[gardeners] Fwd: Plant Protection/Terminator (Reformatted)

Liz Albrook (gardeners@globalgarden.com)
Tue, 17 Nov 1998 10:17:52 +0000

From: Sandy Miller Hays <shays@asrr.arsusda.gov>
To: roglun@fidnet.com
Subject: Plant Technology Protection System
Date: Friday, August 07, 1998 10:29 AM

Dear Sir or Madam:
Your question about the plant Technology Protection System (TPS)
was forwarded to me by the staff of the National Agricultural
Library.  TPS has  sometimes been referred to in the media as
"terminator technology."

In response to your request for information, here's some
background for you.

On March 3, 1998, a patent was granted to the Agricultural
Research Service--that's the chief research agency of the U.S.
Department of Agriculture--and a company called Delta and Pine Land
Co. of Scott, Miss. It's my understanding that DPL is a major
producer of cottonseed.

The patent covered "Control of Plant Gene Expression."  The
technology being patented came out of cooperative research between
ARS and DPL under what is known as a Cooperative Research and
Development Agreement, or CRADA. CRADAs are not an unusual factor in
ARS' operations; this agency has entered into approximately 800
CRADAs with private companies since the mid-1980s.

The reason for a CRADA is this:  ARS is in the "business" of
developing new technologies to benefit the U.S. food and fiber
production system...but we're not in the business of actually
making or selling a specific product. So ARS will "partner," if you
will, with a particular company on a project, the idea being that if
a product develops out of this research, the company would get
"first crack" at a marketing license.  This way all the great
things that are developed in federal laboratories using taxpayers'
dollars actually get turned into products for consumers, rather
than just languishing on a shelf in a federal lab somewhere.

At any rate, the work on "control of plant gene expression" was
done under a CRADA signed in 1993 between ARS and DPL.

The question being tackled was a simple one:  Can you put a gene
into a seed and then turn that seed on and off when you want to,
rather than having to wait for Nature to turn it on and off?  The
answer appears to be "yes."

In the particular work in question, a gene was inserted (via
genetic engineering) into a seed.  Then, if that seed receives a
certain treatment before planting, the inserted gene is "turned on."
If the seed does not receive the specific pre-planting treatment,
the gene remains "turned off."

To be more specific about this project, the way the gene is
"turned on" is by treating the transgenic seed with tetracycline
before planting that seed. If the tetracycline treatment is given,
the gene in the seed is turned on. That seed can be planted and will
produce a plant.  That plant, in turn, will produce seed--but those
second-generation seed will not germinate.

However, by the same token, you can take that same transgenic seed
and NOT treat it with tetracycline--just plant it in the ground
without the pre-planting treatment.  In that case, the inserted
gene will NOT get turned on; the seed will grow a plant, the plant
will produce seed, those second-generation seed can be planted and
will produce a plant, those plants will produce seed....and on and
on and on.

The key is the pre-planting treatment--in the case of our studies,
tetracycline.  Tetracycline was used because we deliberately chose
a substance that is NOT going to be encountered "accidentally" in
Nature. We do not want to turn on the inserted  gene by accident.

Our studies were done first in tobacco, as a model species only. 
(It's my understanding that tobacco is the "guinea pig" of the plant
world--very easy to work with.  But ARS is NOT doing--and is not
INTERESTED in doing--research on tobacco.  We used tobacco as a
model species ONLY.)

Later tests were done in cotton, although I think only greenhouse
tests have been done--not field tests.

The process worked in tobacco and in cotton...so far.

The $64,000 question is, of course:  Why would ARS want do this
research? The answer is this:  There is a tremendous amount of
genetic diversity available to us; we're constantly learning
something new about a plant gene that confers this desirable trait
or that one, such as ability to withstand drought or ability to fend
off insect attacks.  The tools are out there for development of some
terrific new plant varieties, utilizing the genetic diversity that
we now know exists.

