Mexican Scientists Confirm
Corn Contamination

Hot seat may cool for Berkeley prof -Mexican scientists reportedly
confirm his findings of engineered corn in maize

Tom Abate, Chronicle Staff Writer
Monday, August 26, 2002


Scientists in Mexico City may have confirmed one finding by a University
of California at Berkeley scientist who caused an international furor
last year when he reported finding traces of bioengineered corn in
native Mexican maize.

The latest research, outlined in an e-mail from the president of
Mexico's National Institute of Ecology, comes as welcome news to UC
Berkeley ecology Professor Ignacio Chapela.

"We know a little bit about their work," Chapela said. "We're anxious to
see the full data."

Chapela, who is up for tenure, has been on a scientific hot seat since
November, when the European journal Nature published his report that
genes from bioengineered corn had appeared in native maize plants from

That finding caused a stir because biotech scientists had previously
assumed such genetic pollen drift would be minimal, while opponents of
bioengineered crops argued that gene contamination of wild plants would
become a problem.

Chapela made a second, more startling assertion in the Nature paper he
authored with Berkeley graduate student David Quist. They reported
finding only fragments of the bioengineered gene, suggesting that it
broke up during pollination.

Because naturally evolved genes do not break up, Chapela's paper
suggested bioengineered plants did not behave like their wild or
domesticated cousins, confounding another assumption.

Biotech scientists pounced on Chapela's findings. One camp conceded that
he might have found evidence of bioengineered genes in the native corn,
but debunked his notion that this genetic drift had become fragmented in

But a second school of critics said Chapela found nothing at all, and
that what he and Quist thought was genetic contamination was actually
just part of corn's junk DNA that the two ecologists lacked the
experience to recognize.

In April, Nature published some of the critiques along with an apology.
"Nature has concluded that the evidence available is not sufficient to
justify the publication of the original paper."

Now it appears scientists at the Instituto Nacional de Ecologia have
repeated Chapela's analysis of the Oaxaca maize and corroborated at
least his first assertion, that they contain genetic material from
bioengineered plants.

The first public disclosure of the new findings appeared in a recent
article in the Mexico City newspaper La Jornada, which was picked up by
UC Berkeley's Daily Californian.

In response to an e-mail query, Exequiel Ezcurra, president of the
ecological institute that repeated Chapela's work, said his team found
that 7 percent of the native maize plants they sampled contained genetic
material that appeared to come from bioengineered corn.

"This is basically the same result that Chapela reported in his study,
and both results suggested the presence of transgenic constructs in
native maize varieties," Ezcurra told The Chronicle.

He said his staff has submitted a scientific paper about the work and
can't discuss it in detail until it is published.

Critics of Chapela's work are also withholding comment until they see
the Mexican paper. The controversy has come at a time when he must
either win tenure or leave UC next June, when his current contract

Since coming to Berkeley in 1996, Chapela has been no stranger to
controversy. Within a year of his arrival, he helped lead the opposition
to a research contract between Berkeley plant scientists and the Swiss
biotech firm Novartis.

He's been a flash point for criticism ever since. Opponents of biotech
foods consider him one of the few academics who questions the
technology, while biotech supporters dismiss his scientific findings and


Home | News | Organics | GE Food | Health | Environment | Food Safety | Fair Trade | Peace | Farm Issues | Politics
Español | Campaigns | Buying Guide | Press | Search | Donate | About Us | Contact Us

Organic Consumers Association - 6771 South Silver Hill Drive, Finland MN 55603
E-mail: Staff · Activist or Media Inquiries: 218-226-4164 · Fax: 218-353-7652
Please support our work. Send a tax-deductible donation to the OCA

Fair Use Notice: The material on this site is provided for educational and informational purposes. It may contain copyrighted material the use of which has not always been specifically authorized by the copyright owner. It is being made available in an effort to advance the understanding of scientific, environmental, economic, social justice and human rights issues etc. It is believed that this constitutes a 'fair use' of any such copyrighted material as provided for in section 107 of the US Copyright Law. In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, the material on this site is distributed without profit to those who have an interest in using the included information for research and educational purposes. If you wish to use copyrighted material from this site for purposes of your own that go beyond 'fair use', you must obtain permission from the copyright owner. The information on this site does not constitute legal or technical advice.