Genetic Engineering: Evolution or Revolution?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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."
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.
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."