Kernels of Truth A team of Cal scientists came under attack from colleagues and biotech interests after finding modified DNA in native Mexican corn. They may be wrong, but given just how much is at stake, why hasnŐt anyone else bothered to ask the same question?

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David Quist found more than he was looking for.

Two autumns ago, the UC Berkeley graduate student was working in Sierra Norte de Oaxaca in southern Mexico, preparing to lead a workshop for local farmers who had set up an agricultural science lab. The next day's lesson was on a technique to test seeds for evidence of genetic modification. For the exercise, workshop attendees were going to test corn purchased from the local government food store, much of which comes from the United States in this post-NAFTA age. To show his students what a positive signal would look like, Quist had brought along some transgenic corn DNA from the United States, where about forty percent of the crop is now genetically modified. To demonstrate a negative signal, he planned to use native corn, or criollo, grown in Oaxaca, the evolutionary cradle of the species. But while prepping for the workshop, Quist kept getting an alarming result: His negative control was testing positive. The native corn, it seemed, showed evidence of genetic modification.

What Quist saw was either inevitable or horrific, depending on whom you ask. Oaxaca is the center of genetic diversity for maize, and diversity is essential to the survival of a species. It's what keeps entire populations from being wiped out by a single blight, pest, or change in climate. But human tinkering has led to some unfavorable trends; 75 percent of the planet's natural genetic crop diversity has been lost over the last century, according to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization. Much of that loss has been attributed to the commercialization and globalization of agriculture. Transgenic crops -- those bearing genes from other species -- are considered a particular threat to diversity because they are engineered for survival, with special traits such as resistance to insects, chemical sprays, or harsh environmental conditions like salinity or drought. Bioengineering's critics say these very advantages could allow transgenic plants to take over and further homogenize the gene pool.

For Mexico, this is of particular concern. The Mexican government outlawed the planting of transgenic maize in 1998 to protect its national crop from cross-pollination, though it allows import of the gene-altered product as food and animal feed. Despite such regulations, environmentalists worry that modified crops could end up dominating the gene pool anyway, especially with a promiscuous, wind-pollinated species such as corn. Evidence of cross-pollination in remote Oaxaca did not augur well for the government's ability to keep transgenes out, and Quist says he fervently hoped what he was seeing was a false positive.

Quist's advisor, microbial ecologist and UC Berkeley associate professor Ignacio Chapela, suggested that he return home to retest his samples. Back in the team's laboratory at the university's Department of Environmental Science, Policy, and Management, the young researcher ran the maize through several more rounds of experimentation. While tests on two of the samples were negative, four of the six native corn samples indicated the presence of transgenes. Quist also tested a sample from the government food store, which came back strongly positive.

Specifically, Quist was finding a gene fragment from the cauliflower mosaic virus that is often used to boost the expression of newly introduced genes in engineered crops. He also believed he'd found other small DNA fragments common to transgenic crops, and evidence of a diversity of sequences flanking the viral DNA, which led him to conclude that the foreign genetic material had moved around to different parts of the genome, and was being passed from one generation of plants to the next via pollination. Quist and Chapela estimated that, based on their data, one to ten percent of native Mexican maize might be similarly affected.

If correct, the team's conclusions could have profound ecological and political implications. Critics of genetic engineering warn that the invasion of transgenes into native varieties could provoke a host of negative effects: Such a crossover, they say, could create new allergens in food and further shrink agricultural gene pools, leaving whole crop populations vulnerable to destruction -- as occurred in the disastrous Irish potato famine of 1845-1851, during which an estimated 1.5 million people starved to death.

Furthermore, they say, poor farmers could become even more dependent on multinational corporations for their seeds. In the case of maize, it's feared that transgenic pollen could mingle with corn's inedible Mexican ancestor, teosinte, turning it into a "superweed." Finding transgenic DNA in the hills of Oaxaca, which were supposedly a bastion of genetic purity, suggested to Quist that cross-pollination might be far worse in the valleys, where the country's industrial maize production is based.

The discovery that transgene fragments seemed to be appearing at different locations within the genome was perhaps even more significant. It undercut the very premise that genetic engineering is a safe and exact science, that once new DNA is introduced into a species, humans can know and control exactly where the gene goes, how it will be expressed, and if it will be passed on to other plants.

The researchers knew their claims would be scrutinized closely when they published their results in the British journal Nature last November. After all, Quist says, the peer-review process had consisted of four rigorous reviews over an eight-month period by a team of anonymous experts. But no one could have predicted the magnitude of the controversy to come.

