1st Open-Air Bacteria Test Goes Smoothly

Times Staff Writer

As the sun peeked over nearby fruit orchards in this Northern California community, a scientist clad head to toe in a protective suit ushered in the dawn of a new scientific era Friday by conducting the first known open-air release of a genetically altered organism in the United States.

The outdoor test, delayed more than a year by critics, took place less than 24 hours after both a Superior Court and a state Appeal Court in Sacramento turned aside environmentalists' pleas for additional laboratory testing.

Vandals also tried to prevent the test by Advanced Genetic Sciences Inc. of Oakland by breaking into the fenced plot and uprooting more than 2,000 of the 2,400 strawberry plants set to be sprayed with the organism. But most were replanted by scientists in less than an hour, and the test went ahead.

The bacteria, tentatively trade-named Frostban, is designed to protect crops from frost damage. Scientists who developed the product say that it could avoid the drawbacks of traditional practices that are either polluting or expensive.

Despite the high emotions and protracted legal battle generated by the test, only one protester appeared at the site. He was forced to watch the proceedings from the nearest public street, about 60 feet away, after scientists asked him to leave. There, he offered his views to reporters.

Once the application of the bacteria started, John Bedbrook, vice president of Advanced Genetic Sciences, was pleased but restrained as he reflected on the milestone test.

"To me, this is just a logical extension of all our past experiments," he said, "although the precedent-setting is always very important. Clearly, it will be easier legally (to conduct an open-air biotechnology test) next time, and easier in a regulatory way as well.

"But," he added, "each of these (genetics) experiments will be considered on a case-by-case basis, as they always have been."

Pleased With Test

Plant pathologist Julie Lindemann, who applied the bacteria, said afterward that she was pleased that the first day of the three-month test went as well as it did.

"I hope that this is the end of things other than science and the beginning of our real work," she said, referring to the legal and political fights that have dogged the experiment. Plans to conduct the same test in January, 1986, near Castroville in Monterey County stirred such a public clamor that the company eventually withdrew its proposal.

A few months later, public fears also scotched a similar field test proposed by the University of California, which first developed the strain being tested, at the university's agricultural field station in Tulelake, south of the Oregon border. That test has been rescheduled for 2 p.m. next Wednesday, the university announced Friday.

There was far less public concern in this farm community in Contra Costa County, about 50 miles northeast of San Francisco. The county Board of Supervisors endorsed the test and the plaintiffs who sought to block the test in court were from outside the area.

Wears Protective Suit

Lindemann began the trial at 6:46 a.m. in the southwest corner of the test field. Sealed inside a white, polylaminated Tyvex anti-contamination suit decorated with a whimsical "Frostbusters" logo, and breathing through a respirator, she used a hand-pumped sprayer to dose the ordinary strawberry plants with the Frostban mixture--an aqueous solution containing an altered form of common Pseudomonas bacteria.

With the chilly morning calm broken by chattering portable generators and dozens of humming air monitors, Lindemann strolled casually among the rows of strawberries and liberally spritzed each one with the Frostban solution. The application took less than 15 minutes.

The imposing anti-contamination suit, company officials said, is required by state and federal regulations to be worn during experimental field applications of non-registered pesticides. Although it is composed of bacteria rather than chemicals, Frostban is considered a pesticide under federal law.

"It (the special outfit) is just an attempt by the regulatory agencies to exercise extreme and extraordinary caution this first time out," said Trevor Suslow, who along with Lindemann is 1629512809Advanced Genetic Sciences. "We don't wear anything even approximating this when we work with this material in the lab."

Wind-speed indicators showed that the air was calm near the ground, but hundreds of monitoring devices--the company set up 196 detectors and the federal Environmental Protection Agency added another 100--will be analyzed over the next few days to determine if any of the product migrated off the test site.

Naturally Bred

The altered bacteria have been naturally bred to be slightly more resistant to a certain antibiotic used in the detectors, Suslow said. In this way, researchers studying the contents of the samplers can more easily distinguish between naturally occurring bacteria, which should be killed by the antibiotic, and the altered bacteria, which should be able to survive.

