ngin - Norfolk Genetic Information Network

27 August 2002

Hot Seat May Cool for Berkeley Prof
Mexican scientists reportedly confirm his findings of engineered corn in maize
Tom Abate, The San Francisco Chronicle, August 26, 2002
Scientists in Mexico City may have confirmed one finding by a University of California at Berkeley scientist who caused an international furor last year when he reported finding traces of bioengineered corn in native Mexican maize.

The latest research, outlined in an e-mail from the president of Mexico's National Institute of Ecology, comes as welcome news to UC Berkeley ecology Professor Ignacio Chapela.

"We know a little bit about their work," Chapela said. "We're anxious to see the full data." Chapela, who is up for tenure, has been on a scientific hot seat since November, when the European journal Nature published his report that genes from bioengineered corn had appeared in native maize plants from Oaxaca.

That finding caused a stir because biotech scientists had previously assumed such genetic pollen drift would be minimal, while opponents of bioengineered crops argued that gene contamination of wild plants would become a problem.

Chapela made a second, more startling assertion in the Nature paper he authored with Berkeley graduate student David Quist. They reported finding only fragments of the bioengineered gene, suggesting that it broke up during pollination. Because naturally evolved genes do not break up, Chapela's paper suggested bioengineered plants did not behave like their wild or domesticated cousins, confounding another assumption.

Biotech scientists pounced on Chapela's findings. One camp conceded that he might have found evidence of bioengineered genes in the native corn, but debunked his notion that this genetic drift had become fragmented in transit. But a second school of critics said Chapela found nothing at all, and that what he and Quist thought was genetic contamination was actually just part of corn's junk DNA that the two ecologists lacked the experience to recognize.

In April, Nature published some of the critiques along with an apology. "Nature has concluded that the evidence available is not sufficient to justify the publication of the original paper." Now it appears scientists at the Instituto Nacional de Ecologia have repeated Chapela's analysis of the Oaxaca maize and corroborated at least his first assertion, that they contain genetic material from bioengineered plants.

The first public disclosure of the new findings appeared in a recent article in the Mexico City newspaper La Jornada, which was picked up by UC Berkeley's Daily Californian.

In response to an e-mail query, Exequiel Ezcurra, president of the ecological institute that repeated Chapela's work, said his team found that 7 percent of the native maize plants they sampled contained genetic material that appeared to come from bioengineered corn.

"This is basically the same result that Chapela reported in his study, and both results suggested the presence of transgenic constructs in native maize varieties," Ezcurra told The Chronicle. He said his staff has submitted a scientific paper about the work and can't discuss it in detail until it is published.

Critics of Chapela's work are also withholding comment until they see the Mexican paper. The controversy has come at a time when he must either win tenure or leave UC next June, when his current contract expires. Since coming to Berkeley in 1996, Chapela has been no stranger to controversy. Within a year of his arrival, he helped lead the opposition to a research contract between Berkeley plant scientists and the Swiss biotech firm Novartis.

He's been a flash point for criticism ever since. Opponents of biotech foods consider him one of the few academics who questions the technology, while biotech supporters dismiss his scientific findings and credentials.

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