GENTECH archive


genetically manipulated oranges

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San Fracisco Bay Guardian   9 November 1998

   A Florida Biochemist designs a citrus tree with THC.
    In the summer of 1984, 10th-grader Irwin Nanofsky and a friend were
      driving down the Apalachee Parkway on the way home from baseball
    practice when they were pulled over by a police officer for a minor
                            traffic infraction.
   After Nanofsky produced his driver's license the police officer asked
      permission to search the vehicle. In less than two minutes, the
    officer found a homemade pipe underneath the passenger's seat of the
    Ford Aerostar belonging to the teenage driver's parents. The minivan
   was seized, and the two youths were taken into custody on suspicion of
                              drug possession.
     Illegal possession of drug paraphernalia ranks second only to open
     container violations on the crime blotter of this Florida college
      town. And yet the routine arrest of 16 year-old Nanofsky and the
       seizure of his family's minivan would inspire one of the most
     controversial drug-related scientific discoveries of the century.
      Meet Hugo Nanofsky, biochemist, Florida State University tenured
      professor, and the parental authority who posted bail for Irwin
   Nanofsky the night of July 8, 1984. The elder Nanofsky wasn't pleased
    that his son had been arrested for possession of drug paraphernalia,
     and he became livid when Tallahassee police informed him that the
     Aerostar minivan would be permanently remanded to police custody.
     Over the course of the next three weeks, Nanofsky penned dozens of
   irate letters to the local police chief, the Tallahassee City Council,
   the State District Attorney and, finally, even to area newspapers. But
                          it was all to no avail.
    Under advisement of the family lawyer, Irwin Nanofsky pled guilty to
      possession of drug paraphernalia in order to receive a suspended
    sentence and have his juvenile court record sealed. But in doing so,
    the family minivan became "an accessory to the crime." According to
     Florida State law, it also became the property of the Tallahassee
    Police Department Drug Task Force. In time, the adult Nanofsky would
   learn that there was nothing he could do legally to wrest the vehicle
                        from the hands of the state.
       Biochem 101: How to design a Cannabis-equivalent citrus plant
                                 Step One:
    Biochemically isolate all the required enzymes for the production of
                                 Step Two:
    Perform N-terminal sequencing on isolated enzymes, design degenerate
       PCR (polymerase chain reaction) primers and amplify the genes.
                                Step Three:
    Clone genes into an agrobacterial vector by introducing the desired
      piece of DNA into a plasmid containing a transfer or T-DNA. The
   mixture is transformed into Agrobacterium tumefaciens, a gram negative
                                 Step Four:
      Use the Agrobacterium tumefaciens to infect citrus plants after
    wounding. The transfer DNA will proceed to host cells by a mechanism
    similar to conjugation. The DNA is randomly integrated into the host
                       genome and will be inherited.
   It was in the fall of 1984 that John Chapman Professor of Biochemistry
   at Florida State University, now driving to work behind the wheel of a
     used Pontiac Bonneville, first set on a pet project that he hoped
    would "dissolve irrational legislation with a solid dose of reason."
     Nanofsky knew he would never get his family's car back, but he had
   plans to make sure that no one else would be pulled through the gears
      of what he considers a Kafka-esque drug enforcement bureaucracy.
    "It's quite simple, really," Nanofsky explains, "I wanted to combine
   Citrus sinesis with Delta 9-tetrahydrocannabinol." In layman's terms,
    the respected college professor proposed to grow oranges that would
   contain THC, the active ingredient in marijuana. Fourteen years later,
   that project is complete, and Nanofsky has succeeded where his letter
   writing campaign of yore failed: he has the undivided attention of the
    nation's top drug enforcement agencies, political figures, and media
    The turning point in the Nanofsky saga came when the straight-laced
    professor posted a message to Internet newsgroups announcing that he
    was offering "cannabis-equivalent orange tree seeds" at no cost via
   the U.S. mail. Several weeks later, U.S. Justice Department officials
   showed up at the mailing address used in the Internet announcement: a
   tiny office on the second floor of the Dittmer Laboratory of Chemistry
      building on the FSU campus. There they would wait for another 40
       minutes before Prof. Nanofsky finished delivering a lecture to
        graduate students on his recent research into the "cis-trans
                      photoisomerization of olefins."
   "I knew it was only a matter of time before someone sent me more than
    just a self-addressed stamped envelope," Nanofsky quips, "but I was
    surprised to see Janet Reno's special assistant at my door." After a
        series of closed door discussions, Nanofsky agreed to cease
     distribution of the THC-orange seeds until the legal status of the
              possibly narcotic plant species is established.
   Much to the chagrin of authorities, the effort to regulate Nanofsky's
       invention may be too little too late. Several hundred packets
   containing 40 to 50 seeds each have already been sent to those who've
     requested them, and Nanofsky is not obliged to produce his mailing
     records. Under current law, no crime has been committed and it is
    unlikely that charges will be brought against the fruit's inventor.
   Now it is federal authorities who must confront the nation's unwieldy
     body of inconsistent drug laws. According to a source at the Drug
      Enforcement Agency, it may be months if not years before all the
     issues involved are sorted out, leaving a gaping hole in U.S. drug
   policy in the meantime. At the heart of the confusion is the fact that
         THC now naturally occurs in a new species of citrus fruit.
    As policy analysts and hemp advocates alike have been quick to point
    out, the apparent legality (for now) of Nanofsky's "pot orange" may
      render debates over the legalization of marijuana moot. In fact,
       Florida's top law enforcement officials admit that even if the
     cultivation of Nanofsky's orange were to be outlawed, it would be
   exceedingly difficult to identify the presence of outlawed fruit among
                   the state's largest agricultural crop.
    Amidst all of the hubbub surrounding his father's experiment, Irwin
    Nanofsky exudes calm indifference. Now 30-years-old and a successful
   environmental photographer, the younger Nanofsky can't understand what
    all of the fuss is about. "My dad's a chemist. He makes polymers. I
   doubt it ever crossed his mind that as a result of his work tomorrow's
           kids will be able to get high off of half an orange."

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