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NSF Awards $1.5 Million to Project

UC Riverside Earns $1.5 Million National Science Foundation Grant to Examine How Engineered Crop Genes Stray

Research to be Done Through UCR’s Biotechnology Impacts Center

(August 17, 2004)

Norman Ellstrand, principal investigatorEnlarge

Norman Ellstrand, principal investigator

RIVERSIDE, Calif. (Aug. 16, 2004) — The National Science Foundation has awarded UC Riverside a $1.5 million grant to research the unintended spread of engineered plant genes, an issue at the heart of the controversy over genetically modified foods.

That phenomenon was illustrated recently when engineered genes from corn grown in the United States strayed into remote fields of corn in Mexico.

UC Riverside’s project is unusual because it will examine both the natural and the human factors that spread transgenes from engineered crops into non-engineered crops and natural populations.

“This hasn’t been done before, and I’m excited to get started,” said Norman Ellstrand, a professor of genetics who is also director of UCR’s Biotechnology Impacts Center. “Our project involves social scientists with diverse expertise ranging from international trade to farmers’ decision making in genuine collaboration with biological scientists who study gene transfer and the evolution of invasive species.”

The project, which begins Sept. 1, will assemble faculty and graduate students from botany and plant sciences, economics, sociology, and statistics into three multidisciplinary teams.

• One group will focus on natural processes that affect dispersal of genes such as wind, timing of plant flowering, or proximity to compatible wild relatives.
• A second team will focus on human elements, including farmer management and transport of seed through local and international trade.
• The third team will employ state-of-the-art mathematical and computational modeling to estimate the timing and patterns of the spread of transgenes across space and national borders as well as their ecological consequences. The result will be the first global model of gene flow that accounts for both human and natural processes of gene dispersal.

“This is really very exciting,” said Richard Sutch, a distinguished professor of economics and associate director of the Biotechnology Impacts Center. “Everyone talks about the value of interdisciplinary research and of collaboration between the sciences, but this is one of the few projects that takes this seriously. And this is such an important topic. Food is a part of everyone’s life, an important expression of one’s culture. It is not surprising then that there is a raging debate about genetic engineering that goes beyond the issues of biological science.”

A third co-investigator, Bai-Lian (Larry) Li, is a mathematical and theoretical ecologist who is an associate professor of ecology. “The coupling of natural and human systems adds an additional layer of complexity of interactions,” said Li, the founding editor of the international journal Ecological Complexity “Understanding must come from the examination of how the two systems operate together.”

Sutch added that an understanding of the subject could provide information for important public policy decisions. “We may be able to find ways to control the unintended migration of transgenes and thereby harness the benefits of this new technology,” Sutch said. “Alternatively, we may discover that the risk cannot be reduced to acceptable levels for certain combinations of crops and genes.”

Steven Angle, dean of the College of Natural and Agricultural Sciences, stressed the role of UCR’s Biotechnology Impacts Center as “an honest broker” in this debate. “The study will provide solid scientific input to inform the public and the policy makers at national and international levels.”

Joel Martin, the interim dean of the College of Humanities, Arts and the Social Sciences, said he likes the project’s inclusion of several graduate students who will be intimately involved in the multidisciplinary meetings of the group, including at least one international conference in Mexico. “It is rare for graduate students to have an opportunity to participate in a multidisciplinary international research project such as this,” said Martin.

The topic of transgene flow is a part of the greater public discussion of genetic engineering and the world’s food supply. Biotechnology has the potential of increasing crop yields, lowering production costs, and offering consumers more choices and higher quality at the supermarket. But certain risks have been identified, such as the evolution of new weeds because of contamination with transgenes that make them more difficult to control.

“Recalling genes is more difficult than recalling defective car parts or contaminated meat,” said Ellstrand. “Because genes have the opportunity to multiply themselves. We have to find out how to avoid the problem before it happens.”

Contacts at University of California, Riverside

Norman Ellstrand, Lead Principal Investigator
Biocomplexity Project
Professor of Genetics
Director, Biotechnology Impacts Center

Richard Sutch, Co-Principal Investigator
Biocomplexity Project
Distinguished Professor of Economics
Associate Director, Biotechnology Impacts Center

Bai-Lian (Larry) Li, Co-Principal Investigator
Biocomplexity Project
Professor of Ecology, Botany, and Plant Sciences

Contacts at National Science Foundation

Thomas Baerwald
Coordinator for Environmental Social and Behavioral Science Activities
Division of Behavioral and Cognitive Sciences

University of California, Riverside

Background: As a consequence of the genomics revolution, the creation of new scientific knowledge is occurring at a remarkably fast rate. For wise stewardship of the technologies resulting from this revolution, it is imperative for society to assess the possible outcomes, both positive and negative, of these scientific advances. As decisions are made about the applications of biotechnologies to agriculture, medicine and the environment, policy makers and members of the public need to be armed with sound, science-based information.

Biotechnology holds great promise. The potential of genetically modified organisms to increase agricultural productivity offers hope for feeding the Earth’s growing population and raising nutritional intake among those currently impoverished, as well as potential for improvements in health and the ability to cure and prevent diseases. But, at the beginning of every revolution there are concerns that spring from the uncertainty inherent in any dramatic change.

One of history’s big lessons is that everything in a dynamic world is interrelated, often in complex ways that are not fully perceived in quiet times but are dramatically (sometimes tragically) revealed when the system is disturbed by a sufficiently large shock. It is not surprising then that, despite the promise of agricultural biotechnology to provide plentiful, more nutritious and environmentally sustainable food, thoughtful people have raised serious concerns.

Toward a Solution: The Biotechnology Impacts Center (BIC) is an academic research unit associated with the Institute for Integrative Genome Biology at the University of California, Riverside, with a mission to promote research and education on all aspects of the social, economic, political, environmental, and ethical consequences of the biotechnology revolution. Established in 2001, BIC serves as a forum to identify the relevant policy issues, to act as a clearinghouse for credible information, and to initiate research that addresses the impacts of biotechnology. The result will be an informed dialog among public interest groups, the biotechnology industry, academics, elected officials, and policy makers.

BIC also has an important educational mission to disseminate knowledge and address concerns about new and emerging developments in biotechnology. At both the graduate and undergraduate levels, courses will be available in public policy related to such issues as bioethics, scientific responsibility, and the controversy surrounding genetically modified organisms. The Center hopes to provide modest financial and academic support to graduate students in the humanities, the social sciences, and the life sciences and seeks to encourage and enrich faculty mentoring of graduate students. BIC also encourages the creation of hands-on research opportunities for undergraduate students. Finally, the Center offers a wide variety of additional support services to faculty, students, and the general public. These include a visiting speakers’ forum, a seminar program, a web-based working paper series to disseminate pre-publication findings of ongoing research projects, and conference support.

Leadership: BIC has a dual reporting relationship to both the UCR Institute for Integrative Genome Biology and the UCR Center for Social and Economic Policy. This arrangement serves to keep the Center at an objective distance from the scientific research conducted by the Institute and to recognize the meaningful contribution that social scientists, humanists, business experts, educators, and others can make to inform the responsible use of biotechnology in society.

The University of California, Riverside ( is a doctoral research university, a living laboratory for groundbreaking exploration of issues critical to Inland Southern California, the state and communities around the world. Reflecting California's diverse culture, UCR's enrollment has exceeded 21,000 students. The campus opened a medical school in 2013 and has reached the heart of the Coachella Valley by way of the UCR Palm Desert Center. The campus has an annual statewide economic impact of more than $1 billion.

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