PORTLAND, Ore. – Grass that was genetically engineered for golf courses is growing in the wild, posing one of the first threats of agricultural biotechnology escaping from the farm in the United States, a new study says.
Creeping bentgrass was engineered to resist the popular herbicide Roundup to allow more efficient weed control on golf courses. But the modified grass could spread that resistance to the wild, becoming a nuisance itself, scientists say.
"This is not a killer tomato, this is not the asparagus that ate Cleveland," said Norman Ellstrand, a geneticist and plant expert at the University of California, Riverside, referring to science-fiction satires about mutant plants.
But Ellstrand noted the engineered bentgrass has the potential to affect more than a dozen other plant species that could also acquire resistance to Roundup, or glyphosate, which he considers a relatively benign herbicide.
Such resistance could force land managers and government agencies like the U.S. Forest Service, which relies heavily on Roundup, to switch to "nastier" herbicides to control grasses and weeds, Ellstrand said.
Spokesmen for both companies said they had been expecting the results of the study, to be published in the journal Molecular Ecology.
"We've been working to mitigate it," said Jim King, spokesman for Ohio-based Scotts. "Now we're down to maybe a couple dozen plants."
King said seed from a test plot escaped several years ago while it was drying following harvest in the Willamette Valley, home to most of the U.S. grass seed industry and the world's largest producer of commercial grass varieties.
The main question now, King says, is whether the government will allow commercial use of the experimental bentgrass for golf courses.
"Eradicating it has not been a difficult issue," King said. "The only difference between the turf seed we're working to produce and naturally occurring varieties is that it has a gene resistant to this specific herbicide [Roundup]."
The engineered bentgrass is under review by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which published a "white paper" in June that assessed the threat but did not reach any conclusions — leaving that for an environmental impact statement being prepared by the department's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service.
But the USDA review paper noted that glyphosate is "the most extensively used herbicide worldwide," and that creeping bentgrass and several of the species that can form hybrids with it "can be weedy or invasive in some situations."
In 2003, the International Center for Technology Assessment in Washington, D.C., filed a federal lawsuit seeking to halt development of genetically engineered bentgrass. The suit is still pending, a USDA spokeswoman said.
The latest study was done by U.S. Environmental Protection Agency scientists based at Oregon State University.
Jay Reichman, an EPA ecologist and lead author, was not available Wednesday. But he has said there is a possibility the engineered strain could persist in the wild.
"There could be consequences," said Steven Strauss, who heads the biotechnology issues analysis program at Oregon State.
"But they're not catastrophic because there are Roundup resistant species out there — I have them in my back yard right now," Strauss added.
He noted that scientists have been dealing with genetically engineered corn and soybeans for years, but those crops do not pose the airborne seed problems faced by commercial grass seed growers.
Ultimately, Strauss said, development of the engineered grass may be an economic question rather than a biological issue — whether it could affect the cost of agriculture and weed control.
"And that's very difficult because this is in a gray zone," Strauss said.