Russell D. Hoffman Interviews Biogeneticist H. Alan Wood


Interview with H. Alan Wood of the Boise-Thompson Institute for Plant Research at Cornell University

An interview by Russell D. Hoffman on his radio show HIGH TECH TODAY.

The following full transcript is from a radio show broadcast on radio station WALE. The views expressed are solely those of Russell D. Hoffman and his guest and do not necessarily reflect anyone else's point of view.

February 9th, 1996

Russell Hoffman ("Host"), High Tech Today
H. Alan Wood ("HW"), Bioengineer

Host: ...And you're listening to High Tech Today with your host, Russell Hoffman. If you've been listening to the show you know that we've had a number of environmentalists on the show of one sort or another, and of course on this radio show we believe that technology is one of the solutions to environmental problems.

One of the big problems in agriculture is the use of chemical fertilizers and chemical pesticides. This was first realized probably about forty years ago in a book called Silent Spring by Rachel Carson.

There are not too many good solutions to the problem, because chemical fertilizers and chemical pesticides increase crop yield, and people are starving because there's not enough food, all around the world. So, it's really a tradeoff between "Do we help the environment of tommorrow or do we help citizens of today--people of today?"

One potential silver bullet is something called bioengineered pesticides. And these are--Gee, rather than explain what they are I'm going to introduce my guest. He's H. Alan Wood of the Boise-Thompson Institute for Plant Research at Cornell University. He is also the head of a company called Agrivirion, and he's going to be talking to us about bioengineered pesticides--the good, the bad, and the ugly. And, I'd like to welcome you to the show.

HW: Thank you.

Host: Tell us a little bit, first of all, what kind of technology are we talking about, for the complete lay person, where are we?

HW: Well, biological control is really, is an area where we're trying to use organisms which Mother Nature uses in kind of, maintaining plant pests in kind of ecologically acceptable levels.

In nature, these plant pests don't get out of control under natural conditions, but what's happened is this world has shrunk and all--we have a lot of plant pests moving into new environments just through the normal commerce, and also in agriculture, we've created a very unnatural situation, so the natural balance is no longer the [determinant] force. And what we're trying to do, is try to use some of these agents as alternatives to chemical pesticides, to put things back in check in a more natural way.

Host: Your company is involved in several different technologies that are related to this. Why not tell us a little about--you mentioned two strategies, or two technologies in particular?

HW: Allright. The main problem with Mother Nature's--with what Mother Nature provides to us, is that these biological control agents--for instance I'm working on controlling insect pests. They don't work very fast. They're very slow. And so, you can get a lot of damage continuing to occur with the use of these alternatives to chemicals. And they're also very costly. And, what Agrivarion is involved in is finding ways in which we can produce these biological control agents very cheaply. Costs that are equivalent to chemical pesticides. And at the same time, allow for the genetic improvement of these biopesticides so that they can be much more effective.

The problem with releasing a genetically engineered organism to the environment, as we see it, is you don't know what the ecological consequences are going to be. You know that these genetically improved organisms are very safe to humans. They're not going to cause any problems whatsoever. But we're concerned about ecological problems. So we've developed technology that you can--for instance, you can produce a genetically improved virus, deliver it to the field, it will kill all the insects--and then it will disappear. There's no environmental persistence to it, so therefore there couldn't be any ecological problems associated with it.

Host: What sort of mechanisms cause it to disappear? I mean, is that a chemical breakdown, or do they get eaten [by insects] and then that destroys it?

HW: What we've done is we've looked very carefully at how the virus replicates. And we looked and we saw that it had an Achilles heal. And that if you removed one of the genes, that was required for the persistence of the virus in the environment, that we could eliminate the persistence very easily. In fact we've done field testing with this, we've done three field releases just to test this strategy. We haven't even inserted any new genes, only deleted the one gene that's the Achilles heal. And what we found is that we can't find the virus anymore. It's totally disappeared.

Host: This technology--how long have people actually been developing products that may someday be put in the field?

HW: Well, genetic engineering of plants and organisms to be put into the field really started over twenty years ago. It's only recently that these products are now getting to the point where we can start to use them in agriculture. It's taken a long time to develop them because there are a lot of intricacies. We have to--we have to learn a lot about them, how they work in nature in order to be able to effectively use them as alternatives to chemicals.

Host: I guess last year there was a tomato that was released that was bioengineered?

HW: Ah, yes--the FlavorSaver tomato.

Host: Yeah, that's the one.

HW: What they simply did there is they slowed the--there's a gene that produces a protein that allows the tomato to ripen on the vine. What they did is they decreased the amount of that protein that's being produced that controls ripening. So you can have a very hard red tomato on the vine, as opposed to a soft one. And then they can ship it. And so it's very tasty--like a vine ripened tomato.

