August 23, 2004 -- CropChoice news -- University
of California Riverside, 08/19/04: The National
Science Foundation has awarded UC Riverside a $1.5 million
grant to research the unintended spread of engineered
plant genes, an issue at the heart of the controversy
over genetically modified foods.
That phenomenon was illustrated recently when engineered
genes from corn grown in the United States strayed into
remote fields of corn in Mexico.
UC Riverside's project is unusual because it will examine
both the natural and the human factors that spread transgenes
from engineered crops into non-engineered crops and
"This hasn't been done before, and I'm excited
to get started," said Norman Ellstrand, a professor
of genetics who is also director of UCR's Biotechnology
Impacts Center. "Our project involves social scientists
with diverse expertise ranging from international trade
to farmers' decision making in genuine collaboration
with biological scientists who study gene transfer and
the evolution of invasive species."
The project, which begins Sept. 1, will assemble faculty
and graduate students from botany and plant sciences,
economics, sociology, and statistics into three multidisciplinary
One group will focus on natural processes that affect
dispersal of genes such as wind, timing of plant flowering,
or proximity to compatible wild relatives.
A second team will focus on human elements, including
farmer management and transport of seed through local
and international trade.
The third team will employ state-of-the-art mathematical
and computational modeling to estimate the timing and
patterns of the spread of transgenes across space and
national borders as well as their ecological consequences.
The result will be the first global model of gene flow
that accounts for both human and natural processes of
"This is really very exciting," said Richard
Sutch, a distinguished professor of economics and associate
director of the Biotechnology Impacts Center. "Everyone
talks about the value of interdisciplinary research
and of collaboration between the sciences, but this
is one of the few projects that takes this seriously.
And this is such an important topic. Food is a part
of everyone's life, an important expression of one's
culture. It is not surprising then that there is a raging
debate about genetic engineering that goes beyond the
issues of biological science."
A third co-investigator, Bai-Lian (Larry) Li, is a
mathematical and theoretical ecologist who is an associate
professor of ecology. "The coupling of natural
and human systems adds an additional layer of complexity
of interactions," said Li, the founding editor
of the international journal Ecological Complexity http://www.elsevier.com/locate/ecocom).
"Understanding must come from the examination of
how the two systems operate together."
Sutch added that an understanding of the subject could
provide information for important public policy decisions.
"We may be able to find ways to control the unintended
migration of transgenes and thereby harness the benefits
of this new technology," Sutch said. "Alternatively,
we may discover that the risk cannot be reduced to acceptable
levels for certain combinations of crops and genes."
Steven Angle, dean of the College of Natural and Agricultural
Sciences, stressed the role of UCR's Biotechnology Impacts
Center as "an honest broker" in this debate.
"The scientists conducting this research have no
stake in the policy outcomes," Angle said. They
hold no patents on genetically modified plants. The
study will provide solid scientific input to inform
the public and the policy makers at national and international
Joel Martin, the interim dean of the College of Humanities,
Arts and the Social Sciences, said he likes the project's
inclusion of several graduate students who will be intimately
involved in the multidisciplinary meetings of the group,
including at least one international conference in Mexico.
"It is rare for graduate students to have an opportunity
to participate in a multidisciplinary international
research project such as this," said Martin.
The topic of transgene flow is a part of the greater
public discussion of genetic engineering and the world's
food supply. Biotechnology has the potential of increasing
crop yields, lowering production costs, and offering
consumers more choices and higher quality at the supermarket.
But certain risks have been identified, such as the
evolution of new weeds because of contamination with
transgenes that make them more difficult to control.
"Recalling genes is more difficult than recalling
defective car parts or contaminated meat," said
Ellstrand. "Because genes have the opportunity
to multiply themselves. We have to find out how to avoid
the problem before it happens."