Thursday, 31 January 2008

The Bacterium That (Almost) Ate the World

The Bacterium That (Almost) Ate the World

Nature's Operating Instructions: The True Biotechnologies, Sierra Club Books

Elaine Ingham would never treat soil like dirt. She reveres it, as we all should, since this precious substance is the thin brown line between plenty and starvation. Given the necessity of topsoil to human survival, you'd think we'd have legions of soil biologists on the case, but Elaine is one of only a handful of serious scientists delving into this microcosmos that feeds the world and helps support life on earth.

Until recently an associate research professor of forest science at Oregon State University, Elaine has twenty-five years of experience in microbiology, botany, plant pathology, and soil and ecology research. She founded Soil Foodweb Inc. and is currently president of the Soil Foodweb Institute in Australia and research director of Soil Foodweb in New York. She serves on the boards of several sustainability organizations and is an active member of numerous prestigious microbiology and ecology associations. She has done stints as president of the Soil Ecology Society and program chair of the Ecological Society of America and has penned over fifty peer-reviewed scientific papers.

Elaine speaks to groups around the world on how to grow plants without the use of toxic pesticides or synthetic fertilizers while at the same time increasing soil fertility and crop production. She has led countless workshops and training sessions at which farmers are taught highly practical techniques for building soil health, using sophisticated composting methods, and enhancing microbiological communities for crop production. Unquestionably one of the world's leading specialists in soil health, she is an exceptionally creative innovator who has made major contributions to our understanding of the soil food web (as she likes to call it) and its structure and function in terrestrial ecosystems from arctic to tropical climates.

Her research spans agricultural. grassland, and forest ecologies, where she has analyzed the action of bacteria, fungi, protozoa, nematodes, and mycorrhizal fungi from over 30,000 soil samples.

When a scientist of Elaine's stature warns us about the catastrophic potential of topsoil loss and the escape of genetically modified organisms into the already compromised environment, we do well to pay close attention.

Unnatural Selection: The Bacterium That (Almost) Ate the World

Elaine Ingham IN MY PROGRAM at Oregon State University in the early 1990s, we started testing the ecological impacts of most of the genetically engineered organisms being produced at that time. The question our lab was asked to address was, Did these engineered organisms have any impact out there in the real world?

The first fourteen species that we worked on - microorganisms, bacteria. and fungi - were organisms incapable of surviving in the natural environment. Putting them in the world would be like taking penguins from the South Pole and dropping them into the La Brea tar pits. Would there be any ecological effect if we dropped a penguin into the middle of the tar pit? Probably not; the impact would be rapidly absorbed by the system.

These first fourteen species of GMOs that we tested had a similarly negligible impact. On this basis. the USDA Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service, the regulatory agency that was determining U.S. policy on genetically engineered organisms, set a course that essentially said that a genetically engineered organism posed no greater risk to the environment than the parent organism does.

GMO number fifteen, however, was a very different story. Klebsiella planticola, the bacterium that is the parent organism of this new strain, lives in soils everywhere. It's one of the few truly universal species of bacteria, growing in the root systems of all plants and decomposing plant litter in every ecosystem in the world.

The genetic engineers took genetic material from another bacterium and inserted that trait in the GMO to allow Klebsiella planticola to produce alcohol. The aim of this genetic modification was to eliminate the burning of farm fields to rid them of plant matter after harvest. The idea was that you could, instead, rake up all that plant residue, put it in a bucket. and inoculate it with the engineered bacterium, and in about two weeks' time you would have a material that contained about 17 percent alcohol. The alcohol could be extracted and used for gasohol, for cleaning windows, or for myriad other uses: cooking with alcohol in Third World countries, for instance.

The genetic engineers thought this transformation would bring huge benefits. We would no longer have to burn fields, we would breathe better in the fall, and both the company and farmers would get a product that could be sold. There was actually a fourth win: the sludge at the bottom of the bucket is an organic fertilizer, and there are no waste products from that material.