If the product is found to have drifted onto nearby pear orchards or tomato fields, they will be sprayed with a disinfectant. The one-fifth-acre test plot itself will be disinfected when the test is completed in three months; any strawberry plants not taken to a laboratory for further study will be burned on the site.

The experiment has been delayed too long into the spring to let it test how well Frostban would stand up to a real frost; that will have to be simulated in a lab. The field test now is studying how well the altered bacteria adapt to real conditions, and how well government genetic-engineering field test procedures work.

Seven officials from the EPA attended the test, as did six from the California Department of Food and Agriculture. Those two agencies regulate the state's burgeoning biotechnology industry.

"From our perspective, everything went well," said David Supkoff of the Department of Food and Agriculture environmental monitoring branch. "It all went like clockwork."

Children Play Nearby

As the test progressed, Suslow's wife and two young daughters romped with little apparent concern in another strawberry patch just beyond the four-fifths acre buffer zone from the test plot.

"We consume these (natural Pseudomonas ) bacteria all the time when we eat fresh fruits and vegetables," Suslow said. "They aren't dangerous in and of themselves, and nothing has been done to them to make them more so."

To produce the active ingredient in Frostban, researchers took some of the naturally occurring Pseudomonas strain and chemically snipped out part of its genetic code. In theory, this new, altered strain is identical to its natural cousin, except it will not coat itself with a certain protein that encourages the formation of ice crystals at low temperatures.

Natural Pseudomonas congregate on a variety of crops, where they cause few problems except for their proclivity to promote the formation of ice crystals, a process scientists refer to as "ice nucleation." The resulting frost can destroy a crop. Frost damage costs American farmers about $1.6 billion annually.

By deleting this ice-nucleating ability, scientists have developed a strain of bacteria that can be applied to plants in amounts large enough to "crowd out" their irksome natural counterparts. In this way, frost should not form until the temperature dips to between 26 to 23 degrees Fahrenheit.

Degree of Protection

"It depends on the crop," Bedbrook said. "In some, it could mean seven or eight degrees of protection; in blossoms, about two or three degrees. I should note that even just one degree of added protection is significant."

And, he added, the new product could give this protection without the air-polluting side effects of smudge pots or other frost-fighting efforts.

Environmentalists have challenged the experiment for several reasons.

Some have questioned the safety of the altered bacteria itself, arguing that any genetic change could have unforeseen and unwanted side effects, such as an increase in the bacteria's virulence among young, old or sickly people. Others worry that the altered strain543387509supplanting its natural cousin, which is suspected of playing some role in cloud formation.

Many environmentalists opposed the test out of concern about the regulatory process used to review the test's safety. The current process, they allege, does not adequately address worst-case scenarios--a shortcoming they fear may prove disastrous if someone starts experimenting with more dangerous bacteria.

First Free Test

Although genetically altered organisms have been employed in laboratories for several years to produce commercial products ranging from human insulin to swine vaccines, the test Friday was the first time in this country that altered organisms were authorized to be released freely into the environment.

Advanced Genetic Sciences did conduct an unauthorized outdoor test at its Oakland lab last year, and was penalized by the EPA. In that test, altered bacteria were injected directly into about 50 fruit trees, but not sprayed freely in the atmosphere. The EPA temporarily suspended the company's experimental permit and fined the firm $13,000.

"This is the first case; we're setting a precedent," said Andy Caffrey of the environmental group Earth First, the lone protester at Friday's test. "We should all be worried about this . . . about how lax the industry is. These people are mad scientists."

Bedbrook scoffed at that assertion, claiming that his company had to complete more than 200 tests that were mandated by 10 different government agencies before it could take its ground-breaking test outdoors.

"The statement that not enough tests have been done is simply unfounded," he said.

The courts apparently agree. In his ruling Thursday in favor of the test, Sacramento County Superior Court Judge Darell Lewis wryly concluded: "The court is convinced respondents are not unleashing some deleterious bacteria that's going to consume Brentwood or anywhere else."

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