Altered Bacterium Gets 1st Use Outdoors : Frostban Sprayed on Strawberries in Controversial Open-Air Test

Times Staff Writer

Scientists overcame court challenges and vandals today to proceed with the first authorized open-air release of a genetically altered organism.

About 2,400 strawberry plants in a small test plot southeast of Brentwood in Contra Costa County were sprayed with a mixture containing an altered version of a common bacterium. The mixture, called Frostban, is meant to shield crops from frost without relying on traditional methods that are either costly or polluting.

Just after a chilly dawn, the bacteria were applied with a hand sprayer by Julie Lindemann, a scientist with the Oakland company conducting the test, Advanced Genetic Sciences. Lindemann wore protective clothing but said she did so only because it is required by government regulations.


Dozens of reporters came to witness the event, which one environmentalist characterized as the “Alamagordo of the Genetics Age,” in reference to the site of the first outdoor atomic test that opened the nuclear era. Despite a protracted legal fight by environmental groups to block the test on safety grounds, only one protester came to the site.

The last legal hurdle before the test was cleared only Thursday night, when the state Court of Appeal in Sacramento refused to stop the test. Earlier that day, Sacramento County Superior Court Judge Darrel W. Lewis also declined to stop the test, saying there is “no credible evidence” that it is unsafe.

Sometime after the appeal court ruling, vandals went to the test site and uprooted about 2,200 of the strawberry plants there. However, most of the plants were quickly replanted when scientists arrived at the plot about 5 a.m.

Scientists said the vandalism will only marginally affect the test, which is designed to see how well an altered version of the common Pseudomonas bacterium colonizes leaves and blossoms to protect them from frost. Natural Pseudomonas encourages frost formation on fruit, nut and vegetable crops, adding to the $1.6 billion in frost damage suffered annually by farmers.