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Scientists Ready to Release Gene-Altered
Insects in Cotton Fields

A Glowing Achievement, or a Can of Worms?
Proposed Field Test of Gene-Altered Cotton Pest Debated
By Marc Kaufman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, April 25, 2001; Page A01

PHOENIX -- The little brown creatures were squirming and fighting -- that
much could be seen with the naked eye. But it took a special microscope to
understand what made them unique. They glowed bright green.

The fluorescent larvae are genetically engineered versions of a major crop
pest, the pink bollworm. Their green glow comes from a jellyfish gene,
spliced into bollworm DNA as a test to see if the animals can survive, and
whether it will affect their behavior. But the ultimate goal of the research
is far more ambitious -- to use genetic engineering to control an insect
that loves to eat the seeds of the best cotton grown in the Southwest.

The effort has progressed far enough that scientists have applied for
permission to release some of the bollworms into outdoor cages. If approved,
the experiment would be the first planned release of genetically engineered
insects outside the high-security laboratories where they are being bred.

The pink bollworm project represents the furthest advance in an explosion of
research worldwide into how insects can be genetically modified to benefit
humanity. Major projects are underway to create mosquitoes that can control
malaria, honeybees that can better fend off disease, silkworms that will
produce more silk, and dozens of other normally destructive crop pests that
will exterminate their wild brethren.

But those squirming pink bollworms have raised scientific and environmental
concerns about the possible unintended consequences of releasing billions of
modified insects into the world. Critics say that regulations to control the
engineering and release of insects are inadequate and that too little is
known about long-term risks.

Genetically engineered corn, canola and other crops have accidentally
cross-pollinated and mixed with conventional crops, demonstrating how
difficult it can be to control engineered life forms. Critics want more
assurances that modified insects won't similarly spread their genes --
raising the possibility that unplanned crossbreeding could kill off other
useful insects by making them weak or infertile, or could create
super-mosquitoes or crop pests that are far more harmful and difficult to
control than today's varieties.

Robert Staten, director of the Agriculture Department's Animal and Plant
Inspective Service lab here, is leading the pink bollworm effort, and he
knows his work is being scrutinized.

Many see his request to test the larvae outside the laboratory as an
important step in the evolution of biotechnology, both its technical
abilities and the public's willingness to accept it. But Staten, who grew up
in a cotton growing area of New Mexico, sees it more simply as a new front
in the war against a costly nuisance.

"There's nothing like this anywhere else in the world," he said, as he
studied the glowing engineered pink bollworms through a fluorescent
microscope. "They're kind of nasty beasts. 'Pinkie' is a major pest and,
left uncontrolled, will strip a field of pickable cotton. We're trying to do
something about that."

These genetically modified insects are growing inside a sterile lab in an
industrial section of Phoenix, with tight air circulation and locking
controls to meet the same kind of biosecurity standards imposed on dangerous
viruses. But Staten hopes that by the time the cotton growing season is
underway early this summer, a permit for his experiment will be granted and
2,350 engineered bollworm moths will be flying inside screened cages on a
well-protected USDA field plot nearby.

What researchers are trying to create with the bollworms is the world's
first genetically engineered pest control system. For seven years, they have
been working to produce a modified bollworm that would impregnate wild
populations with a gene that would stop the development of all fertilized
eggs.

If the technology works, it could provide a cheap and effective way to
control one of the most damaging cotton pests around. Because cotton farmers
have used large amounts of pesticide to control the pink bollworm, the
genetically modified moths could be a boon to the environment.

"This could potentially be a major breakthrough in pest control and reducing
the risks of pesticide use," said Robert Rose of the USDA, which will review
the release permit as part of its regulation of plant pests.

Rose said his agency is conducting an environmental assessment of the
planned caged release. The results will be published in the Federal
Register, and the public will be asked to comment and raise concerns --
probably next month -- before the experiment is approved or denied.

To ensure that the bollworms do not escape their outdoor cages and mate,
females' wings will be clipped and both sexes will be sterilized through
irradiation. Researchers and regulators say they don't want any problems
with the bollworm release to jeopardize future work modifying insects.

