Sunday, September 23, 2007

Genetic Engineering for BioFuels

From time to time, I have used this space to post articles on Genetically Modified Organisms (GMO's) or GE Crop that I have received from Napa Green Erica Martenson. The following is yet another of her fact filled reports that you should all read, as well as going to the action web site here.
Open Letter to the Editor of California Magazine

Re: the Dangers of the UC Berkeley-BP Research Deal on Biofuels; Mainly its Emphasis on the Use of GE Microbes

Web Note: As it does not appear that California magazine will be printing this letter to the editor that I submitted, I have turned it into an open letter to be posted on the web with the hope that it will be widely circulated. While the public is becoming more aware of some of the weaknesses of biofuels as a solution to global warming, there is one dangerous aspect of this approach that many are not aware of—the use of genetically engineered microorganisms to degrade the cell walls of plants and to produce higher levels of ethanol.

Dear Editor:

I am writing in response to the propaganda piece, “Start-up U,” written by Lisa Margonelli and featured in the September/October edition of California magazine. One can only hope that the magazine’s audience, being primarily UC Berkeley alumni, will have the critical-thinking skills to unearth the facts that are buried under a mountain of hyperboles and draw its own conclusion about the wisdom of UC Berkeley accepting a half a billion dollars from an oil company (British Petroleum) to build a new lab on the Berkeley campus and fund research into biofuels. The article states that “green ideals are teaming up with the other green—money.” However, there is nothing green about the UC Berkeley-British Petroleum deal; green washing would be a more accurate description of what is in the works.

The heart of the proposed research involves genetically engineering microbes to break down the cell walls of plants to produce fuel. Microbes are the foundation of the Earth’s ecosystem. What impact would genetically altering them and releasing them into the environment, where they can take hold and reproduce, have on that system? Would we be trading one environmental problem (global warming) for another set of environmental problems? Wouldn’t we be ending our dependency on one limited resource (oil) only to be tapping into other limited resources (i.e. land, nutrients, and water to grow plants for biomass)? If these genetically altered microbes were to make their way into the food supply, what impact would they have on human health? It’s na├»ve to believe that British Petroleum’s large investment wouldn’t influence Berkeley scientists’ ability to ask and answer these questions (and more) honestly, in the same way that large corporate donations influence our politicians and lead them to turn their backs on the general public and favor narrow private interests instead.

Japanese researchers from Kyoto University, concerned that the safety of genetically engineered organisms has not been adequately researched, genetically altered yeast cells and analyzed them. The results of their study showed that inserting genes into yeast cells significantly disturbed their metabolism and led to the accumulation of an unwanted toxic compound, methylglyoxal, at a mutagenic level [1]. The U.S. government doesn’t require any safety tests on genetically engineered organisms before they are released into the environment; instead, such safety tests are voluntary. The public would have to trust these Berkeley scientists, in partnership with British Petroleum, to conduct rigorous safety tests, including an environmental assessment, and animal and human feeding trials, of their own accord, and to scrap this multi-million dollar project, if they found that these organisms were unsafe for human consumption and the environment. Would we be able to trust them to do that, with so much money invested in a single project and with so much at stake? I don’t think so.

If this proposal moves forward, British Petroleum, through its targeted funding, will skew the research agenda at UC Berkeley, using professors, whose salaries are paid for by our tax dollars, to develop this new form of energy that it must predict will be profitable to the corporation but may not be the most economical one for consumers and may, again, be unsafe. It seems wrong that a group of professors, merely because they are interested in or at least willing to participate in this narrow, potentially dangerous project, will be housed in a brand new, state-of-the-art facility and have access to unlimited resources, while those professors who are committed to researching fuel conservation and alternatives to fossil fuels that do not carry such risks to the public health, environment, and economy, may be strapped for research dollars. It seems only prudent that at a time when we are discussing campaign finance reform as a nation to take corruption out of our government that Chancellor Birgeneau reconsider the direction he is beginning to steer the university by developing closer and stronger ties to large, private corporations. UC Berkeley students, faculty, and alumni, as well as taxpayers in general, should demand nothing less, as we, the general public, will be impacted by the research that is developed there.

Erica Martenson
UC Berkeley Alumnus

1. Inose, T & Murata, K. (1995). Enhanced accumulation of toxic compound in yeast cells having high glycolytic activity: a case study on the safety of genetically engineered yeast. International Journal of Food Science and Technology, 30, 141-146. (Abstract and access here.)

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