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

Liz Albrook (
Tue, 17 Nov 1998 16:36:09 +0000

On 17 Nov 98 at 12:00, Margaret Lauterbach wrote:

> I stand corrected, Liz.  I've had that post for at least three
> weeks,a nd should have re-read it.  Margaret

I'm not sure what you stand corrected about -- I just reformatted the 
post to make it legible.  Please note that this post was written by a 
publicist, not a scientist.  I'm responding to it under the 
assumption that a publicist got it right.  (Ha!)

I have one serious reservation without giving the issue much thought 
-- it's the implicit assumption that the only key to fit in the lock 
that turns on sterility in these seeds is tetracycline.  Apparently, 
the "terminator" genes are activated by tetracycline as the designers 
intended.  That does not mean that other chemicals, naturally 
occuring or synthetic, will not turn on the terminator gene.  This is 
a very, very serious issue.

Activation of the genes by tetracycline was, apparently, designed as 
a fail-safe.  The guarantee that "terminator technology" won't escape 
and "destroy life as we know it" is based on the idea that the 
technology won't work unless activated.  If the activator is not 
found in nature then it doesn't matter if the terminator gene escapes 
-- without activation it is harmless.  The idea is that only 
something "exotic", i.e. not found in nature, will activate the gene.

The problem is that there may be more than one chemical that acts
so as to activate the gene.  Another chemical with a shape similar
to part of a tetracycline molecule could, and probably would, act to
activate the gene, too.  There are millions of naturally occuring
chemicals out there along with hundreds of thousands to millions of
synthetic chemicals.  It is likely that in the chemical warehouse
that is Mother Nature there are dozens of chemicals capable of 
turning on the terminator gene.  

In other words, just because tetracycline turns on the terminator 
gene in no way indicates that 1,3,5-triphenylformazan, or some other 
chemical, doesn't turn on the terminator gene.  This lock could have 
dozens of keys, some of which are naturally occuring substances.  I 
don't wonder about the experiments that showed tetracycline turns on 
the gene -- I wonder if they bothered to test more than a dozen of 
the millions of other chemicals out there to discover if they also 
turn on the gene.  After all -- a tomato contains dozens of 
chemicals (many of which are toxic).  Lemons and oranges have seeds 
that sit in the natural equivalent of an acid vat.  There are 
alkaline soils and aquifers in the western US and goodness knows what 
conditions in other places on earth, including temperature and 
humidity extremes.  So millions of chemicals could come into contact 
with terminator seeds under dozens of different conditions and 
different pHs for differing periods of time.  Talk about the way to 
run a lottery!  I wouldn't really want to bet that the only working 
key for terminator technology is tetracycline applied at the seed 

The fail-safe to prevent the spread of the effects of the terminator 
gene is, by my way of thinking, insufficient on it's surface.  As a 
chemist, based on what little information I've gotten, I couldn't 
support releasing this technology.

Perhaps, instead of the pandering pap about growing food in harsh 
conditions for starving people -- what we're offered here as a reason 
for considering this sort of technology -- good old Uncle Sam could 
come up with a way to get people to practice birth control.  That way 
we could grow plenty of food on the good, arable land that exists in 
moderate climactic areas.  And people could have lots of fun doing 
the research, too.

Heck, call me a lunatic idealist and invite me to dinner with 
Florence King, but I think there are way more people on this planet 
than we need (as well as way, way too many people that Ms. King 
wouldn't want to dine with).  We need less people, more biodiversity 
and more open spaces.

chemist in retirement