Don’t destroy research – Italy edition

Recently, a group called Take the Flour Back threatened to destroy publicly funded research on aphid-resistant wheat at Rothamsted research institute in Hertfordshire, England. The scientists, including Dr. Gia Aradottir, pleaded with the activists to let them continue their research, which could eventually result in decreased use of pesticides on wheat. Scientists and people interested in science around the world spread the story, saying that even if someone is against genetic engineering, they should let this research continue. The Twitter hashtag #dontdestroyresearch helped spread the word. The result was that there was a protest but the research was not harmed (Guardian).

Science is still at risk

While we can all breathe a sigh of relief at the way the situation at Rothamsted ended up, science is still at risk. Now, there is an even more complex story concerning a researcher from the University of Tuscia in Rome, Italy.

Please read on, then ask everyone to sign this short petition to show your support for the continuation of publicly funded research. View the signatories here. Also, check out the petition from the National Association of Italian Biotechnologists.

Olive branch by Peter Firminger via Flickr.

Dr. Eddo Rugini is a plant scientist who has spent his career working on woody plant propagation, using both traditional and innovative methods. A successful and productive researcher, Dr. Rugini has over 170 publications, most of which in are international journals, and over 20 book chapters, in addition to working as a professor, serving on many high level scientific panels, and serving as editor for more than a few high profile journals.
In 1982 (yes, 30 years ago), Dr. Rugini began a groundbreaking project involving transgenic olives trees, cherry trees, and kiwifruit vines. In 1998 he gained permission to grow the trees, with some very specific measures in place to prevent gene flow from the plants.
The following is paraphrased from the Fresh Plaza article Research burnt at the stake is not good for anybody by Rossella Gigli:

The cherry trees in bloom have no need to be covered, because they are not transgenic. Only the rootstock of these cherry trees is transgenic, and being triploid can not produce fertile pollen anyway. There is no chance of pollen spread from the transgenic cherry rootstock.
The olive trees, engineered both for resistance to fungal diseases and shorter trees, so far have not produced any flower. This is likely due to the tissue culture process used during transformation.
The only plants that could bloom and produce pollen are male kiwifruit plants, and every year the flowers are removed before they open. In fact, the flowers that grew this year have already been removed and throughly killed with very high heat in an autoclave. The female plants, engineered for resistance to fungal diseases, do not produce pollen and are pollinated artificially with pollen from control plants. The resulting fruit are tested in the laboratory to verify its resistance fungus, and subsequently destroyed, per the research protocol.

What’s the problem?

In 2002, Italy passed a law banning field research of genetically engineered plants. Since Dr. Rugini’s plants were already growing, he was allowed to apply for an extension of approval, and the extension was granted until 2008. A second extension was denied. At that point, the plants should have been destroyed, or (if I’m interpreting things properly) – a roofed, floored, and walled structure could have been built around them to prevent pollen flow (because apparently other methods of controlling pollen, such as those described above are not acceptable).
Recently, a group called the Genetic Rights Foundation (GRF) pushed the issue. In Illegal field trials of GE cherry, kiwi and olive trees exposed in Italy by the Genetic Rights Foundation (same article saved as PDF), the organization boasts that they have found the now illegal trees and demands that they be immediately destroyed.
While GRF does have a point that Dr. Rugini’s plants are technically illegal at this time, they don’t seem to have sought him out for conversation before declaring the trees a hazard. In their article, GRF seems to have some misconceptions about the plants, and seems to think there are no pollen control methods being used. One of the issues they touch on is antibiotic resistance genes, despite the lack of risk. Still, GRF seems to be a fairly reasonable group, calling for additional data collection before the plants are destroyed. Hopefully they are reasonable enough to support a postponement of the destruction until a science-based risk assessment can be conducted.

Call to action

Male kiwi flowers by CameliaTWU via Flickr.

While there doesn’t seem to be any science-based reason to be concerned about this research, 30 years of work will be destroyed on 12 June – in just a few short days! Biofortified’s editors will do our best to find additional information on this subject, but time seems to be of the essence, so we are initiating a call to action.
The University seems to be giving in to the demands of the GRF. Indeed, what option do they have? It’s probably beyond hope, but if spreading the word has any chance of helping the Italian authorities see that research should not be destroyed, then we must all do what we can. Knowing how hard it was to leave my research when I completed my thesis research, I can’t even imagine how horrible it would be to have one’s life’s work destroyed.
Please tell everyone you know and ask them to sign this short petition to show your support for Dr. Rugini and his trees.

