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Bioscience Warfare 

UC professor Tyrone Hayes found that a highly profitable weed killer causes sexual abnormalities in frogs. Then he found out how nasty a biotech multinational can be.

Wednesday, Jun 2 2004
Professor Tyrone B. Hayes watches as one of his students leans over a table covered with small plastic cups, each containing a few ounces of water and a single African reed frog. The short, trim professor hovers, carefully checking the fluid and the frogs, glistening and mottled green in their makeshift miniaquariums. The water in each cup contains a minuscule amount of a single chemical, an amount that can be compared to the weight of one one-thousandth of a single grain of salt. The chemical is atrazine, the most widely used large-scale weed killer in the world. It is pervasive in U.S. streams and waterways and so persistent it can be detected in rain. It is officially considered safe at three parts per billion in human drinking water.

Hayes is experimenting on frogs, dosing them with atrazine at levels far below what the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency says humans can consume. What he's found is frightening, at least for the frogs. He has occasionally encountered not only the frog malformations previously related to pesticides in farm, golf course, and highway runoff -- missing limbs, deformed or missing eyes, partial jaws, no jaws -- but also one other, statistically widespread effect. Hayes has found that atrazine turns the testosterone in male frogs into estrogen, causing them to develop ovaries as well as testicles. In other words, atrazine is a chemical castrator. Research has also linked it to human prostate and breast cancer.

"You know, I used to get up in arms about how we could make DDT illegal in the U.S., but how we still sell it to other countries," Hayes said in a recent interview. "The same thing is happening to us; atrazine was never allowed in Switzerland [home of its manufacturer, Syngenta AG], and now it is banned across the European Union. And it is still being sold to us."

When the EPA is notified of serious possible risks associated with a chemical, agency policy requires an environmental and human health risk review of the chemical. The environmental agency also periodically reviews chemicals that have been on the market for decades. In October 2003, after a lengthy environmental review triggered in part by Hayes' initial research, the EPA reapproved atrazine for use in the United States. Critics think atrazine was reapproved because of pressure from Syngenta, a biotechnology giant with more than $6.5 billion in annual revenues.

Hayes is familiar with that pressure. He was once employed by Syngenta to study atrazine and its impact on frogs. When his research turned up results the company considered unfavorable, Hayes suddenly found himself pinned by powerful corporate arms, his research discredited, his once-pristine reputation marred. It's a battle he's still fighting, not always successfully, even though his research, to all appearances, is valid, and his critics, it would seem, are less than convincing.

Tyrone Hayes is one among many scientists now inquiring into the long-term impacts of chemicals and biotechnological products being produced, mostly, by huge multinational conglomerates and released, increasingly, throughout the world environment. Proponents of these chemicals and products say they are vital if the world's poorest and most populous countries are to be fed. Golden rice, for instance, a strain of rice genetically modified by Zeneca Inc. (now AstraZeneca), produces beta carotene, a compound converted in the human body to vitamin A, which is essential to vision, growth, cell division, reproduction, and immunity. It is hoped the modified rice will combat blindness and immune-system problems and promote general health in developing countries. Golden rice clearly has enormous potential for good; there is also some evidence that poorly fed people will not be able to absorb the beta carotene in the rice.

Because most biotech products have been created only recently, however, their comprehensive effects on world ecology are, in many cases, unknown. And as biotech companies continue to forge partnerships with universities, augmenting their dwindling research budgets, scientists at some of the world's most prestigious institutions -- including Cornell University, the University of California at Berkeley, the Swiss Federal Research Station for Agro-Ecology, and the Rowett Research Institute in Scotland -- complain that large multinational biotech companies have attempted to suppress studies that suggest highly profitable products may have adverse effects on health or the environment.

"They've been going after scientists in a systematic, organized way that I haven't seen in my memory," says Chuck Benbrook, a food policy expert and former executive director of the Board on Agriculture of the National Academy of Sciences. "Let's face it, [big biotech has] silenced the vast majority of scientists who are interested in doing research on risks."

Industry-university alliances are often seen as advantageous to both academia and the companies that fund research. Over the last three decades, funds provided to U.S. universities by the industrial sector grew faster than funding from any other source. Industry provided 6.8 percent of funding for academic research in 2001 (the latest year for which such figures are available), a slight decline from a high of 7.4 percent in 1999.

To be sure, corporate largess has sometimes created a new dynamism in staid academic research quarters, catapulting cures and medicines quickly to market.

But sometimes, the relationship has raised suspicion. At UC Berkeley, for example, Novartis Agribusiness, now merged into Syngenta, gave $25 million to fund basic research in the Department of Plant and Microbial Biology over a five-year period that ended in November 2003. The deal, which was not renewed this year, gave Syngenta some rights to research findings and was an issue of great political contention within the university and the state. The Atlantic Monthly published a disparaging article titled "The Kept University" criticizing the relationship.

And sometimes, corporations try to control the research they fund. Sometimes, information and research that are intended to benefit the public are intentionally kept from the public. Sometimes, a lack of attention to critical research on risk assessment -- or to research on risk of any kind -- undermines the ends of scientific research itself.

About The Author

Alison Pierce


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