Over the past seven months, publication of the team's results has led to what some now call the "Mexican maize scandal." It has prompted Greenpeace to call for an investigation by the international Commission for Environmental Cooperation set up under NAFTA. It has left the Mexican government scrambling to confirm or deny the conclusions, and forced a prominent Mexico-based research center to defend the integrity of its gene bank. And it has fomented a contentious battle between prominent scientists and environmentalists, between those who would dismiss the study as junk science or defend Quist and Chapela as public-interest researchers victimized by an industry-led smear campaign to discredit them.

• • • •

There certainly are huge sums at stake -- current industry estimates value the global commercial seed market at around $30 billion, and the market share for genetically modified seeds has grown exponentially. In 1996, just 1.7 million hectares of genetically modified (GM) crops were planted worldwide. In the past year alone, the figure jumped nineteen percent to nearly 53 million hectares, according to a report from ISAAA, a pro-biotech advocacy group.

But the biotech foods industry still has plenty of room for expansion. At present, nearly all GM crops are engineered for just a few traits: herbicide and pesticide tolerance, resistance to insects, or both, and 99 percent of all transgenic crops, the group reports, are grown in just four countries -- Argentina, Canada, China, and the United States, which alone accounts for 68 percent of the world's GM crops.

Consequently, much of the world is still an untapped market. This year, the industry is expected to seek removal of embargoes on genetically engineered seeds in Mexico, Brazil, and Europe. But growing public skepticism about the safety of genetically modified foods could cost industry leaders Pharmacia, DuPont, and Syngenta billions in potential earnings.

Supporters of this market tout bioengineering's equally vast potential benefits, saying it can boost the agricultural yields of Third World nations or help solve world hunger. As proof, they point to benevolent uses of genetically modified foods such as the "golden rice" project, in which the seeds for Vitamin A-enriched rice were given away to help combat malnutrition in developing countries. They also say genetically modified crops can have positive environmental effects by reducing the need for chemical pesticides, since insect resistance is built right into a plant's genetic code.

While the Nature paper added fuel to an already hot global debate, it also had a deep local impact. The controversy renewed scrutiny of a 1998 decision by UC Berkeley's Department of Plant and Microbial Biology to sign a five-year, $25 million alliance with bioengineering giant Syngenta, then called Novartis. The deal granted the corporation first dibs on negotiating patent licenses on one-third of the department's discoveries regardless of whether or not those projects were financed with Novartis funds, and it gave the corporation two out of five seats on the department's research committee, leaving some researchers concerned that the university would be encouraged to produce research that favored genetic engineering and squelch studies that didn't. Although both sides of debate claim that their interest is in science and not politics, it's no secret that Chapela and Quist opposed the Syngenta deal, nor that some of their most vociferous critics have been their own colleagues from the Plant and Microbial Biology department located just across the campus in Koshland Hall.

• • • •

After Nature published Quist and Chapela's study, it received four letters strongly criticizing the work. A team of referees vetted the letters, and Nature published two in April. One, drafted by Cal graduate student Nick Kaplinsky, was co-signed by a group of students and faculty primarily from the Plant and Microbial Biology Department. The second was drafted by postdoctoral fellow Matthew Metz, a recent Cal graduate now at the University of Washington, and signed by a colleague in Switzerland. Both letters claimed that Quist and Chapela mistook meaningless strings of DNA for transgenes and that their results were merely false positives, probably stemming from lab contamination. They accused the researchers of running afoul of scientific principles by failing to double-check their results and, more pointedly, accused them of allowing political convictions to sway their research conclusions. The study, Metz told The Washington Post, was nothing more than "mysticism masquerading as science."

The criticism was so strong that Nature's editors asked Quist and Chapela to retest their samples by another method. It was an unusual request, but not unreasonable, says editor-in-chief Philip Campbell in an interview conducted by e-mail. "We believed it possible that such data were promptly obtainable and might resolve the fundamental issue, which was: Were the claims able to be substantiated?" he says. The researchers saw it differently, especially since Nature gave them just four weeks to produce new results -- a short time in the scientific realm -- and 300 words to respond to roughly 1,500 words of criticism. Chapela describes the exchange as "total bullying by Nature." Quist complains that the timetable was "unreasonably short." The new tests validated his original claims, Quist says, but since complete results weren't available by the magazine's deadline, he was forced to respond with a preliminary report.