Lost in translation?

There is more information out there, but most of it (obviously) is in Italian. Google Translate helps a lot but some things are lost in translation. If you happen to be bilingual and have a little time to spare for science, please let us know in the comments or contact us via our contact form (for example, there are 2 articles below that can’t be auto-translated).

More information

I’ll keep adding articles here as they appear. If you find new ones, please mention them in the comments.


The purpose of this petition is to gather signatures in support for plant scientist Dr. Eddo Rugini.
By adding our names here, we the signatories affirm the following:
We believe that research should be allowed to proceed with science-based risk assessment and risk mitigation. While as individuals we may or may not agree with the way genetic engineering is currently being used, and we may or may not agree that it is a technology that should be used at all, we do affirm that careful scientific research is useful and important. We urge the Italian government and officials at the University of Tuscia to reconsider their decision to destroy Dr. Rugini’s long term experiment of genetically engineered olive trees, cherry trees, and kiwifruit vines.
If you are an official representative of your organization and can speak on their behalf, you can check the “Official Representative” box as “Yes.” Please note that your response will be publicly available. View the signatories below.

Supporters of Dr. Rugini


  1. There ia already a follow up of this post: I found the article in, therefore it is in Italian. I am sending you the Google Translate version, FYI. Btw, the title is translated wrongly: Si tagliano gli ulivi della Tuscia, grazie all’Onorevole Capanna would be better translate as “Trees of University of Tuscia will be cut, thanks to the action of GRF´s President Mario Capanna”. Really interesting website you’ve got! G.

  2. Wow, that’s incredibly sad. Another case of activists claiming there’s no long term studies–but when there is a long term study, it should be destroyed…?
    What a treasure.
    Wouldn’t you think if it was so dangerous activists would be able to demonstrate that with data by now?

  3. We have made contact with Dr. Eddo Rugini, but have only gotten a brief response so far. There may be a language barrier, or quite understandably, he is really busy. He said that we’ll see what happens Monday. Hopefully we can find out a little more information about what is going on over there before it is too late.

  4. Thank you for your support. Research in open field on GMO is banned in Italy since 2002. Ten years without research means that researchers go on working on other projects and students are no more interested in. They have to build their future, and it is impossible in a situation like that. Big part of them will work in other countries, or they just forget GMOs.
    I talked with Dr Eddo Rugini today. He’s tired, and til now, probably, he was really feeling alone. On tuesday he will begin to cut the trees. This is another sad side of the story: as leader of the project, he must personally take care of the explant of his trees.
    Anyway, we hope that in the next days something will change, at least to delay some day the beginning of the explant could give us the opportunity of let hear better our voice. In few hours, over 200 people subscribed the appeal of the National Association of Italian Biotechnologists, at this link:

  5. Thanks for spreading the news. If we stop research we will never be able to really understand the risks of GMOs, this is certain.
    By the way I am italian and I write a genomics blog, so if you need help for translating some articles just ask me.

  6. Giordano, please let Dr. Rugini know that he is not alone. While we are on the other side of the planet, we do stand with him in spirit. I don’t know if the more than 700 signatures is enough to make the university pause to reevaluate the situation but I hope it is.

  7. Moreno, there were a few PDFs of articles (links at the end of this blog post) in the Italian news that might have additional information. If you wouldn’t mind taking a glance to see if there’s anything pertinent, I’d really appreciate it. I think all of us are hungry for more information!
    I love the tagline of your blog! “The alphabet of my life has only four letters” 🙂

  8. Hi! Yes just four letters, and with them evolution was able to create all these wonderful things! 🙂
    Re the PDFs, they basically say the same things that you already mentioned in the article. It looks like the ministry of Agriculture Catania and the ministry of Environment Clini both agree on the destruction of the field. However, Clini doesn’t want to perform additional research on the GM trees. On the contrary, Catania wants to take samples from the field and have them analysed by some public research institutes. Oddly enough, Clini is known to be in favour of GMOs.
    Another interesting news:
    Maria Farina Coscioni, who is a deputy of the Radical Party, is shocked by this decision. She defines it “antiscientific, retrograde, anti-modern, piratesque, medieval and against the freedom of research”. She has presented to the Prime Minister a point of order which will be discussed soon (I hope).
    I will inform you about other news!

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