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Grass Created in Lab Is Found in the Wild

topic posted Wed, August 16, 2006 - 11:34 AM by  Unsubscribed
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Grass Created in Lab Is Found in the Wild
By ANDREW POLLACK
New York Times, August 16 2006
www.nytimes.com/2006/08/16...6grass.html

An unapproved type of genetically engineered grass has been found growing in the wild in what scientists say could be the first instance in the United States in which a biotechnology plant has established itself outside a farm.

Ecologists at the Environmental Protection Agency said they had found a small number of the grass plants growing in central Oregon near the site of field tests that took place a few years ago.

The E.P.A. scientists and others said the grass would probably not pose an ecological threat. Still, it could provide fodder for critics who say that agricultural biotechnology cannot be adequately controlled.

'It is a cautionary tale that you have to think about the possibility of plants escaping into populations where there are wild relatives present,' said Jay Reichman, an agency ecologist who is the lead author of a study to be published in the journal Molecular Ecology.

The genetically engineered grass, called creeping bentgrass, is being developed by the Scotts Miracle-Gro Company and Monsanto for use on golf courses. It contains a bacterial gene that makes the grass resistant to the herbicide Roundup, known generically as glyphosate.

The goal is to create a product to allow groundskeepers to spray the herbicide on greens and fairways to kill weeds without hurting the grass.

The Department of Agriculture is evaluating whether to approve the grass. A department spokeswoman said that no timetable had been set for making a decision, but that the new information would be assessed.

One concern often raised by critics of agricultural biotechnology is that genes that make crops resistant to herbicides or pests may escape to wild relatives, creating 'superweeds' that would be harder to eradicate.

That is hardly a risk for the main types of genetically engineered crops grown in the United States - soybeans, corn and cotton - because they generally do not have wild, weedy relatives in this country.

But it has been a concern with the genetically engineered grass, which has wild relatives. And, unlike corn or soybeans, grass does not have to be replanted every year.

Some scientists have expressed concern that if the gene escapes, weedy grasses could be harder to control with glyphosate, a widely used herbicide.

Because of those concerns, the Agriculture Department is doing a full environmental impact assessment before making a decision. It will be its first involving a genetically engineered crop.

Two years ago, scientists at the E.P.A. laboratory in Corvallis, Ore., published a paper showing that pollen from a test plot of the grass had spread as far as 13 miles downwind, much farther than many had expected. That made it likely that genetically engineered grass would be found in the wild, though the scientists did not look for that.

In the new study, scientists sampled 20,400 plants up to three miles from the edge of an 11,000-acre zone surrounding the test plots. They found 9, or 0.04 percent, that were genetically engineered, the farthest being 2.4 miles from the control zone border.

The scientists said some of the plants had been created by seeds that had blown off the test plot and others by hybridization of wild grass with pollen from the genetically engineered grass. All were of the same species of grass being developed by Scotts and Monsanto.

A spokesman for Monsanto said that creeping bentgrass lacked the characteristics needed to become a weed and that other herbicides could control Roundup-resistant bentgrass if need be.

Jim King, a spokesman for Scotts, said the company had already admitted that some grass was growing outside the test plots and that the company was working to eradicate it. In field tests, Mr. King said, a windstorm arose when the grass had been cut and was drying in the field, dispersing seeds.

Scotts argues that grass on golf courses, which is kept short, does not pose the same threat of seed dispersal or pollen flow as grass grown to produce seeds.

The company says the nonengineered bentgrass now used on golf courses has not become a weed, and people outside of golf courses do not try to control it by spraying Roundup.

But Norman C. Ellstrand, a professor of genetics at the University of California, Riverside, said that in some parts of the country bentgrass was considered a problem and was controlled. Dr. Ellstrand, an expert on gene flow in plants, said that foreign genes put into crops had escaped into the wild in other cases abroad.

Scientists in Canada have reported an instance in which herbicide resistance appears to have spread by pollination from genetically engineered canola, which is widely grown there, to a wild relative.

