When a GMO bacterium almost killed the planet

We have long maintained that genetically modified organisms may be the most dangerous of all human creations, dwarfing in potential nuclear weapons, overpopulation, and all the other sundry horrors that haunt our nightmares.

And we’ve already come perilously close.

From The Big Picture:

How One GMO Plant Nearly Took Down the Planet…

Program notes:

The very same day that President Obama signed the DARK Act into law – the USDA confirmed that 22 of Monsanto’s unapproved GMO wheat plants were growing in a field in Washington State. No one knows how it got there – and that should raise alarm bells.

The universe beneath out feet

Stephen Nottingham is a biologist and writer. He has a doctorate in the field of agricultural entomology and is one of Britain’s most ardent advocates of agroecology [previously], the science of working with rather than against nature to produce the food and other plant and animal products that keep us and our civilization alive.

The fundamental element of agroecology is the earth itself, the soil that gives rise to most of those foods and goods, and if it is anything else, the soil beneath our feet is a vast and complex ecosystem, and must be considered whenever we release new genetic creations into our environment..

In his book Genescapes: The Ecology of Genetic Engineering, Nottingham writes:

Agricultural soil typically contains around 600 million bacteria, approximately three miles of mycorrhizal fungal hyphae, about 10,000 protozoa, and between 20 and 30 beneficial nematodes, in a teasponful. . .Elaine Ingham, author of the Oregon Klebsiella sstudy, has critized tests routinely performed by the EPA to evaluate genetically engineered microorganisms for environmental release, in which they use microcosms containing sterile soil. The results cannot provide any information about how the GMO will behave in the field, in terms of effects on soil ecology or on other organisms. In addition, no realistic data on exchange of genetic information between different bacteria can be obtained in sterilized soils.

Genetic exchange with GMOs is now a given

The genetically engineered organisms do exchange their artically manipulated genes with other organisms is a given, though one mightily resisted by the corporations which sell them.

UC Berkeley’s Ignacio Chapela, a friend of the blog, was fired because of his research showing that genes from Monsanto’s herbicide-resistant corn had infected the native corn varieties of Mexico, the nation which gave the world one of its major staple food crops.

His ouster followed a well-financed campaign by the company, using false fronts and academic shills.

It took a lawsuit to win Chapela tenure, and subsequent research has confirmed his findings.

Herbicide-resistant genes have also jumped into weeds, creating new breeds of so-called superweeds and prompting a search for ever more powerful plant killers.

Given that nature had countless billions of ready recruits, we can be certain of one thing: The arms race will never end as corporations seek to maintain their exorbitant profits and maintain their deadly grip on the planet’s food supplies.

Back to that Klebsiella planticola experiment

Dr. Ingham, a soil micobiologist and author of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Soil Biology Primer, was a professor at Oregon State University in 1992 when she supervised the experiments that discovered the deadly nature of the microbe just weeks before it was scheduled for approval for release.

Here’s what she wrote about the discovery, via San Francisco State University:

Field burning of plant residues to prevent disease is a serious cause of air pollution throughout the US. In Oregon, people have been killed because the cloud from burning fields drifted across the highways and caused massive multi-car crashes. A different way was needed to get rid of crop residues. If we had an organism that could decompose the plant material and produce alcohol from it; then we’d have a win-win situation. A sellable product and get rid of plant residues without burning. We could add it to gasoline. We could cook with it. We could drink grass wine-although whether that would taste very good is anyone’s guess. Regardless, there are many uses for alcohol.

So, genes were taken out of another bacterium, and put into Klebsiella planticola in the right place to result in alcohol production. Once that was done, the plan was to rake the plant residue from the fields, gather it into containers, and allow it to be decomposed by Klebsiella planticola. But, Klebsiella would produce alcohol, which it normally does not do. The alcohol production would be performed in a bucket in the barn. But what would you do with the sludge left at the bottom of the bucket once the plant material was decomposed? Think about a wine barrel or beer barrel after the wine or beer has been produced? There is a good thick layer of sludge left at the bottom. After Klebsiella planticola has decomposed plant material, the sludge left at the bottom would be high in nitrogen and phosphorus and sulfur and magnesium and calcium-all of those materials that make a perfectly wonderful fertilizer. This material could be spread as a fertilizer then, and there wouldn’t be a waste product in this system at all. A win-win-win situation.

But my colleagues and I asked the question: What is the effect of the sludge when put on fields? Would it contain live Klebsiella planticola engineered to produce alcohol? Yes, it would. Once the sludge was spread it onto fields in the form of fertilizer, would the Klebsiella planticola get into root systems? Would it have an effect on ecological balance; on the biological integrity of the ecosystem; or on the agricultural soil that the fertilizer would be spread on?

There’s a whole lot more, after the jump. . .

One of the experiments that Michael Holmes did for his Ph.D. work was to bring typical agricultural soil into the lab, sieve it so it was nice and uniform, and place it in small containers. We tested it to make sure it had not lost any of the typical soil organisms, and indeed, we found a very typical soil food web present in the soil. We divided up the soil into pint-size Mason jars, added a sterile wheat seedling in every jar, and made certain that each jar was the same as all the jars.

Into a third of the jars we just added water. Into another third of the jars, the not-engineered Klebsiella planticola, the parent organism, was added. Into a final third of the jars, the genetically engineered microorganism was added.

