ngin - Norfolk Genetic Information Network

21 April 2002


Associated Press, Thursday, April 18, 2002
By PAUL ELIAS, AP Biotechnology Writer

When a prestigious scientific journal backed away from a study that found genetic contamination in Mexican corn, it was a big public relations victory for the biotechnology industry.

But the public debunking of the work of an outspoken opponent of genetic engineering also renewed questions about the increasing role that industry plays in funding academic research.

Much is at stake for biotech companies, which are planting more genetically modified plants each year around the world even as they battle consumer skepticism.

Their victory in the Mexican corn debate helped compensate for several embarrassing revelations that genetic experiments had escaped to the wild - despite repeated promises that such tinkering was tightly controlled. Researchers now splice foreign genes into a wide variety of plants to enhance desirable traits such as herbicide tolerance and pest resistance. Supporters envision growing more food for a hungry world. But the science involved troubles many who say the consequences of such tinkering are unknown.

Nature's publication of the corn study in September created a furor. Ignacio Chapela and David Quist of the University of California, Berkeley, found that maize in the Mexican state of Oaxaca contained traces of genetically modified DNA widely used by U.S. biotech companies.

In 1998, Mexico had banned the planting of genetically modified corn to protect its indigenous maize.

Nature's publication of the study in September almost immediately galvanized the Biotechnology Industry Organization into action. Led by the lobbying group, sympathetic scientists inundated the journal with complaints that the study's science was sloppy. They also denounced Chapela and Quist as politically biased.

Nature eventually published the criticism this month after receiving what it considered to be compelling evidence that the researchers had not conclusively proved that contamination had occurred.

Despite this episode, many biotech proponents concede that co-mingling of natural and genetically modified plants is almost inevitable, and even critics of Chapela and Quist say it's possible that genetically engineered corn has in fact mixed with native maize in southern Mexico.

But they argue that any contamination is safe and may even benefit the local varieties by boosting their resistance to herbicides and insects.

"The fact is that the biotech traits really don't pose any unique risk to the local maize," said Eric Sachs, director of scientific affairs for Monsanto Co., a St. Louis-based biotechnology company.

Monsanto made a similar argument last week to the Food and Drug Administration after it learned that its Canadian canola seed has trace amounts of genetically modified material unapproved in the United States.

Monsanto wants the U.S. government to declare any food contaminated by the unapproved canola seed fit for consumption, arguing that its gene tinkering is safe.

Chapela, an assistant professor up for tenure this year, argues that his academic reputation is under attack because he continues to speak out against a growing private-sector involvement in academic research.

In 1998, Chapela led an unsuccessful campaign against a five-year, $25 million deal Berkeley signed with Novartis Corp., a Swiss-based agriculture giant. A Novartis spinoff, Syngenta, now oversees research in Berkeley's department of plant and microbial biology.

In exchange, Syngenta gets first commercial rights to much of the research in the department. Researchers who accept Syngenta's money are barred from showing some of their work outside the university without permission, which Chapela and others say limits academic freedoms.

The deal polarized the campus. Some welcomed the money as a godsend that has brought their research to a higher level; others saw it as a dance with the devil.

The university recently commissioned Michigan State University to study the deal's effect and issue a report, which is awaited by several other institutions said to be considering similar deals.

Department chair Andrew Jackson, who receives $100,000 a year from the deal for his research, says it has benefited faculty and students with extra equipment and research they couldn't afford to do otherwise. Jackson said his research decisions have never been influenced by the deal.

But Chapela still considers it unethical, and says the money forces Berkeley to focus most of its energies on biotechnology at the expense of more traditional crop sciences.

His supporters allege Chapela is the subject of "academic intimidation" and a "McCarthyist campaign" instigated by a biotechnology industry that is increasing the amount of genetically modified crops grown around the world each year.

Chapela's critics deny that charge and say Chapela wouldn't be in the position he is now if he conducted his study more carefully.

Jackson called Chapela's continued campaign against the Novartis deal upsetting, but said the Mexican corn debate is based on scientific disagreements.

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