In Japan, transgenic canola was found growing near some ports and roadsides. Since the crop is not grown commercially in Japan, scientists hypothesized that imported seeds had escaped during transportation to oil-processing facilities.

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  • More on the GM crop escape:
    _____________________________

    www.oregonlive.com/search/index.ssf

    Gene-tweaked grass on loose in Oregon
    Modified crops - Pollen has spread and bred with wild plants, sparking fear of a superweed

    Thursday, August 17, 2006
    ALEX PULASKI

    Discovery of genetically modified bentgrass in the wild in Central Oregon

    -- the first known transgenic crop escape in the United States -- has

    fulfilled critics' warnings and raised the threat of contaminating the

    state's nation-leading grass seed crop.


    Environmentalists and some conventional seed growers had predicted that

    humans couldn't hope to rein in movement of the plant's pollen and seeds,

    so tiny they number 6 million a pound. Although backers of the modified

    grass seed hope to revolutionize golf course maintenance, opponents say

    the revolution comes at the risk of creating a superweed resistant to a

    relatively benign herbicide.


    Corvallis scientists discovered two years ago that the experimental Madras

    crop had sent pollen more than a dozen miles away. Their latest finding

    that the modified plants had crossed with wild grasses outside a buffer

    area is due out in the October issue of Molecular Ecology.


    Although discounted by the company hoping to win federal approval of the

    grass strain, the discovery is prompting "I told you so" responses from

    conventional grass seed growers and environmentalists who oppose its

    commercialization.


    "Exactly the things we were most worried about seem to be true," said Jim

    Diamond, former chairman of the Sierra Club's Genetic Engineering

    Committee.


    In Oregon, which has $373.5 million in annual grass seed sales,

    conventional growers fear transgenic seeds will contaminate their crops.

    That could curtail export markets -- roughly 30 percent of sales --

    because some countries refuse to accept genetically modified strains.

    The creeping bentgrass strain, developed in partnership between Scotts

    Miracle-Gro Co. and Monsanto Co., is designed to resist the herbicide

    Roundup, the world's most widely used plant-killer. Golf courses could

    plant the seed and keep other grass varieties in check by spraying

    Roundup.


    Jim King, a Scotts spokesman, said the study's conclusions weren't

    surprising.


    "The fact that nature kind of took its course was exactly what you would

    have expected to happen," King said.


    Scotts has waited more than two years for an arm of the U.S. Department of

    Agriculture to decide whether to deregulate the crop, opening the door to

    seed sales. A seed crop was harvested in Madras and bagged, but the fields

    were cleared and Scotts attempted to eradicate plants that escaped by

    applying herbicides other than Roundup.


    King said he was unsure how the new study would affect federal review of

    the grass strain.


    He noted points that the company has made before: Trimmed grass on golf

    courses is highly unlikely to reach heights to produce seed or pollen, and

    even if it were to spread, bentgrass should not be considered an invasive

    species.


    But for grass seed growers such as Donald Wirth of Tangent, an invasion of

    hard-to-kill bentgrass in his ryegrass or fescue fields could spell

    catastrophe.


    Wirth worries that bentgrass, unlike Roundup-resistant strains of corn or

    soybeans, can remain dormant in soil for more than a decade and spring up.

    "These cultivated crops will quit growing after a year or two, but

    bentgrass would be there forever," he said.


    The study, led by Jay Reichman, an Environmental Protection Agency

    toxicologist, found that nine genetically modified plants were discovered

    among 20,400 samples taken. The samples were found as far as three miles

    outside the control area established for the crop's cultivation -- in

    other words, well outside a buffer designed to prevent the escape of seeds

    and pollen.


    Of the nine plants, two were found in the Crooked River National Grassland

    area. A study abstract did not detail how many of the nine plants were the

    result of seeds drifting or from cross-breeding with wild grass.


    Alex Pulaski, 503-221-8516; alexpulaski@news.oregonian.com

    _______________________________________________

    Note: This creeping bentgrass is like crabgrass, all horizontal spread and no vertical production. It is a crop-killer, crowding out other, more productive plants. Just what the world needs. Hope those jerks can eat their golfballs.

    - Grandma

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