The Nonsense About Frostban

It sounded like an experiment that was all a molecular biologist could hope for. It had a noble purpose (the protection of nutritionally important fruits and vegetables), it was of great scientific elegance and theoretical interest, and it was perfectly safe. It went like this. Take a common saprophytic bacterium, present in food, water and soil, and remove one of its 200-odd genes. Grow the organism in pure culture, spread it on plants that are harboring the wild type, and PRESTO! the massive

May 18, 1987
Thomas Jukes
It sounded like an experiment that was all a molecular biologist could hope for. It had a noble purpose (the protection of nutritionally important fruits and vegetables), it was of great scientific elegance and theoretical interest, and it was perfectly safe.

It went like this. Take a common saprophytic bacterium, present in food, water and soil, and remove one of its 200-odd genes. Grow the organism in pure culture, spread it on plants that are harboring the wild type, and PRESTO! the massive culture of the engineered organism will prevent frost damage. The wild type of the organism contains the missing gene, but sometimes strains occur in nature without the gene. Therefore, nothing new is being turned loose into the environment, and surely no one should be worried.

Add to this the facts that an organism with one gene missing will be weakened by the omission, that strains with the gene are now being used to make ice in snow machines at ski resorts, that a bucketful of ordinary dirt contains about 8 trillion bacteria of the same genus (Pseudomonas), and that the engineered strain has been fully tested for safety in laboratory animals according to government requirements. Note also that the practice of adding bacteria to the environment has been customary for about 100 years. For example, nitrogen-fixing bacteria are mixed with clover and alfalfa seeds before sowing them. Remember, too, that we live with many facultatively pathogenic bacteria, even in our own intestines, and that these are not injurious unless we get them into a deep cut.

But environmentalist hysteria intervened, and anti-science activists successfully fought the outdoor testing of ice-minus pseudomonas (trademarked as Frostban) for more than a year. In January 1986, they alleged that one-celled organisms can cause "more death and destruction than all the wars we have ever fought," that the research that created this technology is morally bankrupt, and that "it is not for scientists, bureaucrats and industrialists to play God" Jeremy Rifkin, of the Foundation on Economic Trends, alleged that the modified bacteria "may decrease rainfall." Such steamy eloquence was successful in Monterey County, Calif., and local authorities cancelled a test on flowering strawberry plants by the firm that developed ice-minus, Advanced Genetic Sciences (AGS).

Following this sethack, AGS chose Brentwood, in Contra Costa County, Calif., for the test. This time, AGS worked diligently to explain the proposal to people in the community by means of town meetings and question-and-answer sessions. This proved to be very important. On April 12, the Contra Costa Times published a hard-hitting editorial that sounded like an echo of the distant past, of the era before the present age of environmental piety. It derided an environmentalist who suggested that, following the test, "clouds will mutate and migrate and multiply," and ended by saying that if mankind hadn't attempted to better itself by means of science and technology, the protesters would still be wearing loincloths.

Berkeley Greens, a group of environmental extremists, returned to the fray in April and dished up a fresh portion of mumbojumbo. They alleged that AGS had "removed genes from a common bacteria which is found ubiquitously in nature." These genes "cause the bacteria to form certain membranes around their cell proteins. When the genes are gone, so are the prothins."

The fantasy continued, "one of the bacterium [sic] being altered by AGS causes diseases in humans with impaired immune systems. People undergoing chemotherapy, radiation treatments, victims of AIDS, the elderly, people with transplanted organs, and anyone severely affected by the environmental stresses of modern life, is at risk." It was said that "the ubiquity of naturally occurring bacteria is the reason why no plants are allowed into certain areas of hospitals" and that "also at risk was an endangered primrose of great beauty." One might ask why it would not be a good idea to remove the membranes of these dangerous bacteria by means of genetic engineering!

The San Francisco Chronicle reported on April 15 that "the local citizenry were willing to throw their bodies down to prevent this test" and on April 25 that, confronted with these terrors, some timorous people left town. One family "abandoned their home 4 miles from the test site, and moved into a distant hotel until their 'money runs out'." On April 15 the Oakland Tribune published a photograph of a leading dissident, Andy Caffrey, and quoted him as saying 'It's shocking. It's a scandal." The article's sole contribution to scientific information was the erroneous statement that "scientists … changed the shape of a commonly found bacterium to prevent the formation of frost." The author informed us that "people were worried about their children."

The objectors went to court in Sacramento to apply for an injunction against the test, which was denied April 23. The test, scheduled for dawn on April 24, became a media event that drew an audience of about 70 reporters and photographers from all over the world. The audience was not disappointed, for during the night the protesters had turned to vandalism. While three security guards slumbered in their trailer, a hole was cut in the chain link fence surrounding the test plot and 2,200 of the 2,400 strawberry plants were uprooted.

The next morning, Caffrey appeared on the scene and announced that "I'm scared to death. I haven't the faintest idea what will happen, and I'm scared." Apparently, he wasn't sufficiently scared to stay home. He told reporters that he approved of the vandalism and that "this whole thing is a travesty. These people, they're mad scientists.

They're playing with a fundamental building block of nature … DNA is no less dangerous than radiation." The TV cameras showed him walking through the field, deliberately trampling on a row of strawberry plants instead of walking between the rows. One hopes that this destructive behavior by the leader of the Berkeley Greens was noted by gardeners and farmers who watched.

On April 3, FDA Commissioner Frank Young said, "Let me try to correct the impression, widesprea4 among the public, that the 'experts' are in sharp disagreement over the hazards of research in this field. As Bernard Davis said, 'the problem is to recognize who are the experts.' There should not be any scientific controversy over field trials of the recombinant DNA manipulated ice-minus pseudomonas."

The history of science—from Galileo to Lavoisier to Darwin to the present day— includes struggles against hostility, fear and sabotage. One can only hope we have just witnessed a setback for environmental vandalism. The public is greatly interested in and concerned about biotechnology, and deserves the best information on genetic engineering. We must deplore and expose nonsense that is calculated to frighten.

Jukes is professor of biophysics at the University of California, Berkeley, 6701 San Pablo Ave., Oakland, CA 94608.