One of Nature's peer reviewers was unconvinced. In the same issue that featured the critical letters from Kaplinsky and Metz, the magazine ran an editorial rescinding its support for the original paper. "In light of these discussions and the diverse advice received, Nature has concluded that the evidence available is not sufficient to justify the publication of the original paper," the editors wrote. "As the authors nevertheless wish to stand by the available evidence for their conclusions, we feel it best simply to make these circumstances clear, to publish the criticisms, the authors' response and new data, and to allow our readers to judge the science for themselves." It was an unprecedented move; for the first time in Nature's 133-year history, the journal had withdrawn support for an article without first calling for a retraction.

• • • •

With all of the politics surrounding the study, it's easy to lose sight of the actual science. Quist and Chapela's experiment hinged on two main points: have transgenes crossed into native corn, and if so, do they fragment and move about the genome?

Although the latter point has been heavily attacked, there is little disagreement about the study's first conclusion. The United States ships six million tons of corn to Mexico every year, and despite Mexico's desire to preserve its strains of native maize, just about everyone agrees that some of it is bound to get planted and then cross-pollinate with its native neighbors. "That's kind of an obvious no-brainer," says Kaplinsky, noting that farmers often have an economic motivation to plant unsanctioned seeds. "In India, even though it's illegal, farmers there have been planting transgenic cotton, and in Brazil they've been planting transgenic soybeans," he says. "Farmers will plant the best seed they can get, especially if they're subsistence farmers. If you're surviving on a harvest and you have a choice between corn that will give you one kilo per plant or two kilos per plant, you'll take the two-kilo-per-plant seed, presumably."

Even the study's toughest critics agree that the appearance of transgenes in Mexico is not only likely, but desirable. Last February, Kaplinsky and Metz joined dozens of other biologists in signing a statement circulated by the AgBioWorld Foundation, a pro-biotech advocacy organization, noting that farmers have deliberately crossbred new and old maize varieties for thousands of years in order to select the most advantageous offspring. "The kind of gene flow alleged in the Nature paper is both inevitable and welcome," the statement said.

Metz and others argue, rather, that Quist and Chapela's study does nothing to prove the presence of transgenes in Oaxaca. "There's a difference between making a bet and presenting solid scientific evidence," Metz says. In fact, he and some other scientists think that Quist and Chapela's research might even be useful in making the case that transgenes from commercially grown corn won't lead to the displacement of native criollo. If the transgenic DNA was truly taking over, he says, "They would have seen something that did not look like criollo -- it would have looked like the conventional breed of corn that the transgenic material came from."

For his part, Chapela expresses surprise that his critics now call this gene flow "inevitable." He interprets this concession as evidence that pro-industry forces were so blindsided by the study that they didn't have a ready response. "Anyone who was prepared would not be so stupid as to say, 'I knew it was going to happen,' " Chapela says. "I think you make yourself liable to go to jail for making a statement like that. There are international treaties trying to prevent it, and there is national legislation trying to prevent it, and everybody agrees that this could be a problem."

In January, Quist and Chapela gained some support when a study jointly prepared by three branches of the Mexican environmental ministry found transgenic contamination rates in Oaxaca and nearby Puebla that were much higher than the Berkeley study claimed. The government announced transgenic contamination of between 3 and 13 percent in eleven communities, between 20 and 60 percent in four others, and 37 percent in government food stores.

Quist and Chapela's second major point is far more contentious because it suggests that a gene transfer can occur through other means than pollination. If so, the genes would be less stable than previously believed and their behavior would be less predictable, as would their effects on human welfare, crop diversity, and the environment. The idea that artificially introduced genes may be unstable is relatively recent and quite threatening to an industry that tries to reassure its customers that planting modified seeds won't have any unexpected results. UC Berkeley genetics professor Michael Freeling, Kaplinsky's lab advisor and a co-signer of his critical letter, says that Quist and Chapela's claim that, as he puts it, "the transgene popped out and, like Frankenstein's monster, jumped all over the genome," would be a "totally unanticipated" result. Likewise, Metz cautions that transgenic DNA is governed by the same constraints as normal DNA, and "does not behave like an infectious agent, leaping around genomes."

