Corrections or additions?
These articles by Barbara Fox were prepared for the December 6,
2000 edition of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.
Genetic Crops: Tinkering With Our Greens
Jane E. Brody, science writer for the New York Times,
compares the current furor over genetically modified crops to the
brouhaha initially raised over magnetic resonance imaging or MRIs.
When MRIs were first introduced, they had the unfortunate name of
NMRs (nuclear magnetic resonance). Even though the nucleus referred
to was the nucleus of a cell, not a bomb-producing energy source,
this term unnecessarily frightened the public. Seventy percent of
the public, Brody writes in a December 5 New York Times column,
of using biotechnology in food and agriculture, yet those same people
oppose the use of genetically modified (GM) foods.
When it comes to GM foods, agrobusiness is in a holding pattern, at
least for now. The big companies — Novartis, Monsanto,
American Cyanamid — are merging or threatening to merge, and
consumers have signaled American consumers to be worried about
dangers of GM crops. Though scientists need to make long-term plans
— it takes a long time to develop a new strain, grow it, test
it, and get approvals — they find themselves at least partially
hamstrung by uncertainties.
One new R&D company at Princeton Corporate Plaza on Route 1, ignoring
this controversy for the moment, hopes to dramatically speed up the
development of genetically modified plants. Icon Genetics Inc. is
working on a botanical genetic tool kit, one that will create a
operating system to streamline development of new plants.
It has recently secured new financing of $12 million. These investment
and matching funds, which should take the company through the second
quarter of 2002, are coming from government sources in Germany (the
Bavarian Ministry of Economy, Traffic, and Technology) and from the
Audax Group, which has offices in New York, Boston, and Los Angeles.
Icon Genetics incorporated in February, 1999, opened labs here last
April, and now has 12 employees at 1 Deer Park Drive. It has also
established labs in Germany, one outside of Munich and another outside
of Leipzig, in Halle.
Icon Genetics’ tagline is "gene management for the post genomics
era." But the firm is not developing any particular strain of
plant, says Newell Bascomb, the president. Its methods are not
and, in fact, the interchangeability of its technology is reflected
in its name, which represents the "icon" of Windows-based
Like software, when it was available only on floppy disks, plant
is in a early stage of development, says Bascomb. Before today’s
was developed, personal electronic equipment required a different
machine for each operation. You had to switch floppy disks for each
new operation. But under the Windows operating system, there are a
number of programs in each computer, and you can click on an icon
to make the computer do what you want to do.
It’s the same with plant gene manipulation. "Now, when a plant
goes out to the field, it has a set of traits in it, but that’s all
it has," he says. "If you want that plant to do something
different, it is a long process. A lot of companies are doing gene
sequencing and gene identification, but moving a gene into
important crops is the longest process, especially to get it into
many varieties. Corn and soybean have 500 varieties in U.S.
In fact, moving a gene into a commercially important crop can take
five to seven years with traditional methods, and genes are not easily
transferred to the commercial "elite" varieties. "We have
developed new tools for rapidly moving genes into the elite line,"
How it works: The researchers add DNA, transforming the cells with
a gene gun or an electrical current. They culture the transformed
cells in a petri dish containing a growth medium. In this growth
is a selective agent that allows only the transformed cells to grow.
Under the right conditions the new plantlets can grow from these
cells — as pictured on the cover of this issue.
"Our research has gone very well," says Bascomb. He declines
to disclose the firm’s proprietary methods, but some of the technology
was licensed from inventors in Kiev and Germany through Yuri Gleba,
whom he met at a former employer, American Cyanamid. "We have
four patents filed and many more in progress," says Bascomb. "Two
technologies that allowed us to get started were licensed from the
International Institute of Cell Biology in the Ukraine." Gleba
was director of the institute. Valentin Negrouk and Gerald Hall are
the group leaders and Lynne Watkins is the site manager.
Bascomb grew up on Long Island, where his father had a dry cleaning
store and his mother worked in the public school system. He went to
Juniata College in Huntingdon, Pennsylvania, Class of 1978, and has
a master’s degree from Virginia Tech and a PhD from the University
of Florida. He had worked at Enichem Americas at Jersey Metroplex
and at American Cyanamid on Route 1, where he was doing crop
chemical screens. In the late 1990s he had a sideline company, Mercer
Datasafe, a Lawrenceville-based automatic remote computer backup
and disaster recovery planning firm.