So what's the problem? Suppose you're a farmer and you've got live, alcohol-producing Klebsiella planticola that you're going to spread on your fields (which might be easier than gathering up all the plant waste and putting it in buckets). Can it wash into the root systems of your plants? Most likely. Once it's there and growing in the root systems of your plants, it's producing alcohol. What level of alcohol is toxic to plants? It's one part per million. How much alcohol does this engineered organism produce? Seventeen parts per million. Very soon you will have drunk dead plants.

We did this experiment under controlled conditions in the laboratory because I wasn't going to take this kind of risk out in the field. We constructed three kinds of microcosms of a field, filled them with normal field soil as a growing medium, and planted wheat plants in the three separate systems - each consisting of multiple units - and put them in an incubator. In the first third of the units, we added only water. We added parent, non-GMO bacterium to the second group and the engineered Klebsiella planticola to the third.

About a week later, we walked into the laboratory, opened up the incubator, and said, "Oops, what did we do wrong?" Many of the plants were dead and were turning into slime on the surface of the soil. In all the units with just water in the system, the plants were doing okay. In those that had been inoculated with the parent Klebsiella planticola, the plants were even bigger, because increased nutrient cycling in the root system makes more nitrogen available, causing the plants to grow bigger. Clearly the parent organism was a benefit to the plant. But where the engineered bacterium was growing, all the plants were dead.

Later we tried this experiment using several different kinds of soils, but the result in every case was dead plants.

Take that information and extrapolate it to the real world. Given that the parent organism lives in the root systems of all plants, what's the logical outcome of releasing this organism into the natural environment?

Very possibly, we would have no terrestrial plants left. Some plants, such as riparian and wetland plants, have mechanisms for dealing with alcohol production in their root systems. But the logical extrapolation of that experiment is that we would lose terrestrial plants.

I have attended some of the United Nations biosafety protocol meetings. At the 1995 meeting in Madrid, the U.S. delegation was the strongest in saying, in essence, "Don't worry, be happy. Trust us. We don't need a biosafety protocol. Why would biotech companies ever do anything to harm people?"

To me, their words echoed those we've heard before from tobacco, pesticide, and fertilizer companies. At one such meeting, I related the story of Klebsiella planticola as an example of the lack of adequate testing for the ecological impact of genetically engineered organisms. The biotech companies object that it costs too 'much to do this kind of environmental testing. In my view, that's just hype, because I pointed out that our lab spent a very insignificant amount of money to do these simple experiments, especially considering that if this bacterium were let loose in the environment, we would have some very significant problems with our food supply.

No one in his or her right mind is going to test for the kind of risk Klebsiella planticola represents because once you release an organism, there is no way to get it back.

How far does a single-point inoculation of a genetically engineered organism spread in one year? An engineered Rhizobium bacterium that was released in Louisiana in the mid-1990s spread eleven miles per year and has by now dispersed across the North American continent.

At these United Nations meetings I warned that corn pollen is going to move a lot more than three feet away from the plant. "Oh no," said the biotechnology representatives present. "Corn pollen falls out of the air three feet from the plant." I would say, "Wait a minute, you've never heard of bees? How about birds? and insects? and wind "Oh no, it falls out of the air within three feet of the plant." Why do our bureaucrats choose to to believe these "scientists"? Just open any plant textbook and you find that corn pollen can be found in the Antarctic and the Arctic. But if you listen to Monsanto, corn pollen can't possibly be there.
Armed with the knowledge of this peril, we need to convince members of Congress that appropriate ecological testing must be done prior to releasing GMOs into the environment. If this happens, it could help keep the problems that are already starting to occur from getting worse.

