Did you hear about the GMO that almost destroyed all life?

Once upon a time, way back in 1990, a German company modified the genetics of a bacterium so it could efficiently ferment plant waste, turning the material into ethanol. There was, the story goes, just one problem: the bacteria, Klebsiella planticola, “almost killed the world with booze,” according to an article on Cracked.

Earth Island Journal took a less sarcastic tack, quoting retired genetics professor and now environmental activist David Suzuki:

Geneticist David Suzuki understands that what took place was truly ominous. “The genetically engineered Klebsiella,” he says, “could have ended all plant life on this continent. The implications of this single case are nothing short of terrifying.

This story has become an occasionally arising myth, with articles that appear every few years bolstering anti-GMO activists’ views that anything transgenic or otherwise modified is at least bad for your health, bad for the environment, or perhaps fatal.

Now, in the wake of President Obama signing into effect a federal law that will mandate labeling food containing GMOs, the myth has returned.

According to an Op-Ed in Truth-Out.com, which expressed disappointment in the new law as well as shock at the discovery of unapproved GM wheat in a Washington field, these two events illustrated the hazards of genetic modification. According to the Truth-Out writers, these events:

Should set off some alarm bells, because we’ve dodged a similar bullet before with Klebsiella planticola, a soil bacteria that aggressively grows on plants’ roots.

In the early 1990s, a European genetic engineering company was preparing to field test its genetically modified version of Klebsiella planticola, which it had tested in the lab and presumed to be safe. But if it weren’t for the work of a team of independent scientists led by Dr. Elaine Ingham, that company could have literally killed every terrestrial plant on the planet.

A turn of events

So, what did happen? Scientists and engineers have been spending decades looking at new ways to handle plant waste, which can become rich material for soil amendments, or can be fermented into other chemicals, including ethanol, and turned into biofuels. In fact, the Klebsiella planticola bacterium (which is now called Raoultella planticola after scientists re-examined the members of Klebsiella), has been studied for its ability to create ethanol from decaying plant material.

As the story goes, a German company had received U.S. Environmental Protection Agency permission to conduct field trials on the amended bacterium, called SDF20, which had a plasmid (a short loop of DNA) inserted into its genome. This plasmid contained a gene for an enzyme, pyruvate decarboxylase that allowed SDF20 to ferment plant waste to ethanol.

This trial caught the attention of Elaine Ingham, a Green Party member who was then a scientist on the faculty of Oregon State University. In testimony to the New Zealand Royal Commission on Genetic Engineering, Ingham said that her graduate student, Michael Holmes, “discovered that the engineered bacterium, Klebsiella planticola, with an additional alcohol gene, killed all the wheat plants in microcosms into which the engineered organisms were added.”

The engineered bacterium produces far beyond the required amount of alcohol per gram soil than required to kill any terrestrial plant. This could have been the single most devastating impact on human beings since we should likely have lost corn, wheat, barley, vegetable crops, trees, bushes, etc., conceivably all terrestrial plants.

To back this up, she cited a paper co-written with Holmes, published in 1999 in Applied Soil Ecology. The news of this was picked up the Green Party members of the European Parliament, and a number of other activists who touted how the discovery underscored the grave planetary danger of GMOs.

The Greens rescue world from GMOs?

According to a very recent article in Organics.org, the Green Party activists and scientists saved us all in the nick of time:

This new miracle GMO had all the necessary approvals to be commercialized and it was going to be. However, a team of independent scientists led by Dr. Elaine Ingham remained skeptical and luckily so. They discovered after some testing what the bacteria is actually capable of doing and after exposing the results the gene-altered bacteria was never commercialized. If not for their efforts, there is no doubt that this would have ended the world.