Quist counters that, in fact, the most common way to insert genetically engineered DNA into a host organism is by having it hitch a ride on invasive organisms such as a bacteria or a virus. "The whole process of introducing foreign genes into a host relies on an infectious, and thus inherently mobile, process," says Quist. "This process that allows it to get in also gives it the machinery to move around." Though controversial, the idea that transgenic material may be unstable has other adherents. In a recent article published by the Institute of Science in Society, director Mae-Wan Ho and Joe Cummins, a retired professor from the University of Western Ontario, defend the Berkeley study. The authors refer to a 2001 study of Monsanto's Roundup-Ready Soya, a commercially successful transgenic crop, in which researchers demonstrated that both the transgenic DNA and host genome had become scrambled.

Furthermore, in a letter to Nature last December that was ultimately rejected, Ho supported the Berkeley team's conclusions, noting that the cauliflower mosaic virus sequence found in Quist's positive samples is thought to increase transgenic instability. Since 1999, Ho and other scientists have been urging the recall of crops containing this viral sequence, calling it a potential safety risk.

The Metz and Kaplinsky groups have their own explanation for what Quist and Chapela saw: experimental error. They say it's an error that should have been easy to catch; Kaplinsky claims it only took him ten minutes to discover. "The misinterpretation that they did was a very common mistake if you don't have a maize genetics background," Kaplinsky says. "Chapela is mainly a fungal ecologist. Since he was moving into a new field, he just made a beginner's mistake."

Quist and Chapela used a technique that lets scientists examine stretches of unknown DNA flanking known sequences. In this case, the researchers wanted to look next to the cauliflower mosaic virus sequence; they knew that since these sequences don't appear naturally in corn, anything adjacent might have been inserted by humans. After determining the order of nucleotide building blocks in these unknown stretches, they compared them against the contents of a computerized gene bank, which spat back a list of statistically likely matches. The researchers concluded they'd spotted material from commercially available corn, including Syngenta's Bt11 variety -- and other mystery sequences that produced no match at all.

But the analysis technique works by amplifying by millions of times the minuscule amounts of a gene sequence present in the sample, and the study's critics point out that contamination can also be amplified. Because the technique is so sensitive, Kaplinsky says, it often produces background noise that may be mistaken for real data. This, he contends, is exactly what Quist and Chapela ran through the computer. "In reality, they weren't seeing transgenes, they were just seeing a random piece of DNA," says Kaplinsky. He says the researchers should have used different analysis technique.
Quist and Chapela's critics also say they didn't verify their results well enough. They did not state how many times the experiment was repeated with each sample, Metz complained in his letter to Nature, or how many times each sample gave a positive or negative result. He also complained that the results from their historical control group -- maize taken from a Mexican gene bank -- were not included in the illustration that Quist and Chapela published with their first article.

Finally, critics accuse the pair of rushing to judgment, claiming that their conclusions were tainted because of personal biases against genetic engineering. They point out that Quist, in fact, was a member of Students for Responsible Research, a group formed to oppose the alliance between Cal and Syngenta, and Chapela was an outspoken member of the faculty opposition. (The critics, however, usually fail to note that Chapela also spent three years in the early '90s working for Syngenta, which was known as Sandoz at the time.) "They happen to be fervent anti-genetic-engineering activists," Metz wrote of the Berkeley researchers in a press release. "They failed to carefully scrutinize their own data, and it would seem that an ideological conflict encouraged this lapse in scientific principles. Conducting experiments with preordained conclusions in mind is a recipe for disaster." Freeling agrees: "I think all scientists have been seduced by preconceptions at one time or another, but to fall so hard is rare. And to not retract and apologize is foolish and hard to understand.
• • • •

Quist and Chapela have made small concessions, but they stand firm behind their main conclusions. In their April reply in Nature, they admitted to misidentifying two sequences, but said the remaining samples were identified correctly. By repeating the experiment using a different research method, they addressed at least some of the complaints regarding their finding that criollo corn contained transgenic material. They also reject the idea that their results were background noise, and argue that they simply approached the experiment in a different way than their critics might have.

If Quist and Chapela were on target, their detractors argue, they should have found long strings of human-engineered DNA that would have included easily recognizable genetic features. But because the pair was interested in seeing how transgenes might fragment, they deliberately chose to look for smaller bits of human-inserted DNA rather than long intact sequences. This, they claim, is exactly what they found, and that the difference in their approach simply illustrates the difference between people who study plants raised in greenhouses and those who study plants under real-life conditions. "What they're interested in is agronomic performance; we're interested in how these genes behave in nature," says Quist. "It's a very different analytical toolbox that they apply to interpret our data than what we do." Chapela concurs: "Unless they see this whole thing that they inserted complete and expressing in the plant, they just choose not to see it. They choose not to be interested."

