UCR geneticist spells out consequences of genetically engineered genes escaping into wild species

September 30, 2003

RIVERSIDE, Calif. -- (www.ucr.edu) -- Domesticated plants are the descendants of wild plants and the two are therefore closely related. What would be the consequences of sex between cultivated plants and their wild relatives? Would they perhaps make strange bedfellows?

Norman C. Ellstrand, professor of genetics at UC Riverside and director of the Biotechnology Impacts Center, poses this question and provides some answers in his first book entitled "Dangerous Liaisons? When Cultivated Plants Mate With Their Wild Relatives" (288 pages, Johns Hopkins University Press, October 2003, edited by Samuel M. Scheiner). The title captures, in a few words, the idea that possible problems could result from spontaneous hybridization between cultivated plants and their wild relatives. "This is an issue of much interest to plant evolutionary geneticists, crop evolutionists, weed evolutionists," said Ellstrand. "It would appeal also to those interested in understanding the 'gene flow' controversy associated with the field release of genetically engineered (transgenic) plants, to managers of endangered plant species, regulators of plant biotechnology, decision-makers, academics, students, and others concerned about the environment."

The book introduces the reader to what is involved in the natural hybridization process. Ellstrand then describes what impact the hybridization between crops and their wild relatives has already had (e.g., evolution of weediness/invasiveness in the hybrids, the increased risk of extinction by hybridization if the wild plants are rare). The book ends with Ellstrand casting an eye on the future when he considers how we may better manage and monitor the escape of engineered genes into wild species.

Ellstrand came to UC Riverside in 1979 after a year's postdoctoral appointment at Duke University. He received his Ph.D. in 1978 from the University of Texas at Austin. His awards include being named Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, 2000; Distinguished Speaker, 42nd Ecological Genetics Group Meeting, St. Andrews, United Kingdom, 1998; Fulbright Fellow, 1993; and a National Science foundation Mid-Career Fellowship in Environmental Biology, 1992.

"I've always been fascinated by evolution -- and sex," said Ellstrand, "and that drew me to my field of research. I've also always wanted to have the experience of writing a book. I really wanted to write a novel, but I figured that first I had better try a book that would stand a better chance of getting accepted!"

Ellstrand decided to write "Dangerous Liaisons?" because of all of the controversies associated with the field release of transgenic plants. "The most frequently discussed controversy is the fact that engineered genes may move by pollen flow -- and subsequent sex -- into plant populations for which they were unintended, but not one book has yet emerged that focuses on this issue," he said.

For this book, Ellstrand's style and delivery were inspired by Don Levin, his major professor at the University of Texas at Austin, Dave Nanney, his mentor at the University of Illinois, and Harriet Naden, his high school American Literature teacher. Ellstrand's recent favorite readings have been "Lords of the Harvest" by Dan Charles and "Instructions to the Cook: a Zen Master's Lessons in Living a Life that Matters" by Bernard Glassman and Rich Fields.

What scholars have said of Ellstrand's "Dangerous Liaisons?":
"In the stormy sea of debate over genetically modified organisms, Ellstrand's book is a safe and fascinating harbor of science-based opinion on cultivated plants in their larger gene pools. A visionary scientist and an ethical public servant, Ellstrand sets the quality standards for all who will follow." - Gary Paul Nabhan, Director, Center for Sustainable Environments, author of Coming Home to Eat: The Pleasures and Politics of Local Foods.

"A well-written, objective account of the prevalence and roles of hybridization in plants, focusing on the relationships between crops and their wild and weedy relatives. This book is important reading for those concerned with the development of agriculture in the future, and the standards that ought to be applied when new strains of crops are developed. Norman Ellstrand has provided us with the best account of this important field." - Peter H. Raven, Director, Missouri Botanical Garden.

"Buckle up for a rollicking ride through the world of plant sex. Norman Ellstrand, scientific investigator, is on the trail of a little-noticed phenomenon, the migration of plant genes across the boundaries of farmers' fields. He provides a comprehensive and even-tempered look at an old phenomenon that has suddenly acquired new relevance in this era of genetically engineered crops. An essential guide to a fascinating and often startling topic." - Daniel Charles, author of Lords of the Harvest: Biotech, Big Money, and the Future of Food.

"This book brings science to bear on a controversial issue - the possible escape of engineered genes into wild species. Although Ellstrand's discussion is nuanced and sophisticated, his friendly and informal writing style makes it palatable. Ellstrand has produced the rare book that does not compromise the science yet remains a pleasure to read." - Loren Rieseberg, Indiana University

"With insight, originality and extraordinary scholarship, Norman Ellstrand brings together classical and current knowledge about crop evolution, crop breeding and evolutionary ecology, weaving historical and ultra-contemporary themes into a single, comprehensive treatment. This book is a masterpiece that will be highly influential and widely cited." - Allison Snow, Ohio State University.
The University of California, Riverside is a major research institution and a national center for the humanities. Key areas of research include nanotechnology, genomics, environmental studies, digital arts and sustainable growth and development. With a current undergraduate and graduate enrollment of nearly 17,000, the campus is projected to grow to 21,000 students by 2010. Located in the heart of inland Southern California, the nearly 1,200-acre, park-like campus is at the center of the region's economic development. Visit www.ucr.edu or call 909-787-5185 for more information. Media sources are available at http://mmr.ucr.edu/experts/.

University of California - Riverside

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