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Genetic Modification Taints
Corn in Mexico

October 2, 2001
By CAROL KAESUK YOON

In a finding that has taken researchers by surprise and
alarmed environmentalists, the Mexican government has
discovered that some of the country's native corn varieties
have been contaminated with genetically engineered DNA.

The contaminated seeds were collected from a region
considered to be the world's center of diversity for corn -
exactly the kind of repository of genetic variation that
environmentalists and many scientists had hoped to protect
from contamination. The result was unexpected because
genetically modified corn, the presumed source of the
foreign genes, has not been approved for commercial
planting in Mexico.

Scientists expressed concern that the foreign genes could
act to reduce genetic diversity in the country's native
corn varieties and in the wild progenitor of domesticated
corn, known as teosinte. If any of the foreign genes are
very advantageous, plants carrying those genes could begin
to dominate the population. In such cases genetic variation
will be lost as the diversity of plants not carrying the
foreign genes decreases or disappears. Whether that will
happen or has happened remains unknown.

In addition to being one of the world's most important
crops, corn is viewed with a near religious reverence in
Mexico, with seeds of native varieties passed down from
generation to generation. Until now, scientists said
researchers had assumed that these varieties, some of which
are grown only by subsistence farmers in remote areas, were
pristine.

"These are the extremes, the places where you would really
not expect to find contamination," said Dr. Ignacio
Chapela, a microbial ecologist at the University of
California at Berkeley, saying the results are an
indication of widespread contamination. "The only reason
they found it there is because that's the only place
they've looked."

Scientists said the results also indicated that crop genes
might be able to spread across geographic areas and
varieties more quickly than researchers had guessed.

"It shows in today's modern world how rapidly genetic
material can move from one place to another," said Dr.
Norman C. Ellstrand, evolutionary biologist at University
of California at Riverside. He said the real worry was that
other foreign genes - like pharmaceutical-producing genes
being developed in crops - could also find their way
quickly and unnoticed into distant food sources.

Genetically engineered corn, known as Bt corn because it
produces the insecticide known as Bt, has been in use by
farmers in the United States since 1996.

Mexico's Ministry of the Environment and Natural Resources
made the announcement on Sept. 18 that contaminated corn
had been found in 15 different localities. The announcement
credited Dr. Chapela with the initial discovery but
described only the results from government-led research.
Neither Dr. Chapela's team nor the Mexican teams' work has
yet been published.

Scientists assume the native corn became contaminated
through interbreeding with Bt corn, but how Bt corn may
have come to be planted in Mexico remains a matter of
speculation. While not approved for planting, biotech corn
is legally imported into Mexico for use in food.
Greenpeace, calling the contamination a form of genetic
pollution, is calling on Mexico to ban all importation of
genetically modified corn.

The Mexican government has not disclosed exactly what genes
were found. Exequiel Ezcurra, the director of the National
Institute of Ecology, which worked on the study, did not
respond to requests for an interview. But Dr. Chapela, who
is familiar with the Mexican work, said the researchers had
identified the presence of DNA sequences from the
cauliflower mosaic virus. This DNA is used nearly
universally in genetically engineered plants and does not
produce Bt insecticide.

As a result, it is still unclear whether any of the
contaminated corn has the ability to produce the Bt
insecticide.

Scientists may eventually be able to quantify the
biological effects of the contamination, but some say the
cultural cost in a country where corn is a symbol of the
Mexican people may be harder to measure.

"The people are corn," said Dr. Chapela, who is Mexican,
"and the corn is the people."

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