But the likelihood that a successful bollworm effort would lead to the
development of many other engineered insects is exactly what has alarmed
biotechnology critics. They worry about unknown and unforeseen consequences
from mass releases of engineered insects -- newly created entities that
cannot be brought back once widely released. The bollworm project may be
solid and useful itself, they say, but it could be a harbinger of riskier
efforts.

"I'm troubled about the lack of rigor in assessing the environmental risks
involved with these genetically modified insects," said Jane Rissler of the
Union of Concerned Scientists. "They're impossible to control in the wild
because they're so small and mobile and they reproduce so fast. They're also
so important in the whole web of life, and we worry that something
irreversible might be happening here without all the scholarly and
regulatory work that's required."

That concern is shared by University of Florida researcher Marjorie Hoy, who
speaks from experience because she conducted the nation's first field test
of a genetically modified arthropod (a beneficial mite) several years ago.
The experiment required a long and complicated permitting process and
resulted in the modified mites losing their engineered characteristics in
the field.

But Hoy says that the Agriculture Department's regulation of genetically
modified insects is insufficient and that there are "gaps" in the system.

"I think there is promise in genetic engineering of insects for pest
management purposes, but we need to go slowly and incrementally and not
oversell the technology," she said. "We've been surprised in the past with
new technologies like DDT, which was once considered an important solution
to pest control. The possible benefits are important, but let's make sure we
examine all the risks before any field releases."

William Brown, science adviser to the Interior Department under President
Bill Clinton and now with the National Audubon Society, also believes
adequate regulation is not yet in place. "This may well be an appropriate
use of genetic engineering for biological control, but I don't think there
is any statute that really covers it properly when it comes to regulation."

The main beneficiaries of genetically engineered pink bollworms would be the
cotton growers of California, Arizona and New Mexico, who have been
struggling with the pest since it arrived (probably from Egypt or India, via
Mexico) in the early 1900s. In fact, the California Cotton Pest Control
Board, an industry-funded panel that advises the state agriculture
secretary, has been funding much of the research and development of
engineered pink bollworms.

Pest control and biotechnology companies have shown little interest in
genetically modified insects -- partly because of the technical problems and
public skittishness, and partly because companies (especially Monsanto Co.)
have developed genetically engineered cotton that controls pink bollworms.
But growers say treatment remains costly and scientists fear that resistance
to the engineered toxin will gradually grow and make the product less
useful.

"We look at the [genetically engineered] bollworm as our great rescuer on
the horizon," said Wallace Shropshire, a cotton grower and chairman of the
pest control board. "Because if the technology works as we hope, then we
could be talking not just control of pinkie, but total eradication in some
of our areas."

The cotton pest control board already has worked with Staten to produce
millions of sterile bollworms that are also being used to control the pest
in central California. But those pink bollworms, which are made sterile
through irradiation, are expensive to produce and not very effective because
they are weakened. Researchers say the genetically engineered bollworms
would be cheaper and much stronger. Because there is a modern facility in
Phoenix to breed the irradiated bollworms, the same plant could also be used
to grow billions of engineered insects.

The research on producing modified pink bollworms has been done largely at
the University of California at Riverside under the guidance of Thomas A.
Miller. That's where the foreign genes were inserted into bollworm eggs and
the first stable strains of modified bollworms were produced. The work in
Phoenix is continuing and strengthening the line.

According to Staten, pink bollworms are ideally suited to be the first
genetically engineered insects to be released, because the risk is low. Most
important, he said, the insect is not native to the United States and has no
close relatives here. That means the risk of gene transfer to related
insects, a major concern of environmentalists, would be virtually
eliminated.

The researchers involved with the project are aware of the public discomfort
about their work, and they say they are taking great precautions to
eliminate risks from their experiments.

"We are prepared to address every fear and concern as it comes up because we
really care what the public thinks of this project," said John J. Peloquin,
part of the team at UC-Riverside. "We're not doing this because we don't
care what happens to our environment, but because we do care so deeply and
want to produce something of real public benefit."

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