"Biopharm" Could Plant The Seeds For Unintended Fallout
By Diane Carmen
June 10, 2004
As I read Kan Wang's application for a permit to plant a genetically engineered "biopharm" crop in Logan County, I was in awe. None of this science was even imagined the last time I took biology. Back then, we still cut up frogs.
Wang, director of the Plant Transformation Facility at Iowa State University, is developing a vaccine against E. coli bacteria.
Here's how she's doing it:
"The codon-optimized LT-B gene was cloned behind the maize gamma zein promoter and terminated by the soybean vegetative storage terminator. ... The vector for this construct was the commonly used vector pUC19. The transgenic corn plants were produced using microprojectile bombardment. The construct pRC4 was co-transformed with pBAR184, a construct carrying the selectable marker."
I know. I don't understand it either.
But if it works, Wang's research could lead to a vaccine that could protect against that inevitable bout with tourista, even if you do eat a taco at a street cart in Mexico.
So on Friday, under the supervision of U.S. and Colorado agricultural inspectors, an unnamed farmer at a secret location in southwest Logan County planted an estimated 2,500 corn plants with very peculiar genes.
It's Colorado's first biopharm.
Jim Miller, spokesman for the state Department of Agriculture, said the permit for the crop was granted without public hearings. Still, he received e-mails from people opposed to the project, most of whom worry that once unleashed into the environment, the genetically altered crops will spread uncontrollably like, well, E. coli at a rural Mexican food market.
Miller said rigid protocols are in place to prevent contamination of food crops. No cornfields are within 5 miles of the plot. The seed was planted 30 days later than corn in the region, so other plants wouldn't be receptive to pollen even if it spread all that distance. And the mature plants will be hand-harvested and shipped to laboratories in sealed containers.
Maybe it will be just fine.
Maybe a tornado won't blow plant debris as far as Nebraska. Maybe every single one of the volunteer corn plants will be picked from the field in subsequent growing seasons and autoclaved as planned. Maybe the soil won't retain any genetically altered compost with yet-to-be determined effects on future crops. Maybe the birds, insects, wildlife and farmworkers exposed to the corn will be unharmed.
And maybe not.
Because even for the scientifically illiterate among us, there's wide appreciation for one incontrovertible rule of nature: the law of unintended consequences.
We learned it with DDT. The inventor of DDT, once considered a modern miracle, was awarded the Nobel Prize. But instead of eradicating malaria, DDT, before it was banned, destroyed bird populations, threatened wildlife, elevated cancer risks in humans, depressed sperm counts in men exposed to it in the environment - and proved that malaria-carrying insects were remarkably adept at evolving into DDT-resistant strains.
We learned it with DES. Widely prescribed to prevent miscarriages, the drug later was found to cause vaginal, cervical and testicular cancer. Before it was banned, thousands around the world were exposed to it in utero.
We learned it with chlorofluorocarbons used in refrigeration equipment that are destroying the planet's ozone layer, leaded gasoline that caused lower IQs among those exposed to an environment contaminated with it, recycled cow parts put in cattle feed that spread mad cow disease across Europe, and the planting of tamarisk shrubs as windbreaks, which spread voraciously across the West, sucking up scarce water supplies and creating acres of fuel to feed wildfires during droughts.
In other words, even scientists who know what happens when you do microprojectile bombardment on corn genes still don't know one very important thing: what else happens.