Some twenty miles from Frank McLain's farm, in Ames, the Iowa State University campus spreads out amid leafy oak trees and pleasant, low-slung buildings. The university hosts one of the nation's leading plant-science research institutions for agricultural biotechnology.
Dr. Mike Lee, a plant biologist, is in the agronomy department's plant-transformation center doing genetic engineering. Lee is at work on a research project to increase the nutritional value of corn by inserting the most nutritious part of a hog--the gene for hog's milk--into a corn embryo. A lab technician has inserted a petri dish of corn embryos onto the lower shelf of what Lee calls "the gene gun"--a critical tool of today's genetic engineers, actually a rectangular box made from thick plastic. On the top shelf the technician places a petri dish containing genetic information from a female hog's milk onto a thin layer of gold pellets--which serve as the "bullets." She flicks a switch, and as a meter measuring air pressure per square inch marches quickly upward, there's a notable "pop": The bullet is fired. Lee explains:
"You just accelerate those particles inside that chamber at a very high speed. High enough so that it can crash through the cell walls, get into the nucleus and then somehow, by a process that is not completely understood, the DNA that's coating those gold particles gets integrated into the corn chromosomes. They'll start to form roots and shoots and a new plant emerges, hopefully a plant that carries those genes now in their chromosomes." This is genetic engineering in action, mixing the genetic material from two organisms that would never ordinarily mix in nature. It's been done with flounder genes in strawberries, mice genes in potatoes, cow genes in sugarcane and soy, chicken genes in corn. And now, as Lee explains, he hopes to increase the nutritional value of corn with genes from hog's milk.
For Mike Lee, like many other scientists, this technology has huge potential to increase yields, make food more nutritious, and develop new varieties of crops that are better adapted to climatic and pest conditions that threaten food production. "That's why I got into this business," Lee says, "to create new versions of existing plant species that are just a little bit more beneficial to the needs and wants of society."
Lee has a scientist's natural curiosity and excitement about the new technology, but he is also willing to acknowledge that considerable uncertainties accompany it. "We're not just changing carburetors on cars or parts on a machine," he says. "When you introduce a new DNA sequence into a chromosome it has a new function for the plant. Well, that function doesn't operate in a vacuum. It operates in the context of a complex organism growing in a complex dynamic environment."
It is those uncertainties that provoke ire among critics, aghast at the hubris of genetic manipulation. More to the point, perhaps, is the fact that people like Mike Lee are not the ones driving the development of this technology. Public universities are significantly outgunned in resources by private research labs, which are looking, increasingly, for blockbuster products to be used where they have the biggest markets; even the gene gun used by Dr. Lee is available through an annual leasing arrangement from DuPont, which owns the patent on the technology. Lee's public-spirited ambitions for the technology, and his willingness to entertain doubts while forging ahead with his research in the controlled environment of a publicly funded laboratory, are an anomaly in an arena dominated by a handful of corporations.
The reality is that agricultural biotechnology has little to do with idealism, and far more with the financial imperatives of the biotechnology industry. "If you ask why these are the technologies that are on the market," says Dr. Chuck Benbrook, former executive director of the Board on Agriculture of the National Academy of Sciences, "the reason is that the companies that had invested so heavily in the technology and in buying up the seed industry had to have product on the market."
Monsanto alone poured at least a billion dollars into biotech research, according to NPR technology correspondent Daniel Charles in his book Lords of the Harvest, "before it had a single genetically engineered plant to sell." Other companies--DuPont, Dow, Aventis and Syngenta--spent billions more on research and on a seed-company buying spree that lasted well into the 1990s. The stakes for these companies are huge.