Host: Yeah, the only good tomatoes you can get other than something like that are the ones where you go to the farm basically, and pick them out. Because store-bought tomatoes are picked green, and then they're chemically treated--

HW: That's right

Host: --to turn colors. So, that's the kind of breakthrough that we're looking for, almost sort of like Birdseye's frozen peas fifty or 80 years ago. A way to get fresher food to the populace, which actually may have health benefits.

HW: Exactly. One of the things your listeners might be interested in in terms of actually seeing Mother Nature's biological controls in action, is with the Gypsy moths in the Northeastern United States.

Host: It's a devastating problem--...

HW: ...A devastating problem, and if you ever look on a hillside and have seen trees that are completely stripped of all their leaves, if you went in very closely and looked at those trees, what you'd find is instead of--replacing those leaves, are now dead gypsy moth larvae. When all the leaves have disappeared, a virus epidemic takes place, and eliminates all the insects, and that's why the next year, the trees are perfectly healthy and fine.

Host: In that particular instance, it's why trying to fight it is really kind of a losing battle. Eventually it's going to fight itself, but you have to let it get to that stage.

HW: That's right, that's Mother Nature's way of dealing with it. The problem is, in agriculture, you can't allow the crop to be destroyed! You need--and in biological control, what you do is you try to create that virus epizootic--virus epidemic--before all the damage is done. And that's the trick.

Host: And as you mentioned earlier we've really messed with Mother Nature rather substantially, and in many cases it's not taking--things aren't taking effect the way Nature intended them to do so, it may seem like an end-run around the problem, but that's another reason why bioengineered pesticides might be a benefit to the public. You're listening to High Tech Today with your host, Russell Hoffman. My guest today is H. Alan Wood of the Boise-Thompson Institute for Plant Research at Cornell University...


...We're talking about bioengineered pesticides. Gene splicing. Tell us a little bit about how one goes about doing genetic research and actually accomplishing some of these splicing techniques. I mean--you don't do it with a razor!

HW: No, it's done with, actually, at one time, twenty five years ago, a very sophisticated technology but now, technology that high school students can use, for moving genes around. All you need is uh, about $20,000 worth of equipment, and it's very simple, to take--to identify genes in different organisms, and to cut them out using very specific types of enzymes, and then insert them into new organisms.

Host: So the entry-level for this type of research is actually quite low?

HW: Yes it is. Today it is. You can buy kits, and instruction manuals.

Host: Isn't that going to make it more difficult for the EPA to regulate it? If thousands of companies can do it easily, we might have a problem there?

HW: Well, within the laboratories there are a whole host of regulations, in the U.S., that have been overseeing this technology. Ever since it was first invented. And it's worked very successfully, in all instances. And once you move out of the laboratory, into the environment, then there is a multitude of requirements and oversights that take place, most of which I consider really acceptable, and totally appropriate.

Host: Tell us a little bit also about using this type of research to make medications, or new medicine.

HW: Well, yeah. One of the really interesting things is that we're able to--when we genetically engineer viruses to improve their pesticidal properties, we're simply inserting the new gene in, that has a particular type of activity. For biopesticides, you can insert things like a hormone that the insect is only supposed to produce at a particular time, and by inserting it into the virus and the virus inhances this hormone, the insect gets all upset and out of whack.

But you can also insert genes that code for pharmaceutically important products, such as Interferon, for instance. And then when the virus replicates, it makes a huge amount of Interferon also, and there's a lot of commercial interest in it. In fact, the first AIDS vaccine that was used for human testing, was produced using an insect virus.

Host: So, that's another way that bioengineering might actually be saving lives.

Now, the risk that's involved. Tell us a little bit about what different areas there is risk, and what are things that are being done to minimize that risk. Even the 'worst case' scenarios. What are those?

HW: Worst case scenarios. Well, the area that I'm most familiar with in terms of genetic engineering and release have to do with these insect-specific viruses. They only replicate in invertebrates--in [something] without a backbone. And usually only in two or three organisms will one of these viruses replicate.

There's been a lot of testing done on the human issue, in terms of any health problems. There is none. It's absolute.

The problem is, is that we're introducing new organisms to the environment, and what are the potential ecological consequences of that? That's the main issue that we see. And we really don't know enough about the ecological interactions of these viruses, and the environment, to be able to make absolute decisions about their safety.

And that's one of the reasons why we developed a technique whereby the virus won't persist in the environment. And if it's not--if it's only there for a very limited period of time, then its potential interactions with other organisms in the environment are practically nil.

Host: Where do you see this technology going in the future?

