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In Context #7 (Spring, 2002, pp. 7-8); copyright 2002 by The Nature Institute

Small Manipulation—Big Effect

The slogan we've been hearing so insistently from biotech industry representatives over the past several years assures us there is "substantial equivalence" between genetically engineered and non-engineered crops. The slogan's endless repetition has obscured a remarkable fact: it is unclear whether anyone making this claim has ever bothered to look at the two types of plant in a disciplined way in order to ascertain what immediately visible differences there might be.

"Almost Like Different Varieties"

But now The Nature Institute's affiliate researcher, Johannes Wirz, is helping to remedy this oversight. By growing genetically modified and non-modified potatoes under controlled conditions, his team in Switzerland has produced startling results. Observation of plants with and without added genes showed such dramatic differences in leaf morphology and development that, in Johannes' view, the plants might well be mistaken for different varieties.

The project began when Pia Malnoe, a molecular geneticist at the Eidgenössische Research Institute in Changins, suggested a qualitative and holistic assessment of the genetically modified potatoes she had developed. Johannes, who is a molecular biologist on the staff of the Research Laboratory in Dornach, Switzerland, eagerly took up her suggestion. The subsequent study brought together molecular biologists, breeders, and Goethean researchers—whose differing expectations and world views, Johannes says, demanded open-mindedness and a good measure of conflict preparedness from all the participants. The study was carried out under both field and greenhouse conditions.

The potato variety in the experiment was "Bintje." Two genetically modified lines developed from Bintje—"Ala 20" and "Visco 2"—were grown, along with unmodified plants. Visco contains a mistletoe gene intended to provide resistance to leaf rot, while Ala was engineered to produce a poisonous metabolic product in the presence of a fungi infection, leading to the death of infected cells (and thereby providing resistance to the fungus).

Comparisons of the leaf sequences during the entire cycle of plant growth showed substantial differences. For example, the Ala plants had leaves that were more delicately formed, with stronger differentiation of the parts of the leaf, compared to the control plants. The Visco plants had strikingly rounded leaflets and much smaller leaves marked by a more uniform size and shape throughout the growth cycle.

Johannes and his colleagues supplemented and verified these observations with quantitative measures of leaf area, leaf perimeter, and so on. They also took measures of plant height and potato yield, both of which differed significantly between control and genetically modified lines.

Dirty Hands (in More Ways Than One)

Johannes, citing the work of Jochen Bockemühl at the Goetheanum in Dornach, contends that plants react as a whole to introduced genes, much as they react to external conditions such as drought or sunlight. The potato project suggests, in his opinion, that intensive, qualitative work is necessarily a part of any full assessment of molecular-genetic processes in the plant. Morphological methods are a proper complement to analytic methods.

Johannes is also aware that even growing these previously developed, genetically modified plants is problematic. There are many risks—a fact we dare not forget. But he cites the view of a co-worker, Hajio Knijpenga, that "we have to get our hands dirty." There may be no other way to bring to light the full implications of the dominant, engineering stance toward the plant world.

(The foregoing is mostly drawn from a preliminary report on the first year of the ongoing potato project, written by Johannes Wirz and Ruth Richter, and published in Anthroposophie Weltweit, January, 2002. Translation help provided by Henrike Holdrege.) SLT

Original source: In Context (Spring, 2002, pp. 7-8); copyright 2002 by The Nature Institute

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