Gene-tweaked grass on loose in Oregon

Modified crops - Pollen has spread and bred with wild plants, sparking fear of a superweed

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Tuesday, September 05, 2006
Alex Pulaski,
503-221-8516;
alexpulaski@news.oregonian.com

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Discovery of genetically modified bentgrass in the wild in Central Oregon -- the first known transgenic crop escape in the United States -- has fulfilled critics' warnings and raised the threat of contaminating the state's nation-leading grass seed crop.

Environmentalists and some conventional seed growers had predicted that humans couldn't hope to rein in movement of the plant's pollen and seeds, so tiny they number 6 million a pound. Although backers of the modified grass seed hope to revolutionize golf course maintenance, opponents say the revolution comes at the risk of creating a superweed resistant to a relatively benign herbicide.

Corvallis scientists discovered two years ago that the experimental Madras crop had sent pollen more than a dozen miles away. Their latest finding that the modified plants had crossed with wild grasses outside a buffer area is due out in the October issue of Molecular Ecology.

Although discounted by the company hoping to win federal approval of the grass strain, the discovery is prompting "I told you so" responses from conventional grass seed growers and environmentalists who oppose its commercialization.

"Exactly the things we were most worried about seem to be true," said Jim Diamond, former chairman of the Sierra Club's Genetic Engineering Committee.

In Oregon, which has $373.5 million in annual grass seed sales, conventional growers fear transgenic seeds will contaminate their crops. That could curtail export markets -- roughly 30 percent of sales -- because some countries refuse to accept genetically modified strains.

The creeping bentgrass strain, developed in partnership between Scotts Miracle-Gro Co. and Monsanto Co., is designed to resist the herbicide Roundup, the world's most widely used plant-killer. Golf courses could plant the seed and keep other grass varieties in check by spraying Roundup.

Jim King, a Scotts spokesman, said the study's conclusions weren't surprising.

"The fact that nature kind of took its course was exactly what you would have expected to happen," King said.

Scotts has waited more than two years for an arm of the U.S. Department of Agriculture to decide whether to deregulate the crop, opening the door to seed sales. A seed crop was harvested in Madras and bagged, but the fields were cleared and Scotts attempted to eradicate plants that escaped by applying herbicides other than Roundup.

King said he was unsure how the new study would affect federal review of the grass strain.

He noted points that the company has made before: Trimmed grass on golf courses is highly unlikely to reach heights to produce seed or pollen, and even if it were to spread, bentgrass should not be considered an invasive species.

But for grass seed growers such as Donald Wirth of Tangent, an invasion of hard-to-kill bentgrass in his ryegrass or fescue fields could spell catastrophe.

Wirth worries that bentgrass, unlike Roundup-resistant strains of corn or soybeans, can remain dormant in soil for more than a decade and spring up.

"These cultivated crops will quit growing after a year or two, but bentgrass would be there forever," he said.

The study, led by Jay Reichman, an Environmental Protection Agency toxicologist, found that nine genetically modified plants were discovered among 20,400 samples taken. The samples were found as far as three miles outside the control area established for the crop's cultivation -- in other words, well outside a buffer designed to prevent the escape of seeds and pollen.

Of the nine plants, two were found in the Crooked River National Grassland area. A study abstract did not detail how many of the nine plants were the result of seeds drifting or from cross-breeding with wild grass.

©2006 The Oregonian


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