When It Comes to Soil and Genetic Engineering, Proceed with Caution

By Cowen, Robert C. | The Christian Science Monitor, August 31, 1994 | Go to article overview

When It Comes to Soil and Genetic Engineering, Proceed with Caution


Cowen, Robert C., The Christian Science Monitor


THERE'S a new note of caution for applying the wonders of genetic engineering down on the farm. Unexpected effects may show up where farmers least expect them - in their soils.

Plants and microbes genetically altered to be pest resistant, more nutritious, more productive, or otherwise improved are carefully evaluated to make sure they do not harm the environment. But the environment considered has not included the soil.

That would have been a serious mistake with a genetically engineered bacterium that can help break down farm wastes to make ethanol. It had passed the usual scrutiny. A more sophisticated evaluation at Oregon State University at Corvallis has shown the bacterium could harm a farmer's soil.

Reporting this earlier this month at the Biological Society of America's annual meeting in Knoxville, Tenn., Oregon State botanist Elaine Ingham explained: "Biotechnology is not a problem in itself. But we may have to be more careful about the way it's applied. Some existing tests have not given us all the information we need to evaluate the impact of some biotech products in complex, real-world systems such as soils."

Soil is more than "dirt." It's a complex living web in which a variety of organisms interact to process organic matter, recycle nutrients, and nurture one another. While this includes larger organisms such as earthworms, it's the microscopic community that underlies the system. There are tens of millions of bacteria and tens of thousands of protozoa and other tiny animals in a gram of good top soil. Some of the most important community members are fungi. Beneficial soil fungi are essential to the health of plants whether they grow in a forest or a wheat field.

Using a new soil research system at Oregon State, Dr. Ingham and Michael Holmes tested the new genetically engineered bacterium - Klebsiella planticola. Its ability to speed the fermentation of farm wastes to make ethanol could aid industrial production of this fuel additive. …

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