Up Close and Personal with the Genetic Modifiers

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As with the operation in Ghent, though, this one appeared to be wasting no time. Richard Tretheway, the boyish Cambridge Ph.D. who co-founded Metanomics and currently serves as its science director, told us the company carries out more than 100,000 experiments a year, and its digital library contains some 1.7 million metabolic profiles of plant genes. On average, he said with pride, it submits one major patent application every five days. (To date, Metanomics has filed more than 150,000 gene-function patents around the world.)

Our cameras tucked safely out of sight, we donned white lab coats and peered into what Krotzky called the “emergency room for plants,” a long, narrow chamber where two rows of tiny GM Arabidopsis plants sat under bright lights in precisely calculated growing conditions. Metanomics had modified each of the plants by individually “switching off,” or knocking out, one of its 35,000 or so genes, or else by adding a new one, and now its scientists were observing how the altered plants functioned under a range of environmental stresses.

We strapped on thick goggles and made our way upstairs, where we traipsed down long, sterile hallways and dipped in and out of labs housing the all-important extractors. These giant contraptions operate sort of like espresso machines, freezing plant samples in liquid nitrogen and then using high pressure and various solvents to extract metabolites, products of thousands of chemical reactions that can be used as “biosensors” to interpret metabolic changes. In one room, a life-sized robot with a giant hinged arm repeatedly picked up and jerkily transferred samples into a centrifuge, separating out yet more metabolites. (The robot got the job, we were told, not just because he works nights—he has a cell phone in case of emergencies—but also because he is far more precise than a human could ever be.)

With software developed in-house, Metanomics’ 70 or so computers are able to measure several hundred metabolites at a time. The results get combined with those from CropDesign’s phenotypic screening, and that information, along with whatever’s been learned from hundreds of field trials, gets integrated into a “bio-informatics platform” known as the “MetaMap.” Touted by BASF as the largest gene-function database in the world, the map—imagine the proofs Russell Crowe was always scribbling in A Brilliant Mind—links millions of metabolome reactions directly to individual genes and gene groups, furthering the scientists’ ability to select the best candidates for traits like drought resistance, increased yield, even high vitamin content.

While the Ghent and Berlin programs are operating 24/7, Monsanto is conducting its own gene-discovery initiative back in St. Louis. (The company has invested $75 million in proprietary software to sort through plant germ plasm.) The “lead genes” recognized by all the programs are identified (along with their functions) in patent applications and then entered into the joint development pipeline. Whatever emerges will benefit from Monsanto’s not inconsiderable marketing might.

But while the hopes are high—some 175 yield and stress field trials on promising gene traits are already underway in the U.S., and the first generation of drought-tolerant GM corn is set for release in 2012—not everything is progressing exactly according to plan. Over the course of the two-day program, conversation returned repeatedly to the irony of this gigantic genetic-modification operation having its home in the heart of Europe. A presentation by Dirk Enze, one of the founders of CropDesign, took as its sole topic “Biotechnology and Europe: Challenges and Opportunities.” Among the challenges, of course, is that most of the people there want nothing to do with the stuff. To date, only one GM crop, Bt corn, has been approved for cultivation by the EU commission. Enze recommended “educating the children” and bringing them into the lab as one way to combat the general fear of GM. In the meantime, said Hans Kast, president and CEO of BASF Plant Science, the collaboration has renounced any plans to develop crops aimed at the European market. Still, he wondered aloud whether the Europeans weren’t making a big mistake in denying GM technology. “We have to ask ourselves,” he said in heavily accented English, “can we afford to miss the boat?”

Of course, if you’re to believe BASF, there’s nothing at all to fear from genetic modification—or genetic “optimization,” as it was repeatedly referred to there. A presentation by Graham Brookes, director of the England-based PG Economics Limited, showed hard evidence of the overwhelmingly positive economic and environmental impacts of the crops. Mind you, this is a man whose company gets a paycheck from such pro-GM trade associations as CropLife International and Green Biotech Europe, and who summed up his view of the Indian environmental activist Vandana Shiva with the couplet “bloody idiot.”

Whether Brookes’ numbers would hold up to scrutiny or not, it does appear that the tide is turning elsewhere in the world. According to an article by Paul Collier in this month’s Foreign Affairs, GM crops currently are growing on some 300 million acres, or about ten percent of the world’s total crop area. And BASF expects that number to climb steadily. (Among the regions where they anticipate a shift in public opinion is Africa, which may explain why the BASF/Monsanto collaboration has agreed, through an initiative known as WEMA, or Water Efficient Maize for Africa, to provide its drought-tolerant maize to farmers there royalty free.) “The future is in genes,” said Juergen Logemann, BASF Plant Science’s vice president of technology management. “And I hope we can convince you that we’ve got the genes.”

That they do. And given the serious minds—and the very serious money—behind them, they’re likely to claim ownership of hundreds of thousands more of them before they’re through. “My enthusiasm wanes,” said Monsanto’s Padgette at the press conference in Ghent, “only when the genes run out.”

Organizations like the Ottawa-based ETC Group and Vandana Shiva’s Navdanya recently renewed their call on governments around the world to stop issuing patents on living organisms. But when you consider the magnitude of operations like the one I’ve just seen—and when you imagine the kind of legal machinery that’s undoubtedly in line to defend those investments—you can’t help but wonder whether, to borrow an image from Hans Kast, that ship hasn’t already sailed.

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