Mysterious DNA in Monsanto's Roundup Ready Soybeans

Mysterious DNA in Monsanto's
Roundup Ready Soybeans

The New York Times
August 16, 2001 Mystery DNA Is Discovered In Soybeans By Scientists


The world's most widely grown genetically engineered crop contains some
unexpected DNA next to its inserted gene, casting some doubts on the
biotechnology industry's assertions that its technology is precise and

The mysterious DNA was found in the Monsanto Company's Roundup Ready
soybeans by Belgian government and university scientists, who described
their findings in a paper published yesterday in the journal European Food
Research and Technology. Greenpeace called yesterday for countries to
re-evaluate the regulatory approvals of the soybeans, saying that Monsanto
did not know as much as it should about its product. The unknown DNA could
possibly affect the safety of the beans, the group said.

"I don't think you can come out and say it's unsafe," said Dr. Janet
Cotter-Howells, a scientist for Greenpeace in Britain. "You can just say
it's unknown whether it's unsafe or not."

Monsanto acknowledged that the extra DNA was there, but it said it was
confident that the soybean was safe and that the unknown DNA had no effect
on the plant. Dr. Jerry J. Hjelle, the company's vice president for
regulatory affairs, said the DNA segment had been in the crop since the
beginning as it went through testing to prove its safety.
Products made from Roundup Ready soybeans have been eaten by people and
animals for five years with no reports of health problems. Still, the
findings could cause some embarrassment for Monsanto and the agricultural
biotech industry because they raise questions about how well the molecular
makeup of the products is characterized.

Roundup Ready soybeans contain a gene from a bacterium that allows the
plants to withstand Monsanto's Roundup herbicide. Farmers can thus spray
their fields with Roundup throughout the growing season to kill weeds
without harming the crop. More than half the soybeans grown in the United
States are now Roundup Ready. In Europe and Japan the beans are approved for
use but not for planting.

This is the second time that scientists have found something in Roundup
Ready soybeans that Monsanto did not seem to know was there and had not
cited at the time of the product's approval.

Last year the Belgian scientists and Monsanto, working independently, found
that the soybeans contained not only one complete copy of the bacterial
gene, as intended, but two fragments of that gene. Monsanto filed reports
with regulators around the world offering data to show that the fragments
were not active genes and had no effect on the plant.

The paper now being published contains another revelation. Adjacent to one
of those gene fragments is another stretch of DNA that Monsanto, in its
report to regulators last year, had assumed was the soybean's native DNA.
But the Belgian scientists, led by Dr. Marc De Loose of the Center for
Agricultural Research in Melle, said they could not find this stretch of DNA
in the soybean that had not been genetically engineered.

They suggested that this unknown DNA is probably the plant's own DNA but
that it was somehow rearranged, or scrambled, at the time the bacterial gene
was inserted. Another possibility, they said, is that a portion of the
plant's DNA was deleted, leaving other DNA in that position.

Dr. Hjelle, of Monsanto, said that the new paper by the Belgian scientists
had been available online for some time and that Monsanto had already
discussed the information with regulators. He said the unexpected DNA had
been found because more sensitive techniques had made it practical for the
first time to determine the sequence of the DNA flanking the inserted gene.
"As methods improve," he said, "we can find things from a detailed
perspective that we couldn't 10 years ago."

Dr. Hjelle said the unknown sequence was only 534 letters long out of a
soybean genome of about 1.5 billion letters and was not meaningful. He also
said that the jumbling up of DNA near the spot where a new gene was inserted
was "expected by people who understand the science."
Dr. David Ow, a senior scientist at the Department of Agriculture's Plant
Gene Expression Center in Albany, Calif., said that an inserted gene did not
always integrate itself into a plant in a neat way.

"It's not so much that rearrangements occur, but what are the consequences
of it?" he said. Dr. Ow said he did not think that this would pose a public
safety issue, but he said it would pose a public perception problem for the

"If one is submitting a product it has to be characterized to the extent
required by the regulatory bodies," he said.

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