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seed company blocks critical research on transgenic pollen spread
The article below is about corporate refusal to allow further research
on transgene pollen spread. Unfortunately if companies and government
agencies are the only ones allowed to do pollen spread research the
results of the experiments remain hidden or are questionable. For
example, Agriculture Canada concealed evidence of transgenic pollen flow
from transgenic canola for over five years allowing widespread crop
pollution by transgenes to take place.
Nature 419, 655 (2002); doi:10.1038/419655a
Superweed study falters as seed firms deny access to transgene
REX DALTON AND SAN DIEGO
Two major seed companies this week stand accused of hindering attempts
to assess whether genetically modified sunflowers can turn their wild
counterparts into 'superweeds'.
Cold shoulder: Allison Snow has been left unable to follow up her
experiments to test whether transgenes can cause wild sunflowers to
proliferate as weeds.
A team led by Allison Snow, a plant ecologist at Ohio State University
in Columbus, has uncovered preliminary evidence that a transgene that
confers insect resistance can increase the number of seeds produced by
wild sunflowers. This could allow the wild plants to proliferate as weeds.
But Pioneer Hi-Bred International of Des Moines, Iowa, and
Indianapolis-based Dow AgroSciences have now blocked a follow-up study
by refusing to allow the team access to either the transgene or the
seeds from the earlier study.
Snow revealed the problem on 13 October during a lecture on transgene
research at the Seventh International Symposium on the Biosafety of
Genetically Modified Organisms in Beijing. "It is very frustrating," she
said in an interview before the lecture. "We want to do good science.
But this is keeping us from answering questions we want to ask."
The transgenic sunflowers contain a gene from the bacterium Bacillus
thuringiensis (Bt), which allows them to produce a natural insecticide.
Determining the impact of such transgenes in gene flow to wild plants is
the subject of an intense scientific and political debate as nations
consider what transgenic crops can be safely planted.
The results of Snow's initial study were revealed this August at the
Ecological Society of America's annual meeting in Tucson, Arizona, and
have been accepted for publication in Ecological Applications. They
suggest that if the Bt transgene were to migrate into wild sunflowers,
the plants' resistance to insects would increase the number of seeds
produced. At a site in Nebraska, seed production in wild sunflowers with
the transgene rose by 55%, although the results for plants at a site in
Colorado were not statistically significant.
The refusal by Pioneer and Dow to provide transgenes for academic
research is unusual, researchers in the field say. But Nature has
identified at least one other recent case in which a plant geneticist at
a leading US research university, who wanted to carry out an
evolutionary study of Mexican maize, was denied access to transgenic
material by two companies. That researcher does not want to be named.
Together with the US Department of Agriculture, Pioneer and Dow had
funded Snow's study. But the seed firms say that they no longer want to
continue the research because they do not plan to seek permission from
the US government to sell transgenic sunflower seeds. Snow, however,
wants to do further work, with purely academic funding, in an effort to
confirm her initial findings.
Both seed companies confirm that they have refused to make the necessary
materials available to Snow. "We would have to use time and talent to
oversee the research," explains Doyle Karr, a spokesman for Pioneer. "We
can't take the responsibility of putting the genes out if we aren't
going to develop a product."
But critics of the company reject this. It would be universities, not
the suppliers of materials, that would be first in line for liability if
any experiment went awry, they say. Mark Tepfer, a plant virologist at
the French national agricultural agency's laboratory in Versailles,
France, says that Snow's work is "one of the first really good
experiments" to examine transgene flow to the wild. He called the
companies' position "scandalous and indefensible".
Norman Ellstrand, a plant population geneticist at the University of
California, Riverside, who often uses corporate transgenes for academic
research without restrictions, says that the block imposed on Snow's
team may be counterproductive for the biotechnology industry. It "only
looks bad", he says, and could complicate future efforts to prove the
biological safety of transgenic crops.
"There has to be a mechanism to conduct this type of research," says
Gregory Jaffe, a biotechnology critic at the Center for Science in the
Public Interest in Washington. "If the companies will not participate,
then the government needs to step in and make sure researchers like Snow
get the materials they need."
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