In their defense, the Berkeley researchers cite the fact that Nature never asked for a retraction. "We were never asked to do that, nor would we when our main conclusions aren't even being challenged," says Quist. It's a significant detail for scientists -- without a retraction, Quist and Chapela's study is still considered a part of the primary scientific literature and is likely to be cited by future researchers. In fact, Quist thinks Nature bowed to public pressure and is now fence-sitting. "I think they wrote in very specific language for a reason, so that it was somewhat equivocal," he says. "If results come out to corroborate our results, they can say, 'See, we didn't ask for a retraction because it is a biological reality; it is happening.' If it turns sour, they can say, 'See, we were right in putting these guys on the chopping block.' "

Indeed, neither side of the debate seems terribly pleased with Nature's decision. Some scientists are upset that the study made it through the peer-review process in the first place, while others are disappointed that the journal withdrew its support. "Peer review conducted properly wouldn't have let something go to press that was in this particular condition, with lots of holes in it," says Metz. Some scientists suspect that the reviewers -- who traditionally remain anonymous -- weren't knowledgeable enough to catch the errors, or that they sympathized with the paper's conclusions.

Others have more serious ethical concerns. Associate professor Miguel Altieri, one of Chapela's departmental colleagues, believes that Nature had an economic motive to backpedal. "Nature depends on its funding from big corporations," he says. "Look at the last page of the journal and sees who funds the ads for jobs. Eighty percent are technology corporations, paying anywhere from $2,000 to $10,000 per ad. I think that Nature is not a reputable scientific journal anymore because it has a price."
Editor Campbell insists that the journal has not taken a partisan role either way. "You can be sure that we are accused of such biases from both sides," he says. "We select papers without such biases. We have published editorial opinions in favor of GM crops, in fact. But our reputation has always depended, not least, on a nonpartisan approach to selection of papers."

• • • •

Allegations of personal bias, back-room maneuvering, and undue pressure from corporations loom large over the corn debate, making it a prickly situation for everyone involved.

Even before their results were published, Quist and Chapela's work was causing them trouble. Last September, Chapela took it upon himself to warn Fernando Ortiz Monasterio, chair of Mexico's Commission on Biosafety, that he thought something was amiss. Knowing that a press leak would hurt his paper's chances for publication, Chapela says he told the chairman their meeting would have to be confidential. Monasterio first berated and threatened him, Chapela says, but finally invited him to a secret meeting in Baja California with an elite group of scientists -- two from Syngenta and two from Pharmacia -- whom the official said were going to design an experiment to show the truth about Mexican corn. According to Chapela, his refusal to attend forced Monasterio to change tack. By the next day, the results of the Berkeley study had been leaked to the media, and Chapela was fielding calls from Greenpeace, which was eager to start mobilizing a campaign. Within days, the story made the front page of the daily Le Monde in France, where concerns about genetic engineering have been much bigger news.

But if Chapela's treatment from Monasterio was confusing, the Mexican government also waffled in its stance. Although the government study released in January appeared to significantly bolster Quist and Chapela's claims, it was somewhat undermined when one of the biologists involved told a reporter from Science magazine that the Mexican government still did not have any "definite answers" to corroborate or disprove Chapela's findings. Victor Manuel Villalobos, Mexico's undersecretary of agriculture, was quoted in Newsweek's international edition later that month, promising that more detailed studies were underway that might disprove the Berkeley study. But in April, at an international environmental conference in the Hague, officials from Mexico's national commission on biodiversity confirmed that they'd found transgenic corn at 95 percent of the sites tested in the states of Oaxaca and Puebla, with positive test rates ranging from 1 to 35 percent -- far higher than Quist and Chapela had speculated.

Meanwhile, a Mexican gene bank run by the International Wheat and Maize Improvement Center conducted its own tests. This spring, after testing a portion of the locally cultivated maize varieties in its collection, the center announced that it had found no traces of the cauliflower mosaic virus sequence. But the center's director conceded that if nearby farmers have been growing transgenic corn, some of it may have infiltrated the gene bank. Perhaps this is one reason why, after seven months, the maize scandal shows no signs of abating: With each new wave of results comes a hearty dose of conflicting information and spin-doctoring.

