UCR earns $1.5 million grant to examine how engineered crop genes stray

August 18, 2004

The National Science Foundation has awarded UC Riverside a $1.5 million grant to research the unintended spread of engineered plant genes, an issue at the heart of the controversy over genetically modified foods.

That phenomenon was illustrated recently when engineered genes from corn grown in the United States strayed into remote fields of corn in Mexico.

UC Riverside's project is unusual because it will examine both the natural and the human factors that spread transgenes from engineered crops into non-engineered crops and natural populations.

"This hasn't been done before, and I'm excited to get started," said Norman Ellstrand, a professor of genetics who is also director of UCR's Biotechnology Impacts Center. "Our project involves social scientists with diverse expertise ranging from international trade to farmers' decision making in genuine collaboration with biological scientists who study gene transfer and the evolution of invasive species."

The project, which begins Sept. 1, will assemble faculty and graduate students from botany and plant sciences, economics, sociology, and statistics into three multidisciplinary teams.

  • One group will focus on natural processes that affect dispersal of genes such as wind, timing of plant flowering, or proximity to compatible wild relatives.
  • A second team will focus on human elements, including farmer management and transport of seed through local and international trade.
  • The third team will employ state-of-the-art mathematical and computational modeling to estimate the timing and patterns of the spread of transgenes across space and national borders as well as their ecological consequences. The result will be the first global model of gene flow that accounts for both human and natural processes of gene dispersal.

  • "This is really very exciting," said Richard Sutch, a distinguished professor of economics and associate director of the Biotechnology Impacts Center. "Everyone talks about the value of interdisciplinary research and of collaboration between the sciences, but this is one of the few projects that takes this seriously. And this is such an important topic. Food is a part of everyone's life, an important expression of one's culture. It is not surprising then that there is a raging debate about genetic engineering that goes beyond the issues of biological science."

    A third co-investigator, Bai-Lian (Larry) Li, is a mathematical and theoretical ecologist who is an associate professor of ecology. "The coupling of natural and human systems adds an additional layer of complexity of interactions," said Li, the founding editor of the international journal Ecological Complexity http://www.elsevier.com/locate/ecocom). "Understanding must come from the examination of how the two systems operate together."

    Sutch added that an understanding of the subject could provide information for important public policy decisions. "We may be able to find ways to control the unintended migration of transgenes and thereby harness the benefits of this new technology," Sutch said. "Alternatively, we may discover that the risk cannot be reduced to acceptable levels for certain combinations of crops and genes."

    Steven Angle, dean of the College of Natural and Agricultural Sciences, stressed the role of UCR's Biotechnology Impacts Center as "an honest broker" in this debate. "The scientists conducting this research have no stake in the policy outcomes," Angle said. They hold no patents on genetically modified plants. The study will provide solid scientific input to inform the public and the policy makers at national and international levels."

    Joel Martin, the interim dean of the College of Humanities, Arts and the Social Sciences, said he likes the project's inclusion of several graduate students who will be intimately involved in the multidisciplinary meetings of the group, including at least one international conference in Mexico. "It is rare for graduate students to have an opportunity to participate in a multidisciplinary international research project such as this," said Martin.

    The topic of transgene flow is a part of the greater public discussion of genetic engineering and the world's food supply. Biotechnology has the potential of increasing crop yields, lowering production costs, and offering consumers more choices and higher quality at the supermarket. But certain risks have been identified, such as the evolution of new weeds because of contamination with transgenes that make them more difficult to control.

    "Recalling genes is more difficult than recalling defective car parts or contaminated meat," said Ellstrand. "Because genes have the opportunity to multiply themselves. We have to find out how to avoid the problem before it happens."

    University of California - Riverside

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