But this type of research still takes a lot of time and a lot of
money...and there's not that much incentive at present for a plant
breeding to company to invest a lot of dollars and scientist-hours
in coming up with those terrific new varieties.  Why?  Because as
things stand now, a plant breeding company might spend years and
lots of dollars developing and patenting a new variety.  They
finally put it on the market.  Everyone rushes out to buy the seed
that first year.  Everyone goes home, plants the seed, grows the
resultant plants, collects the seed from those plants...and never
has to go back to the plant breeding company for more seed because
the people are now "growing their own."  This means that, for all
its time and effort and investment, the plant breeding company has
managed to make good sales that first year...and that's it.

It was the hope of ARS that if a seed company could see a way that
it could "protect" its research investment--"copyright" their new
seed, if you will--those seed companies might be significantly more
interested in putting for the effort to develop the new varieties
that farmers really need--like crops that can live in very dry areas
or survive on poor-quality water or even worse quality soil.

ARS also develops new varieties of crops...but we can't do it all.
We need the efforts of plant breeding companies, too, to meet
farmers' needs; it was hoped this "technology protection system"
would encourage them to push harder on developing new varieties. 
BUT---important note:  New plant varieties that come out of
ARS--and probably those that come out of land-grant university
systems as well--will NOT contain the "technology protection
system."  It is ARS' mission to serve the public and the needs of
our agricultural community.  As a result, farmers will still
continue to have a wide choice of varieties to plant, with and
without TPS.

Now, to get back on track:  While ARS has a CRADA with DPL, and
while DPL is a co-holder of the patent with ARS, DPL still has to
come to ARS to negotiate a license to market this technology.  This
is a very important point!!   Those negotiations are in the very
early stages...and as those negotiations proceed, ARS will be very
vigilant in protecting the public's interests.  Also, it is ARS
policy that technology in which it has an ownership interest will
be made widely available.  Therefore, this technology will be
freely available for research purposes by public and private
researchers, ensuring that no one seed company will monopolize the

I must point out that I have not heard anyone mention use of this
technology in garden-type crops--only in the very large, mainstream
agricultural crops, such as cotton.  And what our researchers have
told me is that the system basically has to be "custom-designed"
each time for each individual crop; that this is not
"one-size-fits-all" technology, and there's no guarantee it will
even work in all crops...and if it were to work, there's no
guarantee that it would be deemed appropriate for use in all crops.
We're still in very early days here on what and where and how this
technology can and should be used.  For example, we know it works
in cotton--or at least, it seemed to work in lab tests--but the
earliest that anyone expects a commercial cottonseed with this
technology to be on the market is the year 2004.

Even if the technology does work in a specific crop, use of this
technology in individual varieties will require the approval of
various regulatory agencies (ARS is NOT a regulatory agency--we're
strictly a research agency). Commercial production of TPS plants--as
with any genetically engineered plant--would require approval by
USDA's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service, so there's an
important safeguard there; they're not going to allow a crop into
the environment that might "accidentally" pose a threat to another
crop.  So you can rest assured that significant safeguards will be
put into place before this technology pops up in a neighboring
field. Also, if the technology is to be used in a food crop, that
food crop must conform to the rules of the U.S. Food and Drug

One of the great fears concerning transgenic plants--plants that
have genes other than those given to them by Nature--is that those
"transgenes" will somehow "jump" into nature.  With the "technology
protection system," it's virtually guaranteed that that cannot
happen--because while the first-generation transgenic seeds will
produce a plant, the seeds that come off that plant are sterile--so
they absolutely CANNOT "spread" the transgene into other plants.

I think you can safely report to your gardening friends that this
is not going to pose problems for their tomato crops...or their
flower crops...or their watermelon crops, for a number of reasons,
starting with the fact that this is likely to be limited to massive
field crop varieties that will bring in enormous quantities of
income to cover the extensive costs incurred by the plant breeding
company...and secondly, they have agencies like the Animal and
Plant Health Inspection Service whose role it is to ensure that
nothing goes into a field that could endanger other crops.

I'm sorry to have given you such a long-winded answer, but I
wanted you to have all the details.  If you feel you need additional
assistance, please feel free to call me anytime at 301-344-2415
(after Aug. 21, my telephone number will change to 301-504-1636) or
you can e-mail me at shays@asrr.arsusda.gov

Good luck with your gardening!

Sandy Miller Hays
Director of Information
Agricultural Research Service
U.S. Department of Agriculture
Greenbelt, Maryland