Opponents of genetic engineering, meanwhile, have sprung to the defense of Quist and Chapela. Greenpeace attempted to block a shipment of corn into Mexico, and began an international campaign calling for an investigation under NAFTA bylaws. For many environmentalists, the appearance of transgenic corn in Oaxaca was a confirmation of their worst fears about the possibility that transgenes could run amok in nature. "Genetic engineering is a very unpredictable technology, and we don't understand all of the consequences," says Greenpeace campaigner Jeanne Merrill. "The Mexican contamination of corn is a prime example of that. It's illegal to grow this corn, and yet here we are in this situation. How did that happen? The stuff doesn't stay put."

In February, the Oakland-based Food First institute issued a joint statement signed by 144 farmers' groups and other nonprofits asking for several intergovernmental and UN organizations to work together to stop the spread of transgenic maize in Mexico. The statement dismissed criticism of the Berkeley study as the biotech industry's attempt at damage control, designed to intimidate the researchers "as a warning to any other academics who break ranks over GM research" and to "keep doubts circulating as to whether or not Mesoamerica is contaminated." The nonprofit also held that challenges to the team's lab protocol were moot, "since regardless of the methodologies involved, no serious scientist can really dispute the contamination."

But until after Nature recanted the study, much of the debate played out in scientific publications and on the Internet. One major online forum was the site of AgBioWorld Foundation, run by C.S. Prakash, a plant molecular genetics professor at Tuskegee University and vocal supporter of genetic engineering. became a forum for critics of the Berkeley study; Prakash would post critical articles, such as an editorial in the journal Transgenic Research that called the research "a testimony to technical failure." Prakash also posted his own series of press releases, arguing that "organizations with vested interests and hidden agendas have used these tenuous claims and a campaign of hysteria to discredit modern biotechnology" and that Mexican farmers would suffer if denied the technology available to their American counterparts. AgBioWorld also shot back at Food First, circulating a statement arguing that criticism of the Berkeley study was academic, not political, in nature. "Far from being 'mud-slinging' or 'intimidation,' all scientists worthy of the name understand that relentless double-checking and independent third-party evaluations are the cornerstones of the scientific process," it concluded. Among its signatories were Freeling, Metz, and Kaplinsky.

But there's evidence that some of the most virulent criticisms posted on the site were anything but academic. Following an April investigation by the British weekly The Big Issue, both The Ecologist and The Guardian have followed with articles alleging that AgBioWorld's Web forum, AgBioView, was used as part of a corporate smear campaign against Quist and Chapela. At issue are the identities of e-mail contributors Mary Murphy and Andura Smetacek, who together submitted sixty of the first postings criticizing the study and dismissing Chapela as an anti-biotech activist. According to Ecologist columnist Jonathan Matthews, one of Murphy's e-mail addresses revealed that she worked for the Bivings Group, a Beltway PR firm specializing in 'Internet advocacy' campaigns. One of Bivings' big clients? Monsanto, the company from which Pharmacia was germinated. Smetacek's identity is a bit more nebulous. After unsuccessfully trying to track her down, Big Issue writer Andy Rowell concluded that Smetacek's e-mail address was a front. But who was behind it? Neither publication could say, but both noted that Smetacek's postings made frequent reference to the Center for Food and Agricultural Research, an entity that appears to exist only online and whose domain, they claim, is registered to a Bivings employee.

A spokesman for the Bivings Group emphatically denies that the company has ever employed -- or heard of -- either Murphy or Smetacek, and in a terse press release the PR group dismisses the magazines' allegations as "baseless." Likewise, AgBioWorld founder Prakash says he has no knowledge of either woman, but that as a discussion-group moderator it can be tricky to draw the line between people who are just opinionated and those who are passing off unsubstantiated information as fact. "The Internet is not a newspaper; you really have to take things with a grain of salt," he says. He also maintains that his site has no connection with Bivings or any other industry organizations. "It's a very independent nonprofit organization," says Prakash.

Quist and Chapela's defenders hold that these attacks on their credibility were not at all impartial. The Bivings Group's own Web site, after all, boasts of the power of "viral marketing," or using word-of-mouth strategies to disseminate clients' views online. Indeed, Andrew Dimock, head of the PR firm's online marketing and promotions division, penned an essay on the topic that appeared in April on Following publication of the Guardian article, Dimock's essay was amended to eliminate the following quotation: "There are some campaigns where it would be undesirable or even disastrous to let the audience know that your organization is directly involved. ... Message boards, chat rooms, and listservs are a great way to anonymously monitor what is being said. Once you are plugged into this world, it is possible to make postings to these outlets that present your position as an uninvolved third party."

