UC Berkeley researcher’s side project aims to tackle hunger

Kevin Foote/Senior Staff
UC Berkeley scientist George Chuck hopes to use such techniques in the Gill Tract to explore an end to world hunger, but his colleague Miguel Altieri says doing so violates “biological barriers imposed by nature.”

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For more than a decade, genetically modified organisms, or GMOs, have been a point of contention among scientists and citizens alike. While many criticize the technology as potentially harmful to health and the environment, others, such as UC Berkeley scientist George Chuck, see genetic engineering as the answer to many of the world’s most pressing problems.

For the past year, Chuck has trekked out to his personal collection of dirt rows at the edge of UC Berkeley’s Gill Tract to tend to the hobby he reserves for late nights and weekends.

Although Chuck spends his working hours as a UC Berkeley researcher in the campus department of plant and microbial biology, he sees his true calling as a tender of the fields, nourishing the plants that lay root in his plot and cursing the wild turkeys that ravage his crops.

“Working on these African grain crops is satisfying,” he said. “It’s a lot more satisfying than working on biofuels, at the end of the day.”

In this unassuming plot of land, Chuck is attempting a grand feat: to address world hunger through the delicate art of bioengineering. Specifically, Chuck’s hobby involves injecting an African wheat plant with a gene known to suppress “axillary branches” in sunflowers. By doing this, he hopes to reduce the number of sprouts protruding from the plant, allowing it to produce higher-quality seeds. He hopes these seeds will someday be used to bake a nutritious bread that is popular in certain parts of Africa where poverty is rampant.

His dreams are sowed in this small segment of the Gill Tract, a UC-owned piece of land in Albany, where some of the campus’s most important agricultural research is conducted.

“I do not want to create a transgenic crop plant — I’m using genetic engineering as a tool to test my hypothesis,” Chuck said.

Though his studies are rooted in educational and philanthropic intentions, his research may hit the nerves of avid GMO opponents, including one prominent UC Berkeley scientist, Miguel Altieri. What Chuck calls a process that ancestral farmers — the “first engineers” — have been doing “for thousands of years” Altieri condemns as an infringement of “biological barriers imposed by nature.”

“(Farmers) would never use this agrobacterium that Chuck is using — they never crossed bacteria with plants or genes of frogs with plants or anything like that,” said Altieri, a professor in the department of environmental science, policy and management. “We are creating novel organisms, and we have no idea what the ecological impacts are.”

Chuck, however, who funds the entire project himself, says this notion is precisely the type of criticism he hopes to address through his research, which also compares the health effects of “wild” or “ancestral” crops with those of their “cultivated” descendents.

“They think we’re screwing with nature, and that’s a somewhat valid concern,” Chuck said. “But the other thing they’re concerned about is, what is it doing to you? There’s this idea that somehow wild crop plants are more natural or better for you, and that’s completely untrue.”

Sarah Hake, director of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Plant Gene Expression Center and a UC Berkeley professor of plant development, notes that these misconceptions are the source of much of the stigma surrounding GMOs, and she sees this as a premature bias against the technology.

“I think if they understood what are the risks, what are the benefits … it would not be as scary,” said Hake, who works with Chuck in her lab. “These things can be tested and answered, so my response is to isolate one concern at a time. Look at a particular example rather than condemning the whole technology.”

Altieri also pointed to the likely futility of any bioengineering research that attempts to mitigate world hunger, given the underlying social, political and historical factors that contribute to the issue. He calls biotechnology a “blind solution” to a complex problem.

“Call it a simple experiment in biology, and don’t claim that they can help mitigate famine in Africa,” Altieri said.

Even with criticism from Altieri and those who share his views, Chuck remains steadfast in his mission, even giving tours of his crops to graduate students in Hake’s class.

“People don’t like GMOs. I can understand that, and I can appreciate that,” he said, adding that fear for the unknown should not stand in the way of educational potential. “That’s the mission of the university: to educate. We’re actually doing that with this land.”

Virgie Hoban is the lead research and ideas reporter. Contact her at [email protected]