Thursday, August 27, 2015

A brief history of Roundup Ready crops

In the midst of a fascinating article in The New Republic by Ted Genoways about the Chinese businessmen attempting to steal seeds from the Midwest and the FBI team that tracked them down, a short history of Roundup Ready crops: 
Monsanto was also quick to see the market opportunity. The company had grown with the production of 2,4-D and its descendant 2,4,5-T, which were then combined to produce Agent Orange to defoliate forest cover during the Vietnam War. In 1970, in an effort to come up with an even stronger plant killer, Monsanto chemist John E. Franz hit upon an herbicide called glyphosate, which was marketed under the trade name Roundup and had seen unmatched growth in broadleaf weed control in the agricultural industry. The only problem with Roundup: It was such an effective herbicide that farmers had to apply it carefully, spraying only early sprouting weeds, to avoid exterminating their crops. 
Monsanto’s engineers set about searching for a gene that would allow crops to survive exposure to Roundup. They found it in the wastewater-treatment plant of one of their own glyphosate production plants in Louisiana, where workers had noticed a range of bacteria thriving despite exposure to Roundup—and one, under lab testing, displayed total immunity to glyphosate pesticides. By 1996, Monsanto had commercially introduced soybeans that had been genetically modified to resist glyphosate—what the company termed “Roundup Ready.”
I had no idea that some level of serendipity occurred to help this happen. "Fortune favors the prepared mind" and all of that. (Does anyone know if this is actually true?)

The article legitimately questions whether or not the FBI should be using the Foreign Surveillance Intelligence Act to track foreign nationals performing industrial espionage within the United States. It seems to me that the most ideal scenario would be a new set of laws granting surveillance powers to federal agencies that are tasked with preventing industrial espionage from other nations. But asking for new laws these days seems like asking for a pony*, so we're probably going to muddle through with what we have.

*Not that I really want a lot of new laws, I note. 

5 comments:

  1. I also heard a rumor that glyphosate is a rather slow killer and that the only reason Monsanto found it was due to a "lazy" employee. Lure has it that he inadvertently left out an assay over the weekend and came back to a surprising result. Apparently, this slow kill time caused a number of other companies to look over the compound for development. Serendipity indeed.

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  2. Now someone please take the alien orange-brown algae that grows on the walls of my base bath soak tank (1% KOH + 0.5% K3PO4 + liquid laundry detergent)

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  3. Monsanto always seemed to be a magnet for conspiracy theorists, and I always dismissed them as Food Babe chemophobic types. Looks like there's more to the story - the national security angle explains why there's so much government meddling in agriculture.

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  4. That passage is derived from Dan Charles' book LORDS OF THE HARVEST: BIOTECH, BIG MONEY, AND THE FUTURE OF FOOD. The passage from his book (pp. 68-69) about the discovery of the Roundup Ready gene reads as follows:

    ++

    Five hundred miles south of St. Louis, just west of New Orleans, lies Monsanto's Luling plant. It covers fifteen hundred acres along the Mississippi River. Along with massive chemical factories and waste ponds there are thick forests. The area is in fact registered as a Wildlife Habitat Council site.

    Luling manufactures glyphosate, millions of pounds of it. There are glyphosate residues in the ponds, in the mud at the bottom of the ponds, and in the soil alongside. Those residues exert a steady pressure on the population of microorganisms in the water and soil, eliminating those that are sensitive to glyphosate and selecting those that are less sensitive.

    By the early 1980s Roundup-tolerant bacteria were already there, flourishing despite the presence of herbicide residues. As part of their routine monitoring work, scientists from Monsanto's chemical waste division came to Luling and collected samples of the sludge. They were hoping to find bacteria that could use glyphosate as food, breaking it down into less harmful chemicals. They hoped such bacteria might help them clean up the environment.

    The samples sat in the waste cleanup division of Monsanto for years. Finally the genetic engineers heard about these collections and began studying them. One group of scientists was assigned to look for new forms of the target gene. And one day a scientist from that group came down the hall, walked into the offices of the people who led the Roundup tolerance program, and said, "Guess what? This thing is perfect."

    The new gene looked radically different from any target gene they'd seen before. But it performed its function in the plant cell and proved to tolerate Roundup far better than any gene the scientists had created in the laboratory. The long search for a Roundup tolerance gene was over.

    ++

    Hope this helps—and thanks for reading!

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  5. If China isn't careful, the US will stop exporting manufacturing jobs to them.

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