What's in the genetic engineering pipeline?

Biotech industry seen focusing more on GM plant-based pharmaceuticals and industrial products.

As genetically modified crop acreage continues to grow in the United States and other regions, biotechnology companies are developing the next generations of GM crops, including plant-based pharmaceutical and industrial products and highly touted GM crops with "output" traits to benefit consumers.

For now though, the "GMO pipeline" does appear to contain very many new products, according to Margaret Mellon, director of the food and environment program at the Union of Concerned Scientists. "The pipeline has slowed down greatly," says Mellon.

To date, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has approved more than fifty GM crops for the United States' food supply. However, some GM crops have been taken off the market due to consumer and food industry concerns. These include GM potatoes, such as Monsanto's New Leaf varieties, and herbicide-resistant GM sugar beets.

Corn Rootworm Bt

According to Mellon, the only new GM crop set for commercialization is Monsanto's new Bt corn that aims to kill corn rootworm, which costs millions of dollars each year in pesticides and crop loses. The product, called YieldGard Rootworm Corn, contains bacillus thuringiensis genes that produce a protein, Cry3Bb that is toxic to rootworm.

In late August, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's Scientific Advisory Panel held a hearing regarding the commercialization of YieldGard, and will soon decide whether or not to let the product be sold. Monsanto is applying for a three-year interim permit, and Mellon thinks EPA will vote in Monsanto's favor. If this happens, YieldGard seed will be sold in time for next year's planting. According to the St. Louis Post Dispatch, Monsanto plans to sell enough YieldGard corn to plant one million acres in the spring.

Meanwhile, Monsanto has said that it will not commercialize Roundup Ready wheat in the U.S. and Canada until it receives a more favorable response from overseas export buyers, who have said they won't buy it.

Pharmaceuticals and industrial products

According to Mellon, biotechnology companies have shifted their focus. "Industry is shifting away from new agronomic traits to produce drugs and industrial substances such as plastics and enzymes. "I hear far less about feeding the world and more about a bio-based economy," says Mellon.

Agricultural experts have expressed concerns about the use of out-crossing crops such as corn to produce drugs because of contamination risks (see The Non-GMO Source, September 2002). "We need to think really hard about thinking about putting drugs in corn, which is highly out-crossing," says Mellon. "We may be harvesting it in conventional corn."

Similar concerns have been raised about GM corn that is being developed to produce industrial compounds, such as lignin-degrading enzymes, biopolymers, and research chemicals. According to Jane Rissler, deputy director/senior staff scientist, food and environment program, Union of Concerned Scientists, these products account for more than half of the USDA database entries for crops synthesizing commercially important proteins. At least two research chemicals have been commercialized. However, Rissler say little information is available to the public about either GM pharmaceutical and industrial plants. "The Environmental Protection Agency would appear to have regulatory authority over many of the compounds produced by industrial crops but has thus far shown little interest in overseeing them," says Rissler.

University research

Researchers worldwide are developing new GM crops. Judy Kjelstrom, associate director of biotechnology program at the University of California at Davis, says hundreds of GM crop research projects are underway. Here are a few examples:

  • Researchers at the University of California at Berkeley are genetically engineering wheat to reduce its allergenic properties.
  • Scientists at the U.S. Department of Agriculture are genetically engineering a soybean to be less allergenic by "turning off" a protein that triggers allergic reactions.
  • Syngenta aims to gain regulatory approval for a GM rice that has been engineered to remove a protein that triggers allergic reactions. The rice is designed to help kidney dialysis patients in Asia who cannot eat local rice because they cannot tolerate its high protein content.
  • Scientists at Purdue University and the USDA genetically engineered tomatoes that ripen later to give them longer shelf life. The scientists also found that the tomato had higher levels of lycopen, a substance that gives the tomato its color and has been associated with reducing the risk of prostate cancer in men.
  • Monsanto is developing a GM canola oil with omega-3 fatty acids. Scientists have taken a gene from an algae that produces omega-3 and inserted it into canola.
  • Chinese scientists say they have isolated the gene that allows certain vegetation to thrive in salt water. They hope the discovery will enable them to develop crops that grow in salt water areas of China.
  • British scientists inserted a gene from the petunia into tomatoes to boost the production of antioxidants.
  • The Boyce Thompson Institute for plant research at Cornell University is modifying bananas to produce a vaccine against hepatitis B.
  • The famous "golden rice," which is genetically engineered to increase levels of vitamin A, is undergoing safety and nutrition tests in the Philippines, funded by the International Rice Research Institute, Syngenta, and the Rockefeller Foundation.

According to the Biotechnology Industry Organization, many new GM crops are scheduled to reach the market within the next six years. Among these include Roundup Ready versions of alfalfa, lettuce, tomato, and golf course turf grass, Bt apples, disease-resistant bananas, sunflowers, and herbicide resistant varieties of rice and strawberries. Also in the pipeline and under review by the FDA are genetically engineered fish, such as salmon, tilapia, trout and flounder developed by Massachusetts-based Aqua Bounty Farms.

Many of these next generation GM crops are still experimental and years away from commercialization. Unlike first generation GM crops that involve a single gene insertion, later generation crops often require insertion of multiple genes, making the genetic engineering process more complex. In addition, bringing these crops to market will be costly and regulatory hurdles will be more difficult than those facing today's GM crops.

Mellon doubts the need to create more nutritious foods through genetic engineering. "We have a cornucopia of nutritious foods currently available," she says. "Conventional breeding can enhance nutrition levels." The need, she says, is not more good foods, but educating consumers about the benefits of eating a good diet.
(October 2002)