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.

Anastasia is a Board Member of Biology Fortified, Inc. and the Co-Executive Editor of the Biofortified Blog. She has a PhD in genetics with a minor in sustainable agriculture from Iowa State University. Her favorite produce is artichokes! Learn more about Anastasia at about.me. Disclaimer: Anastasia's words are her own and views expressed do not necessarily represent the views of her employer(s). She is not paid to blog or conduct any social media activities. Any mention of a specific company or product does not indicate endorsement of that company or product.


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