Addendum from Dave Blume:
I talk about the Klebsiella debacle in detail in my book, Alcohol Can Be A Gas, and it was actually a lot worse than this post relates. The original researchers threw out samples behind the lab and discovered the dead plants, got curious and discovered that the Klebsiella was alive and they had to dig up all the soil and incinerate it. Dr. Ingham subsequently elucidated the mechanism. I would add that the organism was engineered to eat cellulose and make alcohol. So in addition to the alcohol poisoning of the roots the bacteria was also eating the cellulosic root tips of the plants. I often tell this story and add that we really need to lock up all the genetic engineers in a very nice country club type prison since they have nearly ended life on earth several times already with bonehead projects like this.

The Monsanto Story - Part 1

Care for her and all her creatures

The enterprise is exploration into god.

The human heart can go the length of god.
Dark and cold we may be, but this is no winter now.
The frozen of misery centuries breaks, cracks, begins to move;
The thunder is the thunder of the flows, the thaw, the flood, the upstart spring.
Thank god our time is now, when wrong comes to meet us everywhere,
Never to leave us till we take the longest stride of soul that men ever took.
Affairs are now soul size,
Where you making for?
It takes so many lives to wake.
But will you wake for pity sake. Christopher Fry

To live we must daily brake the body and shed the blood of creation.
When we do this knowingly lovingly, skillfully and reverently it is a sacrament.
When we do it ignorantly, greedily, clumsily and destructively it is desecration
It is in such desecration, we condemn ourselves to spiritual moral loneliness and others to want

I used to ask this question what it is about this realm. What is it that it/she teaches? What does she ask of us?

Everything on this earth lives by taking the life of something else. In a web a cycle a chain of life. The earthworm manages bacteria in the soil the bacterium consumes animal and plant wastes returning life to the soil. Plants grow from this. The earthworm consumes plant and animal wastes. The small creatures and birds eat worms larger ones eat theses. Structure and energy moves up the food web in ever increasing complexity through time and space. At every level nutrients and energy rain back down through the structures to be picked up again incorporated. Fish bring nutrients their life from the oceans up stream. Animals eat them and move this away from the rivers to be taken up by plants. The birds carry information away from its origin through the system. At every level life is in flux moving but stable. Biomass remains the same even though the species move & change; in short life lives by consuming itself. With one exception, an impute of energy from the sun.

The lesson is life consumes life to live
We must eat to live and in tern are eaten so life can live, then we are consumed
To eat and be eaten, To know, to give ourselves completely to life.
To truly live we need to embrace this.

In the year 2000 early summer I was sitting on my front step in the sun feeling lonely deeply alone. Asking a question within myself “why am I alone in this life, why do I need to live alone? Why can I not follow the way of others to feel comfort in the congregation of the church of humanity? Why find my own path, where is the beloved.

I heard a voice, a voice sounded in my heart my ears my mind every pore of my being all around me with the most amazing feeling of love sadness joy acceptance “Why do you fret so, you should know I am all ways with you”. But there was no one around. I was surrounded by light and a overwhelming sense of compassion and connectedness. It was a feminine voice, an angel, the conscious self of this earth, I don’t know.

That was a beginning of a conversation that went on for a couple of weeks. The main points were -

To care for her and all her creatures. That when a person dies they need something larger than themselves to contain the spirit until they can re-embody themselves. That I knew how the spiritual life of the earth works and to tell everyone, and It would be a good idea to get away from large centers of population within ten years. I queried this and was told that the psychic space will be so corrupted that it would not be a good place to be for sensitive ones. While this was happening I was surrounded by a blue light, it felt like I was being tucked under a wing, I remember thinking this is why they say angels have wings.

I could not believe the experience and questioned my sanity, asking for some kind of proof that this was real, the next week there was a lottery wining in my postbox for the same amount as my tax dept. coincidence maybe,

I could not accept the prophet bit, to many bible stories in my youth, and turned my back on the experience, and that was one of the biggest mistakes I have ever made. I lost my soul and found hell.

About two years ago I woke up to this and started to do as she had asked, life has changed, it is not easy but I am whole in myself, damaged but whole.

And her main message

Care for this earth and all the creatures, is the most important spiritual thing a person can do, for themselves and all life now and forever more.