The currently posted version instead suggests that people use message boards to "make relevant postings to these outlets that openly present your identity and position." Even more disturbing, says columnist Matthews, is his claim that when searching the AgBioWorld Web archive, he got an error message showing that the site was connected to a Bivings server. "This suggests that Bivings may not just be contributing significantly to the tone and direction of the AgBioView list in an undisclosed way through the use of one or more aliases, but are making some of AgBioWorld's content available in a way that masks their involvement," he says. All attempts by the Express to reach Murphy and Smetacek through phone numbers and e-mail addresses provided by Rowell proved fruitless.

Even if the fronts were false, the criticism was effective in refocusing the debate on lab methodology. Defenders of the Berkeley research charge that its detractors are trying to obfuscate the fact that the study's main point -- transgenes have made their way into Oaxacan corn -- is probably correct. "They're spending big bucks to confuse the public and attempt to destroy the credibility of these two researchers," says Greenpeace's Merrill. Chapela concurs. "The people who are publicly after us right now are the usual suspects, the people who are in the pay of the industry and whose dedication is just to produce propaganda," he says. "They basically fed us to the dogs."

• • • •

If Quist and Chapela's toughest critics were working in a nearby campus building, why didn't the scientists simply get together and hash out their differences before the Nature article, or the replies, were published? The answer has a lot to do with the pact between UC Berkeley and Syngenta.

The signing of the five-year deal in 1998 provoked a good deal of anger and debate -- protesters even lobbed pies at company president Douglas Watson and Gordon Rausser, then dean of Cal's College of Natural Resources, during the ceremony. (Watson was hit; Rausser ducked.) A survey conducted after the pact was inked showed that more than half of the faculty believed it would have "negative" or "strongly negative" repercussions for academic freedom. The company's control of two of five seats on the school's research committee created worries, as did a clause allowing Syngenta to delay publication of research for up to four months. In a 1999 article for Cal's alumni magazine, Rausser wrote that the deal contained safeguards to ensure that the faculty, not Syngenta, dictated the university's choice of research projects. He wrote that the campus had much to gain from the bargain: money, the help of knowledgeable industry researchers, and access to Syngenta's proprietary gene databases.

Three years into the alliance, reviews are still mixed. Some say graduate students have benefited from the increased funding, and that Syngenta has kept its hands off of research decisions. According to Rausser, the financial boost has allowed Cal to be competitive with private rivals like Harvard and Stanford in attracting top grad students, and notes that a recent investigation in the Chronicle of Higher Education concluded that both students and faculty are now generally supportive of the alliance.
Others say the benefits have not been equally shared, and that the deal has not been as well-monitored as it was supposed to be. The first outside analysis of the deal's effects -- part of a joint study on academic-industry partnerships by Oregon and Portland state universities -- isn't expected until 2004. But just about everyone involved admits that the mere specter of corporate influence has hurt Berkeley's reputation for sterling science. Kaplinsky, who says he's never grown a transgenic plant in his life, claims it's now harder for him to appear unbiased. "Before that agreement, I was a student at UC Berkeley, a public institution," he says. "And now, even though I say the same things, there's kind of this doubt. ... There's actually nothing I can ever do about that, whether I signed up for the industry money or like it or not."

Indeed, two of Chapela's departmental colleagues, Altieri and Andrew Gutíerrez, circulated a petition stating that campus tensions stemming from the maize debate was detrimental to Cal's College of Natural Resources. The petition referred with horror to the fates of other researchers who were drummed out of academia after producing results critical of biotechnology interests: Arpad Pusztai, formerly at the Rowett Institute in Scotland, allegedly lost his job after publishing findings that feeding genetically modified potatoes to lab rats caused damage to their organ development and immune systems, and Cornell University assistant professor John Losey, who was assailed by industry advocates after publishing a highly controversial study in Nature alleging that pollen from genetically engineered corn was toxic to monarch butterflies. "This type of intimidation is unethical, attempts to stymie academic freedom, and is conducive to the creation of a divisive climate on our campus," the petition said. "After three years into the development of a hastily implemented and poorly followed CNR-Syngenta initiative, we should revisit the agreement and explore its consequences, including what we perceive are neo-McCarthyian tendencies that have emerged against those who in carrying out their social role as scientists question the ecological, social, and political dimensions of agricultural biotechnology."

