A history of genetically modified organisms at UC Berkeley

UC Berkeley Professor of Agroecology Miguel Altieri speaks during teach-outs at the occupy the farm encampment in Albany on Saturday, April 28, 2012.
Christopher Yee/Staff
UC Berkeley Professor of Agroecology Miguel Altieri speaks during teach-outs at the occupy the farm encampment in Albany on Saturday, April 28, 2012.

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Originally published in The Daily Californian’s news section on November 5, 2012.

With national, state and local elections fast approaching, UC Berkeley faculty members and local activists gathered on campus Oct. 24 to discuss genetically modified foods in relation to Proposition 37, which would require foods containing genetically modified organisms, or GMOs, to be labeled.

One topic of discussion was the campus’s involvement with GMO research, which has been a subject of controversy among faculty and researchers.

For more than 30 years, the campus has been at the forefront of GMO research and development. Many faculty members have been divided between work to bring genetically modified products to the marketplace and attempts to challenge their dispersal in the environment.

Research origins
The foundations for genetically modified foods began in the 1950s when scientists discovered that genes could be moved between organisms, said agricultural and resource economics professor David Zilberman. Medical genetic engineering soon took off and was applied to agriculture in the1980s.

That’s when UC Berkeley realigned several of its departments and changed some research focus to place a stronger emphasis on studying GMOs, according to Zilberman, who began teaching on campus in 1979.

Zilberman noted that the department of plant and microbial biology developed a stronger emphasis on genetic modification at that time. He attributed much of these changes to Daniel Koshland, the chair of the biochemistry department at the time, who split the department into molecular and cell biology, integrative biology and plant and microbial biology. Zilberman said that Koshland wanted to “emphasize new techniques in science that can be used to produce new materials.”

A 1980 U.S. Supreme Court decision allowed for the patenting of GMOs, according to environmental science, policy and management professor Ignacio Chapela. Chapela said patenting added monetary incentive for university professors to study the topic.

Ice-minus
In 1987, the ice-minus bacteria became the first genetically modified organism released into the environment, and it laid a blueprint for future research in the field. Plant and microbial biology professor Steven Lindow worked on the project, which took place in Tule Lake, Calif., and was the first study of GMOs to take place outside of a lab.

“Through our studies, we were able to identify bacteria of normal freezing damage, and we made mutants of (the bacteria),” Lindow said. “We made specific mutants useful for controlling frost damage, which prevented freezing injury in colonized plants.”

Lindow said that by being able to identify bacteria of normal freezing damage, they were able to make mutants of it used for controlling frost damage. This was done in an attempt to prevent injury to colonized plants.

The goal of the project was to prevent frostbite on strawberries, and the project was never commercialized.  Lindow said the University of California has been central in breakthroughs in genetic modification over the years through work in areas like human growth hormone.

“We do fundamental research,” said Lindow, who also worked for Advanced Genetic Sciences Inc., the first agricultural biogenetics company. “Occasionally, it has application to real world, and then some company or organization takes it to (the market).”

Flavr Savr tomatoes
The first GMO food sold on the market was known as the “Flavr Savr tomato,” which was produced by professors from UC Berkeley and UC Davis with the intention of making tomatoes last longer. The research from the campuses was used by a company named Calgene, which was later acquired by agriculture giant Monsanto.

The intention of the product was to increase the shelf life of tomatoes, and its cans of tomato paste were clearly labeled “Genetically Engineered” and sold to European markets. Zilberman said the product “was not a commercial success” due to unwarranted stigma consumers associated with GMO foods.

“(Flavr Savr’s failure) is relevant if people want to understand why (opponents of Prop. 37) are spending more than $30 million to defeat the measure,” Chapela said. “From the very beginning when GMOs were commercialized, they learned that if consumers were given information on it, they wouldn’t buy it if they had a choice.”

Bt cotton
Also borne of GMO research from Berkeley and Davis was Bt cotton, which was “engineered to resist insect damage and soybeans genetically modified to withstand spraying with Roundup herbicide,” said plant and microbial biology professor Peggy Lemaux.

Zilberman said the GMO was dispersed widely by Monsanto once it was approved for use and is still in use. He has argued in his work that the gene has had environmental benefits by reducing soil tillage and pesticide use in the fields.

Novartis deal
In 1998, UC Berkeley and biogenetics company Novartis, now known as Syngenta, agreed to a controversial deal that brought the campus $25 million. Novartis originally sought to give the campus $50 million in what was called a strategic alliance, but after a drawn-out debate between faculty, staff and community members, the company agreed to send only half of the amount to the department of plant and microbial biology.

“I had firsthand experience to see students encouraged to do research for the industry and only for the industry,” Chapela said.

Lemaux disputed this charge, arguing that the basic research that can contribute to GMO work is not the same as corporate research.

“The regulatory costs of introducing an engineered crop into the commercial market would be beyond the financial means of an academic researcher,” Lemaux said.

BP deal
The next major source of funding for campus GMO research came in 2007 when British Petroleum selected UC Berkeley, in partnership with the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory and the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, to lead a $500 million research effort to find new sources of energy and lessen the environmental impact of energy consumption.

“The story of (GMOs being) released into the environment is intimately linked to the transfer of the university from a public university, where we do research publicly and for the common good, to a university where commercial influence is more and more important,” said Chapela, who opposed the deal and stepped down as the faculty representative for the campus College of Natural Resources.

Campus spokesperson Robert Sanders said the BP deal, which funded the Energy Biosciences Institute and its work on ethanol production, did not alter faculty research incentives. He added that the money has been used to benefit the public through research on ways to mitigate global warming.

“(Berkeley researchers) found some interesting scientific questions in producing biofuels, so they extended the research to it,” Sanders said. “They wouldn’t be bothering if their research didn’t provide the benefit of producing alternatives to fossil fuels.”

Where we are now
Currently, UC Berkeley is at the forefront of the world’s research of “genetically modified,” according to Zilberman, which he said contributes to the department of plant and microbial biology’s high worldwide rank.

Lindow said there is “incontrovertible evidence” that research done on campus has shown GMOs to be safe and that measures should be taken to make it easier for new genetically modified crops to come to the marketplace in addition to the already widespread application of GMO soy, corn, cotton and canola.

However, agroecology professor Miguel Altieri said most campus GMO research does little to improve the agricultural system to feed more people and instead focuses on ethanol production.

“In addition to feeding cars rather than people (25 gallons of ethanol require the amount of corn necessary to feed 1 person per year), there are many social and economic problems linked to devoting large areas of land … to input dependent (lots of fertilizers and herbicides) monocultures,” Altieri said in an email.

Sanders said current biofuel research being done by the Energy Biosciences Institute and the Joint BioEnergy Institute, a research center funded by the U.S. Department of Energy, is being used to break down sugars of nonfood plants like grasses to make it easier turn them into ethanol.

He maintained that campus work on biofuels is “a perfect way for reducing greenhouse gasses” and will continue to be the focus of research as opposed to agriculture in what he claims has been the tradition on campus over the years.

Contact Levon Minassian at [email protected].

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