HW: Well, it's going to grow enormously. First of all, because of all the environmental health issues associated with it, making it so attractive to farmers. Once we've improved their pesticidal activity and we've reduced their cost, it will be able to compete with chemicals very effectively.

Host: And you're listening to High Tech today...


...My guest, H. Alan Wood of the Boise-Thompson Institute for Plant Research at Cornell University and a researcher in bioengineered pesticides. Why not tell us a little bit about how big this field is now, how fast it's growing, and when you got into it.

HW: When I got into it twenty years ago, quite honestly I thought that the use of insect viruses as pesticides was really not going to happen. But over the years, and particularly due to that fact that we've now genetically improved them, it's obvious that it is a very quickly growing field. Worldwide, there are hundreds of researchers in academia and in industry that are involved in developing these new genetically engineered products.

Host: And the products--there are some on the market now? How common are they becoming? What percentage of farmers, for example, are using them now?

HW: Well, the genetically engineered biopesticides that are being used today are ones which are genetically engineered into plants. For instance, Cotton, which is--and Potatoes, which recently have been released, contain a...toxin, a bacterial toxin, that controls insect pests.

Microbes, such as the viruses that I work with--none of them are commercially available--that are prominent viruses. These are all in the developmental stage, and it will probably be five or six years before we see any of them on the market.

Host: So we're still looking at a very new technology. Is it a good investment area--now, of course, you've got your own company, so maybe that's not a fair question but--are a lot of investors--let's put it this way: Are a lot investors going in that direction? Is it still getting a lot of 'seed' money, if I can use the term?

HW: I think there's a moderate amount. I think right now some of the large chemical companies are starting to put a large amount of money into it. And if some of the new products can 'walk' out of the laboratory into the field for testing I think there will be a lot more investment interest.

Remember, the ag/virotech area is not one--it's one that promised an awful lot in the beginning and it's only, you know, twenty years ago--it's only very recently that it's starting to pay off.

Host: So it hasn't really been that good an investment, for a lot of people, up to this point, but we're perhaps turning a corner? People are getting more and more fed up with chemical--the problems with chemical pesticides, insecticides, and fertilizers.

HW: Oh, definitely. Yes. Another aspect is that a lot of the pesticides that were used several years ago, are no longer available to many of the farmers. Back in 1989 there were 45,000 active products that were registered as pesticides. Since then over 32,000 of them have been dropped!

And the registrations that have been dropped for pesticide usage in...crops, that's all the crops, things that you find in the supermarkets. Those farmers are now looking for new alternatives. They need to find a way to control the pests in the crops. And biological control is a quick, and soon becoming a very cheap and effective, way of solving the problem.

Host: You've mentioned a couple of times that these--the ones that are designed to be released are absolutely not dangerous to human beings. That's very different from chemicals. The farmer is actually at greatest risk from the use of the chemicals. Greater risk than the people that are eating his fruits--he's, you know, pouring tons and tons of this stuff out every season, and it's very dangerous. The things that you're talking about, now they're not necessarily going to be like that. You can hold them, because they don't attack man. They attack the insects.

HW: They only attack insects. In fact, these viruses--the non engineered forms of these viruses, we consume every day in our fresh vegetables. They're out there, Mother Nature is, you know, using them. In fact, it's estimated that in a typical serving of cole slaw, that you consume lets see, a million of these insect viruses.

Host: Insects actually have traditionally used a wide variety of chemical means to attack other insects, and crops and so forth. In fact they're probably nature's first Chemists.

HW: We're exposed to these all the time. And the farmer really loves these, because he doesn't have to take all of the safety precautions--that also cost a great deal of money to [achieve the safety level] that's required for many of these chemicals. It's cheaper and it's easier for him.

Host: Okay. We're just about running out of time, so why not tell us a little bit about your actual corporation. What type of people out there would be interested in contacting your corporation?

HW: Well, people who are interested in new emerging technologies with respect to agriculture.

Host: Would these be large or small farmers?

HW: No, we're not--we're really dealing with the larger production type of thing. Agrivarion is not involved in marketing as such. We're working with larger companies, large enough to do this, because agriculture just doesn't work that well at all--you have to go out and do your own marketing.

Host: You're basically a research institute?

HW: Basically a research and development company. And, we're not only interested in the agricultural applications, but also in the very cheap production of many pharmaceutical type products. And in many instances that's a much more profitable area to be working in.

Host: My guest today has been H. Alan Wood of the Boise-Thompson Institute for Plant Research at Cornell University and also the head of Agrivarion, which is headquartered in New York City...I'd like to thank you very much for being on the show today.

HW: It's been a pleasure, Russell.

Host: Okay, and we've certainly been very interested in learning about this area of High Technology...Thanks everybody for listening...Bye Bye!

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