But supporters of the alliance dismiss the idea that bad blood is to blame for the critical reception of Quist and Chapela's research. "That's just a fanciful argument," says Rausser. "The reaction to the Nature article came from plant biologists throughout the country who are not a party to the Berkeley-Novartis research agreement."

The controversy could nevertheless hurt Chapela's chances for tenure when he comes up for review next year. And Quist says the fallout certainly has had a deleterious effect on his own research. During the early stages of developing his experiment, Quist says, he approached faculty and students in the Plant and Microbial Biology department -- including some who would later sign the Kaplinsky letter -- for advice about his research into transgenic maize. Around the same time, the Cal campus had been hit by a string of crop trashings, one of which had targeted corn being grown in a research cornfield by a group of Freeling's students, including Kaplinsky. The vandals left a note claiming that they knew the plants were transgenic because they'd had them analyzed. The coincidence was apparently too much for the department administration, which confronted Chapela with the accusation that Quist had been involved.

"Here I went to try and open up some sort of scientific communication, bring the rift together, and what did I get? False accusations," Quist says indignantly. "Now it's led to the deterioration of any relationship that we'd had, and this is a very direct example of how this alliance has created mistrust and paranoia in that department. ... I don't exactly get warm fuzzies when I walk by Koshland Hall any more, or think that that is a place where I can go and talk about this research."

For the record, Kaplinsky says that at least one member of his lab group did discuss Quist's research with him before he published his conclusions, and that before his group sent their letter to Nature, they presented a copy to Chapela, expecting that it would lead to nothing more contentious than a routine erratum notice in the next issue. "This was never meant to be a big deal," he says.

• • • •

Even Quist and Chapela's toughest critics agree that the broader questions raised by the study merit further consideration. Freeling, who believes genetic engineering may help farmers grow crops in an increasingly depleted natural environment, says there's an important difference between proceeding cautiously with new technologies and being afraid to do any research at all. "The course of genetic engineering of plants, foods, and plant products will not be direct, nor without risk. However, I see no reason to be dominated by fear," he says. "Caution is useful, but fear is antilife, antidiscovery, antiprogress, and antijoy." Freeling says activists in search of a smoking gun seized upon the Berkeley study because it seemed to confirm their worst fears, but adds that the science simply doesn't pan out. "We are in need of scientific data, but only reliable data," says Freeling. "There are so many clearer voices that those of Quist and Chapela on these important issues."

Kaplinsky suggests that the Berkeley study may have only helped confuse the issue by crying wolf. "The problem is that if you scare people enough times about nothing, when the real thing comes along, who's going to listen?" he asks.
But Chapela and Quist say they are guilty of no more than doing public-interest science at a university that is still, after all, a public institution. "If there is a real agenda that I have in all this, it is the agenda of rescuing biology from the fate of physics during the nuclear physics revolution, where one specific mode of doing physics just took over everything else and turned the field of physics into an incredibly boring, dull, and uncreative discipline," says Chapela. "I think we're seeing the same happening to biology."

Quist agrees. "This very reductionist molecular biology view is in the driver's seat for the biology that we're doing nowadays," he says. "To me, that's putting all your eggs in one basket, excluding these other views of biology which I think would actually lead to really fruitful lines of research. As it seems from the research coming out right now, those eggs in that basket are starting to crack."

From the start, both sides of the Mexican maize scandal have maintained that that at its root, the debate is scientific, not political. To outsiders, the boundaries between science and politics may seem a bit blurry, but one fact does seem clear: The questions Quist and Chapela raised about the unintentional spread of transgenes are still largely unexplored, and many scientists' careers, as well as vast sums of money, depend on how they are answered.

As Chapela has noted, there's something inherently unnerving about the fact that this $2,000 research project has provoked such an intense reaction from an industry that has poured millions into biotechnology research. Perhaps these are the sort of projects that will be overlooked if more and more research facilities become linked with industry benefactors, giving them financial incentives to rush new products and technologies to market rather than stopping to ask potentially troublesome questions. Is transgenic corn truly growing in Oaxaca? It seems like a straightforward question. Why so few people have bothered to try answering it until now seems a much deeper mystery.


Originally Published: May 29, 2002, East Bay Express

All content copyright Kara Platoni. Please contact for permission before reproducing.