Yes, there is controversy about bioengineered plants, Bascomb admits,
and the most virulent fuss centers on StarLink, a new strain of corn
developed by Aventis CropScience. StarLink contains a bacterial
that could conceivably produce an allergic reaction in some people,
and it was not approved for human consumption. Experts such as Brody
are concerned about introducing possible food allergens and note that
it is hard to predict how new proteins will affect those with
A coalition of environmental and consumer groups discovered that the
company had allowed StarLink to make its way into yellow taco shells,
and the resulting scandal paralyzed U.S. exports of corn crops.
Opposition from Europe may restrict use of the technology in locations
where improving food production is not a matter of lifestyle choice
but of need. "I am surprised at the intense reaction in
says Michael Moynihan of Interlink Biotechnologies, an R&D consulting
group at Montgomery Commons. "The United States response is more
lackadaisical, that there might be something to worry about. The
in Europe seems to be `even if the risk is trivial, we just don’t
need it.’ They don’t even want to discuss the issue, versus maybe
it should be labeled but it is probably still OK. The fear of being
shut out of European markets is putting the brakes on GM crops
At least partly in response to what is being called
the New Luddite movement, Monsanto Corporation (an Aventis competitor)
recently issued a major policy statement, admitting it had not paid
enough attention to consumer concerns and will go forward in a
But Bascomb believes that, down the road, when the agricultural
industry brings more products to market, the so-called New Luddites
will see how helpful these products are.
He gets agreement from Peter Day, director of the biotechnologies
center for agriculture and the environment at Rutgers Cook College
(E-mail: Day@aesop.rutgers.edu). "All of the basic information
is that GM crops are safe. There is no evidence that they are
says Day. "The apparent difficulties with genetically engineered
crops are going to disappear. I see the application of biotechnology
to plant improvement as something that is inevitable, and there are
going to be an increasingly large variety of ways of doing it."
Day is, nevertheless, pessimistic about Icon Genetics’ technology.
"I don’t see how they can ensure getting the information into
the plant each time." He also points out that getting the gene
into the plant is just the first part of the process. The plant still
must be grown and tested. "However you have made a new plant,
you have to show it is any good by the same techniques that any
would use," says Day.
Michael Lawton, an associate professor at the Cook College biotech
center, is more sanguine. He notes that products already on the market
are based on approaches that are 15 or 20 years old. One technique
is to use a bacterium that can deliver the gene into the nucleus.
Another is to use a gene gun. But to use these techniques for
a particular gene to a particular site is a clunky process. The
must modify the plant so it has a "docking" site. "You
put the complementary DNA pieces on your gene," Lawton explains,
"and it will preferentially go to the docking site." This
conversion takes time and must be repeated with each new plant
but it is essential. "If you know where the gene goes, you don’t
have to worry about it disrupting other genes," says Lawton.
"It takes a long time, a lot of effort and labor, to make
plants and it is very expensive," says Lawton. "Time is the
problem. It would be nice to more easily and directly introduce the
gene you are interested in — to cut to the chase, to go straight
to the variety that will be grown. If you speed things up you reduce
the cost. If you reduce the cost, you can apply it to many more
This small company is one among many who are working on this problem.
"Probably all the major companies have programs to deliver genes
to particular places within the chromosomes, for the purposes of
and regulation," says Lawton.
"People here understand the urgency. If we don’t produce these
tools, somebody else will do it," says Bascomb. "We know if we
are not inventive and hardworking in a couple of years we won’t be
— Barbara Fox
Research Center, Suite C, Monmouth Junction 08852. Newell Bascomb,
president. 732-329-1600; fax, 732-329-1616. Home page:
Several big companies and a handful of small ones in
the Princeton area are doing research on genetic manipulation for
crops. Celgro, the agro-division of the pharmaceutical company
is not in this category, strictly speaking, because it is engineering
genes for herbicides, not the actual plant material. Neither BASF
(formerly American Cyanamid) nor FMC Corp. are particularly anxious
to reveal what they are working on.
In fact, the agricultural biotechnology that Cyanamid was doing at
the Quakerbridge Road site are being moved to Raleigh, North Carolina,
where BASF’s Plant Science division is located. This transfer should
take place by the end of the year, says Susan O’Connor, communications
manager for BASF Corporation. The subject is so fraught with
that O’Connor declines even to define agriculture biotechnology,
only that it is "an extremely small part" of Cyanamid’s
in Princeton. "What we have always concentrated on," she says,
"is developing insecticides, herbicides, fungicides."
