Seed-patent case in Supreme Court: Loss of patent control could rekindle ‘terminator’ technology.

Heidi Ledford

A technology called a ‘terminator’ was never going to curry much favour with the public. But even Monsanto, the agricultural biotechnology giant in St Louis, Missouri, was surprised by the furore that followed when it patented a method for engineering transgenic crops to produce sterile seed, forcing farmers to buy new seed for each planting. In 1999, Monsanto’s chief executive pledged not to commercialize terminator seeds.

The concept, if not the technology, is now gaining traction again. This week, the US Supreme Court hears arguments that pit Monsanto against 75-year-old Indiana soya-bean farmer Vernon Hugh Bowman, who used the progeny of Monsanto seeds to sow his land for eight seasons. The company says that by not buying seeds for each generation, Bowman violated its patents. If Bowman wins — and observers say that is not out of the question — the decision could make it harder for biotech firms to enforce patents on engineered organisms, from seeds to microbes, prompting them to revisit terminator-like technology.

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More than just a pretty flower

MIT chemists engineer the periwinkle plant to produce compounds that could become more-effective cancer drugs.
Anne Trafton, MIT News Office
November 4, 2010
Humans have long taken advantage of the huge variety of medicinal compounds produced by plants. Now MIT chemists have found a new way to expand plants’ pharmaceutical repertoire by genetically engineering them to produce unnatural variants of their usual products. 

The researchers, led by Associate Professor Sarah O’Connor, have added bacterial genes to the periwinkle plant, enabling it to attach halogens such as chlorine or bromine to a class of compounds called alkaloids that the plant normally produces. Many alkaloids have pharmaceutical properties, and halogens, which are often added to antibiotics and other drugs, can make medicines more effective or last longer in the body. 

The team’s primary target, an alkaloid called vinblastine, is commonly used to treat cancers such as Hodgkin’s lymphoma. O’Connor sees vinblastine and other drugs made by plants as scaffolds that she can modify in a variety of ways to enhance their effectiveness. 

“We’re trying to use plant biosynthetic mechanisms to easily make a whole range of different iterations of natural products,” she said. “If you tweak the structure of natural products, very often you get different or improved biological and pharmacological activity.”

O’Connor, graduate student Weerawat Runguphan and former postdoctoral associate Xudong Qu describe their engineered periwinkle plants in the Nov. 3 online edition of Nature. The research was funded by the National Institutes of Health and the American Cancer Society.

Cloned beef causing uproar in Britain traced to Wisconsin cow

Oxford dairy farmer harvested DNA from champion Holstein in 2000

By Karen Herzog of the Journal Sentinel Aug. 14, 2010

Mark Rueth's Holstein cow Paradise had just been crowned supreme champion of the World Dairy Expo in Madison in 2000 when a biotechnology company salesman approached him ringside and offered a cut-rate deal to clone Paradise so she could "live forever," and make his farm more profitable.

The Oxford dairy farmer and cattle breeder agreed, and the salesman immediately pricked the prize cow's ear to harvest DNA.

The world of cloning hasn't exactly been paradise for Rueth in the decade since, and especially during the past two weeks. Recent headlines in the British press screamed that two male offspring of a Paradise clone were slaughtered for beef that entered the food chain. Milk from a daughter of a Paradise clone also was traced to the British food supply, setting off consumer fears about food safety.

"The English people get in an uproar about stuff," Rueth said last week, noting that a British reporter and photographer showed up unannounced at his farm. "It's not like you're manipulating or changing the DNA. Half of the DNA from the clone's offspring is from the father."

In the U.S., the Food and Drug Administration doesn't regulate milk or meat from offspring of cloned animals, and doesn't require labeling. Two years after the agency concluded those food products were safe, they're in the American food supply.

However, the U.S. Department of Agriculture requests that the industry continue a voluntary moratorium on placing products from original clones in the food supply to allow trade partners in other countries to pursue their own regulations.

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Diverse biotech industry pumps millions into state, national economies

By Pete Bach
Gannett Wisconsin Media

BROTHERTOWN — The corn crop sprouting on Bill Hansen's 150-acre farm in Calumet County has a secret: It's fortified with special traits at the microscopic level.

Such genetic alterations begin with the corn seed, which allows it to grow into a plant resistant to rootworms and insects, disease and drought, as well as the popular herbicide Roundup.

It's important because encroaching weeds compete for the same moisture as crops; killing them without collateral damage to the corn makes for a more productive field with noticeably taller stalks, Hansen said.

Genetically altered crops have become the norm. Eighty percent to 90 percent of all soybeans planted in Wisconsin possess what the agricultural community refers to as biotech yield traits, said Kevin Jarek, crops, soils and horticulture agent for the University of Wisconsin-Extension in Outagamie County.

That's also true for 40 percent of the corn grown in the state.

