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2-Plants: Subterranean biotechnology

-------------------------------- GENET-news -------------------------------

TITLE:  Subterranean biotechnology
SOURCE: Financial Times Deutschland, Germany, by Ole Neugebauer
        translated by Tina Hooker, posted by Checkbiotech, Switzerland
DATE:   19 Jul 2005

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Subterranean biotechnology
(Biotech im Untergrund)

In future, genetically modified plants will hold fewer risks thanks to
cultivation under ground. For the first time researchers are working on
appropriate methods.

Cool air crawls through dark mine shafts. Only one shaft is illuminated.
The light comes from the window of a huge container. Wrapped in plastic
foil it stands in the dark like an oversized package. Sixty meters below
the surface, within this very container, an artificial garden is growing.
Plant lamps illuminate properly stringed corn plants. The air is humid
and warm.

This subterranean facility was erected within a former lime mine in
Marengo, Indiana, USA, by scientists from Purdue University and the US
company "Controlled Pharming Ventures". It is here that genetic companies
will cultivate genetically modified plants in the near future - plants
that will produce active agents for drugs. These researchers are the
first to provide underground molecular pharming.

One advantage of this approach is that since the field is subterranean,
the pollen from pharmaceutical-plants cannot reach fields intended for
human consumption.

Through molecular pharming plants can become small biotech manufacturing
sites. Scientists integrate genes with the desired qualities into the
plant cells. These cells then produce medicinal agents such as
pharmaceutical drugs. Currently, there are a great number of
pharmaceutical drugs that are being created in laboratories from
bacterial cultures, however with disadvantages that plants can help overcome.

Out door genetically modified (GM) plants are cheaper

Undemanding plants are cheaper and easier to grow in an open-air field,
but the cultivation can create problems. Undesired mixing of pollen from
of GM plants with conventional plants can be dangerous - and expensive
for the producer, at that!

In 2000, traces of GM food were detected inside products of the American
Fast food chain Taco Bell. The production of that corn variety was
stopped immediately and the producer had to pay $2.4 million to customers
who complained of allergic reactions after consuming Taco Bell's corn

"So far, neither Germany nor the rest of the European Union have granted
any authorizations for molecular pharming above ground," said Niklas
Schulze-Icking, from the German Ministry for Consumer Protection, Food
and Agriculture. "However, to grow pharmaceutical plants in enclosed
systems underground is basically legal."

In Germany, operators need an authorization from the regional authority
in charge so they can work on plants and build underground laboratory

The subterranean cultivable land at Marengo is surrounded by a multi-
layered wall. The inner layer consists of strongly reflecting material
that will reflect the light radiating from the plant lamps for optimal
use. Each plant is grown on its own in a pot filled with clay earth. A
computer system monitors their growth. With the monitoring data the
scientists then calculate the perfect temperature, humidity and carbon
dioxide supply needed. The intensity of the light and the air circulation
are also adapted to the plant's needs.

First genetic corn grown underground

Recently, scientists have been able to collect the first genetic corn
grown underground, albeit without pharmaceutical drugs, however. "At this
point, all we wanted to prove was that you can actually grow plants
underground," said Doug Ausenbaugh, chairman of the Controlled Pharming

"Since the tests were successful, we are now offering our subterranean
fields to the biotech industry."

The cultivated corn was actually twice as productive as the plants from
average cornfields in the United States, thanks to the thoroughly
controlled environmental conditions.

So far plants producing active agents have mainly been cultivated in
enclosed greenhouses. Compared to these greenhouses, subterranean
cultivation offers economic advantages. For instance, during the summer
greenhouses are exposed to tremendous heat, whereas in the winter it is
the cold that threatens the plants.

"One needs an extraordinary amount of energy to balance out the constant
thermal fluctuations in a greenhouse, while in a cave you will find that
the temperature always remains constant," says Joachim Schiemann,
biotechnology expert at the German Biological Facility for Agriculture
and Forestry in Braunschweig, Germany.

"Also, air and water in a greenhouse have to be filtered before reaching
the outside, whereas cultivating GM plants in a cave is by nature much
more isolated," explained Schiemann.

"So you save the expenses for the high degree of sterilization you would
otherwise need to have in a greenhouse."

Underground molecular pharming

All over the world researchers are working on tomatoes that produce
vaccines, corn with valuable enzymes or tobacco that produces antibodies.
The production of pharmaceutical drugs in agriculture, often referred to
as molecular pharming, is said to be the market of the future.

Yet, Researchers and companies are exposed to strong criticism, because
if transgenic plants spread in nature and cross with conventional plants,
food could be contaminated with pharmaceutical drugs.

Now, researchers at the Purdue University, Indiana, have found a
solution. They moved the corn fields underground where they can grow
transgenic plants - completely isolated from the outside world and under
the artificial light in an old lime mine in Marongo.


European NGO Network on Genetic Engineering

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