Scientists call shenanigans on GMO doomsday plant

Related article:  Plant scientists: Anti-GMO activism has warped the public's understanding of biotechnology

But problems with her and Holmes’ story began. In a rebuttal to Ingham’s testimony, Christian Walter, with Forest Research Institute in Rotorua, New Zealand, Michael Berridge, of the Malaghan Institute of Medical Research in Wellington, and David Tribe, of the University of Melbourne, Australia, wrote that:

  • The paper she and Holmes wrote with their results actually doesn’t exist (the volume and page numbers were false, and no other citation can be found).
  • Another paper, also by Holmes, Ingham and other colleagues, was cited later (after the rebuttal was published), but this paper reviewed the growth of spring wheat in poor, sandy soil that had been inoculated with the SDF20 strain of K. planticola. Not anything resembling grounds for worldwide plant Armageddon.
  • There was no evidence from the EPA or the US Department of Agriculture that any field trials for SDF20 were ever approved.
  • The SDF20 produced about 20 micrograms per milliliter of alcohol in the soil. “This concentration is several hundred times lower than that required to affect plant growth (10 milligrams per milliliter),” they wrote.

The scientists concluded then, that:

Dr Ingham’s assertions have been published widely on the Internet and elsewhere. However, we have been unable to find any evidence that Dr Ingham has submitted her assertions about threats to terrestrial plant life to scientific publication in a peer-reviewed journal.

Our own literature search and resulting evidence further demonstrates that natural alcohol producing varieties of Klebsiella planticola already exist, and are routinely found in nature; however, no adverse consequences of this alcohol production on any organisms including plants have been observed.

In fact, the studies on K. planticola (R. planticola today), showed that the new strain could not survive in poor soil, which probably wrote a death sentence not for the world, but for the commercial viability of a modified form of R. planticola.

As for Dr. Ingham, who went from Oregon State to the Rodale Institute and now runs a soil management consulting company called SoilFoodWeb, she and the Green Party apologized to the New Zealand Royal Commission:

The Green Party incorrectly cited a paper that is has since discovered…does not exist.

There are no records indicating that field testing approval was ever given.

The Green Party would like to request that the commission disregard the final sentence in paragraph 30, recognize that this statement goes beyond the published literature. (This was Ingham’s assertion that SDF20 would kill all plant life on earth).

In her apology, Ingham said:

I was incorrect in stating that the specifically genetically engineered Klebsiella planticola I was talking about had been approved for field trials and was going to be released.

I would like to make clear that the possibility of destruction of terrestrial plants that I referred to as an outcome of releasing this organism is an extrapolation from the laboratory evidence. It is one possible scenario. There are other possible scenarios which could occur; we need more data to be able to make a clear judgement on the most likely outcome.

Any data would have been nice. And today, we still have plants. And GMOs. And alcohol.

Andrew Porterfield is a writer, editor and communications consultant for academic institutions, companies and non-profits in the life sciences. He is based in Camarillo, California. Follow @AMPorterfield on Twitter.

9 thoughts on “Did you hear about the GMO that almost destroyed all life?”

  1. Thanks, Mr. Porterfield. This genetically altered bacterium was supposed to turn plant waste into ethanol. What would be the purpose of using it in a farm field where the alcohol would just go to waste? I guess the antis think it would have escaped the ethanol tanks and spread on its own. Oh well, false alarm AGAIN. I can remember I was sandbagged with this bogus near-doomsday story some time ago. I can’t remember where it was, though. I wish I could find it and rub the comment writer’s nose in it.

  2. I had forgotten about this hoax. It is probably a large part of the basis for Taleb’s hyperbolic statements about the risks of GMOs. That is, if he even is aware of this incident.

  3. This story certainly is sweet irony.

    You see, green fanatics have, for about a decade now, indulged a futile dream of “cellulosic ethanol” – that is ethanol for fuel fermented from cellulose. To adapt this technology at a commercial scale, of course, was so far-fetched that to this day only a couple of commercial cellulosic ethanol plants have been brought on line, those require the most particular source of cellulose (corn cobs) to function, and the scale of this production has fallen far, far short of expectations. After a decade of frantic farting around (and a pantsload of wishful thinking, bogus promises, and…wait for it…grant money & subsidies) the whole cellulosic fermentation thing is a flash in the pan. If such a bacterium as the Klebsiella described had actually existed it would have been the godsend greens were dreaming of…but, of course, no such thing existed.

