weeds.

Hepatitis B vaccine

* Manufactured using genetic traits from yeast

Insulin

* Manufactured using traits from E. coli bacteria

* Resistant to bollworm and budworm to control pest infestations.

Papayas

* Resistant to papaya ringspot virus.

Potatoes

* Resistant to Colorado potato beetle.

Soybeans

* Resistant to the herbicides glyphosate and glufosinate to make weed control easier.

* Altered oil composition to provide high oleic acids and to reduce polyunsaturated fatty acids.

Squash

* Resistant to watermelon mosaic 2 virus, zucchini yellow mosaic virus and cucumber mosaic virus.

Tomatoes and cherry tomatoes

* Delayed ripening to enhance fresh-market value and make fruit last longer. Also, a variety with thicker skin to withstand shipment, and altered pectin to enhance processing value.

Published in: Innovations, Economics, People