Transgenes gone wild!

If we can't stop creeping bentgrass from running amok, how can we hope to contain energy super-crops?

Published December 8, 2006 10:57PM (EST)

Are you ready for amber waves of genetically modified switchgrass, from sea to shining sea? That's the vision of Albert Kausch, a plant geneticist at the University of Rhode Island. Switchgrass, if you recall, made its debut in the national consciousness during George Bush's State of the Union address in January. Forget about your energy-inefficient corn-based ethanol or the soybean-based biodiesel much beloved by American agribusiness giants. Switchgrass, a prairie perennial that grows on degraded land and doesn't require huge inputs of nutrients, is the stuff that biofuel evangelists swoon over.

Kausch is the brains behind "Project Golden Switchgrass." If the regular stuff produces 10 tons of plant biomass an acre, super-switchgrass will produce 20! Super-switchgrass will be resistant to herbicides and drought, and salt and cold tolerant! Best of all, super-switchgrass will come packaged with specially engineered enzymes that will help break down its tough cell walls into desirable sugars. This last point is particularly important, because despite all the hype, switchgrass-derived ethanol will require advances in cellulosic technology that have yet to be realized on commercially feasible levels.

Dr. Kausch is reported to be one of the world's experts in genetically designed grasses, and his bio says he was part of the first team to develop transgenic corn a decade ago. He's no newbie to the field. But just about every day (or every hour, if you read Biopact regularly), you can find similar press releases announcing new breakthroughs in the lab that prefigure a cornucopian biofuel future. As a research domain, the topic just gets hotter and hotter. The latest evidence came this morning -- biofuels are on the cover of the Dec. 8 issue of Science magazine. The new issue features a nice balance between two reports: One touts a breakthrough in metabolic engineering involving the wholesale genetic transformation of yeast strains that will help to vastly increase the production of ethanol. The other, co-authored by the legendary ecologist David Tilman, suggests that a biodiverse mix of multiple prairie grass species holds the most promise for the sustainable production of carbon-negative biofuel biomass.

But let's keep the focus on Kausch. Kausch also specializes in "gene confinement," a term that refers to techniques for preventing genetically modified organisms from transmitting their newfangled genes into the wild -- otherwise known as "transgene escape." Transgene escape is generally considered a bad idea -- both on intellectual property grounds (you don't want your proprietary biotechnology getting into the wrong hands) and, far more critically, because of the potential negative effects on existing ecosystems. As Kausch notes, we probably don't want corn that has been modified for ethanol production to contaminate corn that is destined for human consumption.

There are several different approaches to gene confinement. My favorite is the "exorcist" -- a technique that destroys the transgene once it is no longer necessary. But there are good questions as to whether any gene confinement strategy can work perfectly. This struggle, between efforts to boost the capabilities of plants through genetic engineering, and at the same time, prevent those new capabilities from spreading into the wild, will be one of the great scientific research stories of the 21st century. And it's hard to see how we will avoid it, given the amount of money likely to be at stake in genetically modified energy crops.

A good example of how commercial pressures are already at play in this field can be found by looking even more closely at the record of Dr. Kausch. Kausch splits his time as a scientist between the University of Rhode Island and HybriGene Inc., "a biotechnology research company that uses molecular techniques to create turfgrass with improved traits."

Guess what? There's a lot of money at stake in genetically modified turfgrass also, mainly because golf courses are always looking for new, improved grass strains. In fact, if you are a regular reader of Golf Course News, you are probably more well informed about the problems inherent in genetically modified crops than the majority of the general public.

Kausch has helped HybriGene develop a male-sterile strain of "creeping bentgrass." Bentgrass, to put it mildly, likes to propagate. Specifically, it is "a highly outcrossing [meaning it can interbreed with other grasses], wind-pollinated turfgrass variety that reproduces sexually and asexually," according to Golf Course News. It can reproduce by pollen and by seed and by root.

Creeping bentgrass made the news in August, when it was revealed that a genetically modified, pesticide-resistant strain developed by Monsanto and Scotts Co. had escaped its testbed in Oregon and was growing in the wild, interbreeding with unmodified creepgrass. Transgenes gone wild! Years earlier, when Oregon grass farmers had protested Monsanto's application for a test plot, Kausch had warned of this very possibility (reported again, in Golf Course News), "Turfgrass pollen is known to travel upwards to 3,000 feet and outcross with other grasses," said Kausch. "The industry should be concerned about companies testing with open-pollinated, engineered grasses... Turfgrasses are capable not only of outcrossing with wild relatives, but other species of grass as well."

But Kausch's critique has some back story. The biotech company he works for, HybriGene, is owned by an Oregon grass farmer named Bill Rose, who also owns Tee-2-Green, which supplies 70 percent of the world's commercially available creeping bentgrass. Bill Rose, understandably, was one of the leaders of the protests against Monsanto. Not only was he worried about his own turfgrass products getting contaminated by Monsanto's, but Monsanto was targeting his company's bread and butter.

The incestuous intermingling of science and commerce in the creepgrass market is instructive. A "better" strain of grass for golf courses is hardly a life-or-death issue for most of the world. But the stakes are raised incomprehensibly high when we start talking about energy crops. There will be tremendous pressure both to perfect gene confinement technologies andto get to market with transgenic super-crops.

For ecologists, David Tilman's vision of a reinvigorated prairie, chockfull of multiple strains of naturally occurring grasses harvested sustainably for their biomass, is alluring. But far more likely is the industrial-strength monoculture engineered with one aim in mind -- feeding the world's energy maw. And unless we're very, very careful, the transgenes will go wild, until there is no wild left.

By Andrew Leonard

Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon. On Twitter, @koxinga21.

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