    So what are fanatic green ethanol promoters to do? Easy, just call for an interim technology to take up the slack until the magic of cellulosic fermentation can be conjured up. That interim technology was ethanol fermented from grain – wheat and corn, principally. Next came the ethanol mandates for gasoline and the legendary upswing in corn production for ethanol production — a practice that is hated by greens, a practice that flourishes to this day and that shows every indication of continuing into the indefinite future.

    Congratulations, greens! You hypocritical dumbasses are so shallow, myopic and out of touch with reality that you get suckered at every turn. This is the true promise of “green energy” — we can look forward to more costly fiascos courtesy of green dreamers who know not their ass from a hole in the ground. But, what they lack in studied intelligence they more than make up for in impetuous wishful thinking…so, there’s that, anyway.

      • Naw Gra, what I’ve missed, apparently is how much biofuel from algae is flowing into the market, displacing fossil fuels. So, Gra, how many million gallons per year of affordable algal biofuel are being produced and marketed commercially? Yeah, I thought so. Well then, how much grant & subsidy funding has flowed into the development of algal biofuels during the past 20 years, and how much is slated to be spent in the next 5 years, next 10 years? Ah, now that’s a number a lot of alternative fuel nerds are acutely aware of, since competing for that big money has been their livelihood during the past 20 years, wow – for nearly a working lifetime!.

        See, this is another fatal flaw in the greens’ wet dreams. They dream up these fanciful “alternatives”, they fund the bejeezus out of ’em with taxpayer money, they staff the research with eccentric secretive narrow minded politician-tinkerers, and they perpetually gush on about the marvelous “potential” of their pet alternative…all that’s required to unlock that amazing world-changing “potential” is a vast steady stream of research funding…year after year after decade after decade…and what do we have to show for all of it after all this time? Yeah, I thought so.

        And therein lies another sweet irony. These greens literally live and breath the boundless imaginary “potential” of projects that have not lived up to ANY of the hype and that will never be successfully commercialized for a multitude of obvious reasons. And they are enthralled, delighted…and lavishly employed by all this. However, consider genetic engineering, a technology that has been successfully commercialized and that truly does hold impressive real world “potential” but in this instance anti-GMO cranks (who invariably are also greens) insist GE should be stopped at once because it has not lived up to ALL the hype! What a bunch of friggin’ hypocrites!!

        BTW Gra, algal production of biofuels is not remotely the same thing as cellulosic fermentation, so your remark was off-topic. But I took the trouble to set you straight anyway, ’cause somebody has to do it. Heh, “big news”…”growing industry”…heh, heh, you sound just like a huckster for the puny organic industry, Gra. Damned bunch of fakers, charlatans, fraudsters, mountebanks. All of ’em.

  4. “Dr Ingham’s assertions have been published widely on the Internet and elsewhere. However, we have been unable to find any evidence that Dr Ingham has submitted her assertions about threats to terrestrial plant life to scientific publication in a peer-reviewed journal.”

    This is unfortunately a common MO for Dr. Ingham, who for decades has sold the fantasy of aerated compost tea for plant disease control. We were assured that peer-reviewed publications were just around the corner. Twenty years later and we’re still waiting. Meanwhile Extension faculty like myself have to continually battle this “proven science” with credulous gardeners and landscape professionals world wide.

    If you have access to them, do a literature search in the appropriate databases (AGRICOLA, Web of Science, and CABI). Search for Ingham as author, and (compost) AND (extract* OR tea* OR leachate*) for topics. You’ll find a total of 5 articles: 3 from Biocycle, an industry magazine (no peer review), 1 in IPM Practitioner (a newsletter in same category as Biocycle), and 1 vanity press book. Which she sells.

    Be careful, Andrew. Dr. Ingham and her acolytes have a habit of going after her detractors…

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