"When you look at crops that have been grown with biotech improvements in the state, it's grown exponentially from where it was five or 10 years ago," Jarek said.

But Wisconsin's blooming biotech industry doesn't just protect corn. It helps protect the state's economic interests too.

The industry in Wisconsin, home to more than 400 biotech companies employing 34,000 people, is among the nation's largest.

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Emotions, science collide in cloning

Some say it's breeding tool; others fear harm to food

By BILL GLAUBER
bglauber@journalsentinel.com
Posted: April 15, 2007

Barron - Bob Schauf knows cows. He breeds them and shows them, washes, clips and primps them like models poised to strut down a Paris runway.

Yet in all his years, Schauf never saw a cow quite like Blackrose, a gentle giant, a prize-winning Holstein who was "tall, strong, upstanding and beautifully shaped."

"She's one of those once-in-a-lifetime cows," Schauf says.

Make that twice in a lifetime.

Blackrose died in 2001. But her clones live on.

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U.S. bans farmers from planting GMO-tainted rice

Fri Mar 9, 11:54 PM ET

The U.S. Department of Agriculture on Friday banned farmers from planting a variety of rice containing genetically modified material that has not been approved by the government, and it told growers to destroy any plantings of the seed.

"Testing...has confirmed the presence of trace levels of genetic material not yet approved for commercialization in Clearfield 131 (CL131) rice seed," USDA said, adding, "This seed is not an option for planting this crop season."

Government tests confirmed results received from private testing announced on Monday, which prompted USDA to order seed dealers to stop selling the long-grain rice seed.

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USDA Backs Production of Rice With Human Genes

By Rick Weiss
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, March 2, 2007; A02

The Agriculture Department has given a preliminary green light for the first commercial production of a food crop engineered to contain human genes, reigniting fears that biomedically potent substances in high-tech plants could escape and turn up in other foods.

The plan, confirmed yesterday by the California biotechnology company leading the effort, calls for large-scale cultivation in Kansas of rice that produces human immune system proteins in its seeds.

The proteins are to be extracted for use as an anti-diarrhea medicine and might be added to health foods such as yogurt and granola bars.

"We can really help children with diarrhea get better faster. That is the idea," said Scott E. Deeter, president and chief executive of Sacramento-based Ventria Bioscience, emphasizing that a host of protections should keep the engineered plants and their seeds from escaping into surrounding fields.

But critics are assailing the effort, saying gene-altered plants inevitably migrate out of their home plots. In this case, they said, that could result in pharmacologically active proteins showing up in the food of unsuspecting consumers.

Although the proteins are not inherently dangerous, there would be little control over the doses people might get exposed to, and some might be allergic to the proteins, said Jane Rissler of the Union of Concerned Scientists, a science policy advocacy group.

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Dean says no to cloned cow milk

By Libby Quaid
Associated Press

WASHINGTON - Milk from cloned cows is no longer welcome at the nation's biggest milk company.

Although the government has approved meat and milk from cloned animals while it conducts further studies, Dean Foods Co. of Dallas said Thursday that its customers and consumers don't want milk from cloned animals. The $10 billion company owns Land O'Lakes and Horizon Organic, among dozens of other brands.

"Numerous surveys have shown that Americans are not interested in buying dairy products that contain milk from cloned cows and Dean Foods is responding to the needs of our consumers," the company said in a statement.

Federal scientists say there is virtually no difference between clones and conventional cows, pigs or goats. The Food and Drug Administration gave preliminary approval to meat and milk from cloned animals and could grant final approval by year's end.

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FDA May Clear Cloned Food, But Public Has Little Appetite

Despite Safety Data, Americans Largely Find Idea Unappealing

By Rick Weiss
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, December 25, 2006; Page A16

Consumer advocates and others have complained bitterly in recent years that the Food and Drug Administration has veered from its scientific roots, making decisions on controversial matters -- such as the emergency contraceptive "Plan B" -- on political rather than scientific grounds.

Now comes a test of just how rational the public wants the FDA to be.

Later this week, the agency is expected to release a formal recommendation that milk and meat from cloned animals should be allowed on grocery store shelves. The long-awaited decision comes as polling data to be released this week show that the public continues to have little appetite for such food, with many people saying the FDA should keep it off the market.

The FDA decision is based on a substantial cache of data from rigorous studies, all of which have concluded that milk and meat from cloned animals is virtually identical to such products from conventional animals. Scientists have also been unable to detect health problems in laboratory animals raised on clonal food.

By contrast, studies have found that consumers' discomfort with the idea of eating food from clones is largely based on vague emotions. Indeed, polls have repeatedly found that the public understands little about what cloning really is.

That raises the issue: Should decisions such as this one be based solely on science, or should officials take into account public sensitivities, which may be unscientific but are undeniably real?

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