Interlink Biotechnologies at Montgomery Commons, however, has some
important expansion news. Interlink’s Michael Moynihan is relocating
to Santiago, Chile, where he will be the vice president of research
at BioGenetic, a joint venture between Interlink and a nonprofit tech
transfer organization named Fundacion Chile. This company is doing
genetic engineering of fruit trees and forestry trees.
Another high profile firm has strong connections to the Forbes family
and is already public. Senesco Technologies based its initial
on work being done in Canada to extend the shelf-life of produce.
"We have demonstrated the efficacy and the proof of concept of
our technology by extending the shelf life of a tomato by 100
says Steven Katz, president.
His office on Chambers Street has six people plus the nine people
at the University of Waterloo in Toronto, where the scientific work
is being done. Katz, who joined the company last January, went to
City College of New York, Class of 1969, and has a master’s degree
from CCNY. He is negotiating licenses and strategic alliances with
more than a half dozen major companies and is "not very far from
closing alliances on two or three."
Among the Princeton-area agricultural research firms:
Quakerbridge Road, Box 400, Princeton 08543-0400; Jurgen Odeweme,
agricultural and biotechnology research, a subsidiary of BASF. Founded
1907. Phone: 609-716-2000. Home page: www.basf.com
08543-0008; chemical research and development, agricultural chemical
and chemical products group divisions (ACG and CPG) of firm based
in Wayne, New Jersey. Founded 1886. Richard Police, facility director.
Staff size: 450. Phone: 609-951-3000.
of New Jersey II, North Brunswick 08902; agrochemical research and
development, gene engineering for better herbicides. wholly owned
subsidiary of Celgene Corporation. Founded 1996. George W. Matcham,
senior vice president, Celgro. Staff size: 20. Square feet: 18,000.
Phone: 732-509-2020. Home page: www.celgene.com.
Commons, Princeton 08540; biotechnology assessment, planning and
also microbial products and services with InterLink Microbials
agribusiness. Founded 1991. Ramon L. Garcia, president. Staff size:
5. Square feet: 2,000. Phone: 609-252-0446. Home page:
Plaza, Monmouth Junction 08852; use of plants for nutritional mineral
supplements, formerly Phytotech (U.S. 1, January 19, 2000). Founded
1992. Burt Ensley, CEO. Staff size: 5. Square feet: 5,000. Phone:
200, Lawrenceville 08648; technology transfer (licensing) of hybrid
corn, genetics, and genes. Founded 1989. Bob Teweles, president. Staff
size: 2. Phone: 609-896-3200.
08540; agrobiotechnology — developing gene technology to extend
the shelf-life of produce (U.S. 1, January 19, 2000). Ruedi Stalder,
chairman and CEO. Phone: 609-252-0680. Home page:
Junction 08852. Ernest Sobkow, business manager. 732-329-1225; fax,
732-329-1226. Home page: www.chemspeed.com.
Ernest Sobkow has opened a sales office and laboratory for a chemical
synthesizer manufacturing company that is based in Basel, Switzerland.
Typically these chemical synthesizers are used for combinatorial
medicinal chemistry, or in process development. "New Jersey is
a nice place to be for pharmaceuticals and specialty chemicals, such
as Merck, Dow Chemical, and DuPont, and we also serve material
"This machine is novel in that it can do very difficult chemistry
and a wide variety of things," says Sobkow. The key attribute
of Chemspeed’s apparatus is the ability to do multi-step chemistry
— both solution and solid phase chemistry. "The number of
steps you can use is infinite," says Sobkow, "but the more
steps you have, the fewer samples you can use."
Cost? From $25,000 up to $250,000. The lower priced system is manual,
compared to the top end, which is automated. "It allows us to
synthesize compounds, work them up, and send to an interfacing
for purification or analysis, all without intervention from a human
hand. You can do that all on one platform without intervention,"
The son of a tool and die maker, Sobkow went to Allentown College
of St. Francis, Class of 1973, and has a master’s degree from the
University of Scranton. He worked in sales for the Waters Corporation
in Morristown before opening this New Jersey office.
How it works: First put the necessary reagents in their proper
Then tell the computer where those reagents are, how to mix them,
how long, and at what temperature. Then "work them up,"
the desired compound and doing some preliminary cleanup, which
involves some type of extraction. This apparatus can also do the
— solid, liquid, or evaporation.
The company employs a total of 44 people, including those in
and the United Kingdom. "We are pretty new in the market —
we only started selling this instrument only last year," says
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