Frosty plants

This Date in UCSF History: Genetic Releases Fuel Controversy

Tuesday, May 14, 2024

Originally published in Synapse on May 15, 1986.

During the past few months, revelations of illegal or improper releases of genetically altered organisms into the environment have alarmed the public and rocked the scientific community. 

The incidents exposed profound conflicts among scientists over what impact these organisms may have on human health and the ecosystem.

Environmental activists have hit government biotechnology controls, which involve several agencies with often vague and overlapping jurisdictions, as ineffectual and confusing. 

Meanwhile, the biotechnology industry and many university scientists believe over-regulation may be stifling important agricultural advances and dulling the U.S. competitive edge. 

“We can’t have a society that’s totally regulated to the ‘Nth degree, or things come to a halt,” said UC Berkeley professor of plant pathology Milton Schroth. 

The cases which have elicited such attention involve genetically-altered microbes used in these ways:

• as pesticides; 

• as animal vaccines; 

• as “plant vaccines,” whereby plants can be rendered genetically-resistant to certain viral diseases; 

• as a treatment to allow plants to resist frost damage.

This is high-stakes science. Although much of the research is university-linked, each project has absorbed large investments by private companies which would earn huge profits on commercially successful products. 

And economically depressed U.S. farmers see biotechnology as relief in the productivity battle. 

The most controversial of these tests involves an altered form of the common bacterium Pseudomonas syringae developed by Oakland-based Advanced Genetic Sciences (AGS) under the name “Frostban.” 

The company has worked closely with UC Berkeley plant pathologist Steven Lindow. 

The Environmental Protection Agency granted Lindow a permit on May 13 to field test two similar strains of the bacterium at a UC experimental station near Tulelake, in Siskiyou County.

Jeremy Rifkin, an influential critic of the release of genetically altered organisms, said he will immediately file suit to halt the tests. 

Rifkin claims UC is violating federal law by failing to hold adequate liability insurance for the possible “catastrophic” effects of the experiments. UC denied the charge.

The organism has been dubbed “iceminus” in the press. The name may have been derived from a popular novel by Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., in which scientists develop a way to freeze water at very high temperatures. In the fantasy, “ice-nine” allows troops to cross rivers, for example, on solid ice even in summer. In Vonnegut’s bleak vision, ice-nine goes on to destroy the Earth.

Ironically, AGS has already marketed a naturally occurring bacterium, “Snowmax,” to help ski resorts generate dry snow at higher temperatures. But Snowmax drew little attention from environmentalists because it is not genetically altered.

Frostban is in some ways the opposite of its corporate sibling. The bacterium colonizes leaves, inhibiting the formation of frost until temperatures are several degrees below freezing. This protection would allow many crops now destroyed by minor cold snaps to survive — a major boon to farmers. 

The EPA issued a field test permit for the company, but rescinded approval after revelations that AGS injected Frostban into trees on the roof of its Oakland office and tested the organism in a greenhouse with open windows.

In the case of the tree tests, AGS officials said they believe the organism was “contained” beneath the bark. The EPA indicated that this by no means constitutes proper containment, because microbes easily could leak out with tree sap, and be spread by insects which feed on the sap.

The agency ruled that AGS intentionally falsified information on its field test applications — including evidence that Frostban may have caused canker, a plant disease, in the rooftop trees. And because the tests were not conducted in controlled environments, their predictive value was greatly compromised.

The agency fined AGS $20,000 — the first EPA penalty ever levied for genesplicing tests and one of the largest fines ever against an agricultural research company.

Rifkin hailed that EPA action as “a precedent for the biotechnology age,” according to a report in the Washington Post. 

“Unlike petrochemicals and nuclear power, this is a sign regulators are going to be tough in the biotechnology age,” Rifkin said.

AGS, with UC Berkeley’s Lindow, intended to test Frostban on a strawberry plot in Monterey County, near private residences. A major local outcry, however, stalled the test for months. 

Glen Church, a Watsonville tree farmer who organized community opposition, told Synapse he believes AGS lied about test conditions and dangers on many occasions. The company denies the charge.

AGS now faces new EPA reviews before a new permit can be issued. Lindow, who formerly conducted research funded by the company, told Synapse he has severed his ties with AGS.

A growing trend

Frostban is the most controversial gene altered agricultural product, but by no means the only one to have been readied for field tests recently. A gene-altered pesticide may get the EPA’s go-ahead for tests outside St. Louis later this month, and a swine vaccine was tested under questionable and possibly illegal circumstances in Texas in 1984.

According to the U.S. General Accounting Office, dozens of gene-altered products, many of which could involve field tests in the next year, are currently being reviewed by the U.S. Department of Agriculture alone.

“Anyone with a scientific background knows this ice-minus bacterium isn’t going to do anything (harmful),” he said.

Regardless of the actual level of danger — still in dispute — apparent confusion on the part of federal regulators in the face of every publicly-announced field test or plan for a field test has contributed to widespread public fear and suspicion.

Residents of St. Charles, Mo., proposed test site for a gene-altered pesticide produced by Monsanto Company, expressed such anxiety that the town’s city council unanimously passed a resolution aimed at getting the test moved to another location.

In Monterey County, the board of supervisors banned the Frostban test for several months in response to local critics.

Residents of Tulelake pressed the Siskiyou Board of Supervisors to pass an ordinance to prohibit Lindow’s tests. The supervisors, however, were persuaded by UC arguments that they lack jurisdiction over experiments at a UC facility.

These cases show that in the absence of clearly effective regulatory authority, local ordinances may take the place of federal oversight. And they parallel the stiffening local resistance to issues such as nuclear waste disposal, which involve fears over potential environmental consequences of scientific developments which are not fully understood.

Risks vs. progress

University scientists and the biotechnology industry make a convincing case about why it may be riskier to delay these experiments than to go ahead before all questions are resolved. Competition is always at the top of the list. 

Evidence that the Japanese have taken a lead in some areas of electronics has contributed to widespread fears that unnecessary caution will kill long-term U.S. biotechnology efforts. 

Pragmatic considerations of our modern economy may be even more influential. Many firms, such as AGS, are multinational corporations which are not above threatening to move overseas. 

“This is a minor incident that has been blown up,” Joseph Bouckaert, chief executive of AGS, told The Wall Street Journal. “What matters is that the research go forward. We will move forward, if not in this country then in Europe or Latin America.”

And, in a sense, biotechnologists consider themselves the true environmentalists. They argue that gene-altered pesticides, for example, are benign compared to some of their chemical counterparts. 

Risk is inherent to technological progress. And many scientists say that our society has been a world leader because, with reasonable prudence, it has taken such risks. 

According to a recent GAO report, “A complex process is required to convert a known, harmless organism into a pathogen, and the probability of such an accidental occurrence is low.” 

Going a level deeper, researchers point out that gene-splicing is, in effect, no different than cross breeding — part of human agriculture for centuries. And genetic alterations within and across species are part of natural evolution.

“Wheat, a food staple... for thousands of years, is thought to have originated around 25OO B.C., as a result of a chance genetic combination of two wild grasses,” said the GAO report. 

There is even a natural equivalent to iceminus. 

Synapse asked Lindow why he thinks AGS does not merely use the natural bacterium to avoid much of the grief of the Frostban episode. Through genetic alteration it is easier to find out how the organism operates, he replied. 

“Then you can try to discover how to make it work better.” 

These are strong arguments. But critics such as Rifkin, joined at times by noted ecologists, say they are not sufficiently compelling to proceed before more carefully considering the long-term, possibly catastrophic environmental effects of new microbes.