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EPA Plans To Approve Wisconsin Field Test With Organism

May 6, 1987

WASHINGTON (AP) _ The Environmental Protection Agency plans to approve a Wisconsin field test of a genetically engineered organism that sponsors say could boost alfalfa yields by 17 percent, the agency announced Wednesday.

The organism, Rhizobium meliloti, is a bacterium that has been studied for more than 100 years and used commercially for decades. The bacterium forms nodules on the roots of legumes such as soybeans and alfalfa that enable the plants to transform molecular nitrogen in the air to ammonia needed for growth in the process known as nitrogen ″fixing.″

BioTechnica International Inc. of Cambridge, Mass. in February asked EPA’s permission under the federal toxic substances law to conduct a test of a strain of R. meliloti on a farm it owns in Pepin County near the town of Arkansas in western Wisconsin.

The town is about 30 miles southwest of Eau Claire and 25 miles east of Red Wing, Minn.

Under pesticide law, EPA permitted a test of another genetically enginereed bacterium designed to protect strawberry plants against frost. That test got under way in California last month.

The Wisconsin test, which still must be approved by the Agriculture Department and state agencies, would be the first of what is expected to be many under the toxic substances law, though R. meliloti is not toxic.

EPA is interpreting the law to require notice to the agency by anyone proposing to test new organisms.

David Dull, acting director of the Office of Toxic Substances, said he believed the other agencies involved ″are coming out about where we are″ but none had reached decisions.

Wednesday had been the deadline for EPA to act on the February petition. Dull said EPA and the company had agreed on a 60-day extension during which they expect to negotiate an administrative order setting out conditions for the three-year test, including provisions for data collection.

The company’s engineering consists of taking copies of the genes responsible for fixing nitrogen and re-inserting them into the same organism using a recombinant DNA plasmid of another bacterium. This in effect gives the R. meliloti bacterium extra copies of the nitrogen-fixing genes. The identity of the second bacterium is a commerical secret.

A plasmid is a section of DNA, the genetic material of all living things.

The change confers no pathogenicity and the new plasmid tends to be lost from most organisms at the first cell division, EPA said.

The foreign plasmids need a third, helper organism in ″tri-parental matings″ to be transferred to other bacteria. No such matings or transfers could be found in Pepin County soil using a test that could detect one in a billion organisms, the agency said.

The bacteria will be applied to seeds in furrows by dripping a water solution from three inches above. No special gear or exposure precautions will be needed by applicators, the agency said.

″EPA believes that this field test poses little or no risk″ because of the close similarity of the engineered strain to the natural organism, said an agency statement.

One unidentified member of an eight-member panel of outside experts opposed the test and seven supported it, EPA said.

Among the conditions to be required in the test is the removal of all sweet clover from the five-acre test plot. Dull said one panel member had raised speculation that the bacteria could enhance growth of that clover, also a legume.

Moldy hay combined with sweet clover can produce a substance which reduces the ability of animal blood to clot, and Dull said the company would be required to show that clover production is not enhanced if it wants to commercialize the bacteria. Dull said he did not believe clover would be affected at all.

This possibility was seized upon by Jeremy Rifkin, a well-known activist who opposes almost all genetic engineering experiments. If clover production is enhanced and many cows in a dairy state start hemorraging, ″The liability questions will be most interesting,″ Rifkin said.

He said his organization, the Foundation on Economic Trends, had collected 500 signatures in the town of Durand, near Arkansas, opposing the tests.

A Rifkin asssociate, Andrew Kimbel, said the 60-day delay was ″a real victory″ but ″not a complete victory.″

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