Last week, we heard about a trial of genetically engineered trees and vines at the University of Tuscia, Italy that is being threatened with being cut down. There has been some information in the news about the controversy over the trial, (collected in Anastasia’s post here), but not very much about the trial itself. Over the weekend, I corresponded with the scientist running the trial, Professor Eddo Rugini, and yesterday I talked to him on the phone to find out more. Here is an update for everyone who is following this story on the conditions of the trial, its current status, remaining questions, and how you can all help.
Trees and traits
Dr. Rugini is working on several different projects in his trial, with essentially two traits that he is working on. The first is a basic transformation experiment with genes from Agrobacterium. It turns out that when you infect some trees with Agrobacterium rhizogenes, the insertion of several genes known as the rol ABC genes causes the plant to grow large numbers of roots. Other effects on the plant can include shorter internode lengths, and thus, shorter branches.
The second experiment that he is working on is much more interesting, and involves disease resistance. Fungal diseases hit fruit trees hard, and olives and kiwifruits are no exception (except of course that Kiwi is a vine, not a tree). A protein called Osmotin, however, has been found to combat fungal infections. It uses the fungi’s own signal pathways to weaken the cell walls and accelerate cell death. Naturally, a potent yet common plant protein like that would make an excellent candidate for trying to develop disease-resistant plants. Not only that, there is evidence that Osmotin has some biological activity in humans, namely, mimicking a hormone linked to weight loss and thus potentially useful for combating diabetes and obesity.
Dr. Rugini engineered the gene that produces the Osmotin protein into both olive trees and kiwifruit vines, along with the rol ABC genes I mentioned above. The Olives and Kiwis are resistant to fungi, and the olives are also more resistant to frost. In olives, the rol ABC gene results in shorter trees.
He also has cherry trees that are shorter due to the variation caused by inserting a full T-DNA from A. rhizogenes into the rootstock, and since it was the raw T-DNA the usual objections about antibiotic-resistant markers don’t apply – because there are none in these trees.
There is certainly an interesting mix of traits being studied, particularly the Osmotin gene – that sounds promising. But we won’t know until the research comes to full fruition – literally.
Restrictions grow faster than trees
Dr. Eddo Rugini, who is running the trial, received clearance from the Italian government to plant his trial of olive, cherry, and kiwifruits in 1998. However, while he may have obtained some Kiwifruit from his transgenic vines, the olives and cherries, however, have hardly flowered yet. Woody tree species take a long time to grow, longer it seems than the length of the laws of Italy. When he reapplied in 2009 to extend his field trial permit another five years, he was denied the following year because the new regulations in Italy stipulate that all transgenic plant trials must be fully contained in a greenhouse. The cost of moving his 150-odd trees and vines to a suitable greenhouse was too high.
It wasn’t until four years later in 2012 when the Genetic Rights Foundation complained about the trials, including claiming that the transgenic trees were flowering and spreading pollen when they were not. In fact, the main reason why Dr. Rugini wanted to extend his permit further was because the trees were not flowering. A bad winter this past year also reduced this year’s potential to flower. While other cases of plant genetics research threatened with destruction tend to involve anti-GE groups physically removing trials themselves, this situation is different, he said.
“The problem between this situation is, and the people from England, is different. I have to defend from my government. In England they protected the scientists. In Italy, no. That is the big difference.”
Nevertheless he did also tell me about a case of transgenic fungus-resistant strawberries he worked in that were destroyed by activists in 2008. As a result, he was unable to publish on the traits he was studying, and could only publish his data on somaclonal variation – the small changes caused by tissue culture. I have been unable to find a news link, possibly due to the language barrier, to confirm if there was any news about this event.
High Offices and High Tunnels
While I spoke with Dr. Rugini, he was hopeful about getting the attention of his government to allow him to continue his research. In the meantime he is starting to remove the trees, beginning with the least important ones. I had a momentary thought that I shared with him – what about constructing a high tunnel over the important plants that he wants to keep, will that satisfy the legal requirements? High Tunnels are often used to extend growing seasons here in the US, or protect fruit trees from damage from wind. But in his case, they could present a means by which he could enclose his trees at a fraction of the cost of a concrete-and-glass greenhouse. Intrigued, he said he would ask if it would work. It sounded like he was going to ask about it today. I also sent out a few feelers with people who know more about these systems than I to see if they had any suggestions. Maybe a solution can be found?
A GeekMob with pipes, plastic, and gravel?
What we can do
Time is short, but the collective brain power that reads the Biofortified Blog is formidable. What thoughts do all of you have on ways that Eddo Rugini could keep his trees legal while making it possible for a publicly-funded academic to afford it? It sounds as if he would still need a floor to this greenhouse setup – how could that be achieved without, say, pouring concrete over the ground? If anyone knows where to find the Italian government’s regulations on field trials, and can make sense of them, that would be a big help. Science is being held in the balance.
We can always spread the word some more, sign the petition of support, see who has already signed, and there is also this petition as well. Perhaps it is too late to make a difference, but perhaps there is a way to save the olives, save the cherries, and save the kiwifruits. Do it for Rugini’s Kiwis!
I will keep you informed as the situation continues to develop.