The wheat plants grew quite well in the Mason jars in the laboratory incubator, until about a week after we started the experiment. We came into the laboratory one morning, opened up the incubator and went, “Oh my God, some of the plants are dead. What’s gone wrong? What did we do wrong?” We started removing the Mason jars from the incubator. When we were done splitting up the Mason jars, we found that every one of the genetically engineered plants in the Mason jars was dead. Wheat with the parent bacterium, the normal bacterium, was alive and growing well. Wheat plants in the water-only treatment were alive and growing well.

From that experiment, we might suspect that there’s a problem with this genetically engineered microorganism. The logical extrapolation from this experiment is to suggest that it is possible to make a genetically engineered microorganism that would kill all terrestrial plants. Since Klebsiella planticola is in the root system of all terrestrial plants, presumably all terrestrial plants would be at risk.

So what does Klebsiella planticola do in root systems? The parent bacterium makes a slime layer that helps it stick to the plant’s roots. The engineered bacterium makes about 17 parts per million alcohol. What is the level of alcohol that is toxic to roots? About one part per million. The engineered bacterium makes the plants drunk, and kills them.

Approval of the organism was just weeks away

Just how close we came to an ecological disaster becomes more apparent in another article.

From Dr. John Ikerd, emeritus professor of agricultural economics at the University of Missouri’s Sustainable Agriculture Systems Program, via LobbyWatch:

“In 1992 the Environmental Protection Agency was only a few weeks away from ending life on the planet as we know it,” so writes George Lawton in the April, 2001 issue of Acres USA (“A Voice For Eco-Agriculture”).

Lawton reports that the EPA, although only having done limited tests at that time on a variety of genetically engineered microbes, all of which had been approved for release into the atmosphere, were prepared to approve the release of a GE variant of Klepbsiella planticola (KP), one of the most common bacteria on the planet

“This particular variety of KP,” he writes, “had the unique ability to convert dead plant matter into alcohol. It was hoped that this would provide a way for farmers to transform their unused stalks, leaves and other types of compost material into alcohol, which could be used for washing, running vehicles, etc.

“The EPA had done a variety of tests on this organism, all of which indicated that it would not be toxic to humans or animals. They were only a few weeks away from releasing these bacteria into the wild, when Michael Holmes, a graduate student at the University of Oregon, came looking for an interesting thing to study for his doctoral thesis.”

Under the direction of his academic advisor, Elaine Ingham, Holmes elected to do his thesis on the effects of this genetically engineered KP on plants, something which had not occurred to the EPA, as it was not required for the release of new genetically modified organisms, Lawton notes in his Acres USA expose.

Holmes study revealed, after testing samples of plants growing in sterile soil, soil with regular KP and soil with genetically engineered KP, that no plants in the latter soil were growing as the alcohol produced by the bacteria had killed them all.

At the time, Lawton notes, the EPA was envisioning that farmers would use these bacteria in a kind of fermenting process to convert plant material into a mixture of 17% alcohol and 83% mineral sludge, which could be poured off into the soil and reused.

“If that had occurred, the genetically engineered KP could have colonized the entire planet over the course of several years, turning all of the soil where it grew into barren dirt.”

Ingham said that problem was and still is that the EPA only looks at the immediate impact of new genetically modified organisms on animals, and does not take into account the larger impact on the ecosystem as a whole. That approach can work to a limited extent when working with chemicals, which can break down and dissipate over time. But living organisms have the ability to procreate and overwhelm the natural ecosystem.

And, yes, disaster was really that close

From the 2001 book The Food Revolution by John Robbins, via Earth Island Journal:

The genetically engineered Klebsiella turned out to be highly competitive with native soil microorganisms. Plants are only able to take nitrogen and other nourishment from the soil with the help of fungi called mycorrhizae. These fungi live in the soil and help make nutrients available to plant roots. But when the genetically engineered Klebsiella was introduced into living soils, it greatly reduced the population of mycorrhizal fungi in the soil. And without healthy mycorrhizal fungi in soils, no plants can survive.

It is testimony to the amazing powers of science that researchers were able to track the mechanism by which the genetically engineered Klebsiella prevented plants from growing. There are thousands of different species of microorganisms in every teaspoon of fertile soil, and they interact in trillions of ways.

But the scientists discovered something else in these experiments, something that sent chills down their spines. They found that the genetically modified bacteria were able to persist in the soil, raising the possibility that, had it been released, the genetically engineered Klebsiella could have become established–and virtually impossible to eradicate.

“When the data first started coming in,” says Elaine Ingham, the soil pathologist at Oregon State University who directed Michael Holmes’ research on Klebsiella, “the EPA charged that we couldn’t have performed the research correctly. They went through everything with a fine tooth comb, and they couldn’t find anything wrong with the experimental design–but they tried as hard as they could… If we hadn’t done this research, the Klebsiella would have passed the approval process for commercial release.”

Geneticist David Suzuki understands that what took place was truly ominous. “The genetically engineered Klebsiella,” he says, “could have ended all plant life on this continent. The implications of this single case are nothing short of terrifying.”

Meanwhile Monsanto and the other biotech companies are eagerly developing all kinds of genetically modified organisms, hoping to bring them to market. How do we know if they’re safe? According to Suzuki: “We don’t, and won’t for years after they are being widely used.”

One further note: Klepbsiella planticola may infect and sicken humans

The bacterium is suspected of causing urinary tract and lung infections as well as septicemia in hospital patients.

The research is here.


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