Genetically Altered Bacteria Are Released into the Environment Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Scientists in California sprayed strawberry plants with genetically altered bacteria to improve the plants’ resistance to freezing, marking the first deliberate release of genetically altered organisms in the United States.

Summary of Event

On Friday, April 24, 1987, at 6:30 a.m., shortly after California Superior Court judge Darrel W. Lewis dismissed the last legal objections, scientists from Advanced Genetic Sciences, Incorporated Advanced Genetic Sciences, Incorporated (AGS), of Oakland, California, spread a mixture of genetically altered bacteria dubbed Frostban on strawberries in a small plot in Contra Costa County, California. This was the first deliberate release of a genetically altered organism in the United States to be sanctioned by the Environmental Protection Agency Environmental Protection Agency;genetically altered organisms (EPA). Steven Lindow, a plant pathologist at the University of California, Berkeley, conducted his own release of a genetically altered bacterium on April 29, 1987, on a potato plot near Tule Lake, California. Biotechnology Bacteria, genetically altered Agriculture;biotechnology Ice-minus bacteria[Ice minus bacteria] Genetic engineering Recombinant DNA technology Frostban [kw]Genetically Altered Bacteria Are Released into the Environment (Apr. 24, 1987) [kw]Bacteria Are Released into the Environment, Genetically Altered (Apr. 24, 1987) [kw]Environment, Genetically Altered Bacteria Are Released into the (Apr. 24, 1987) Biotechnology Bacteria, genetically altered Agriculture;biotechnology Ice-minus bacteria[Ice minus bacteria] Genetic engineering Recombinant DNA technology Frostban [g]North America;Apr. 24, 1987: Genetically Altered Bacteria Are Released into the Environment[06440] [g]United States;Apr. 24, 1987: Genetically Altered Bacteria Are Released into the Environment[06440] [c]Science and technology;Apr. 24, 1987: Genetically Altered Bacteria Are Released into the Environment[06440] [c]Genetics;Apr. 24, 1987: Genetically Altered Bacteria Are Released into the Environment[06440] [c]Environmental issues;Apr. 24, 1987: Genetically Altered Bacteria Are Released into the Environment[06440] Lindow, Steven Rifkin, Jeremy Sirica, John J.

The release of genetically altered organisms was the climax to more than a decade of public debate over what would happen when the first products of biotechnology became commercially available. Because the altered bacteria in both cases were designed to retard frost formation on plants, frost resistance in plants became the unlikely test case for the legal, social, and scientific issues that surrounded the growing role of biotechnology in the United States.

If the temperature falls slightly below freezing, plants are subject to frost injury because some bacteria on the surface of leaves form proteins that act as centers for ice formation. Bacteria that lack the protein do not form ice-formation centers, and frost production is delayed until the temperature falls well below freezing. Lindow’s early work with this phenomenon suggested that treating plant surfaces with bacteria that do not form ice-formation centers (ice-minus bacteria) would reduce the number of ice crystals forming at near-freezing temperatures. This treatment would reduce the potential for frost injury when temperatures favored frost formation.

Lindow wanted to examine the role of the protein responsible for ice formation. His goal, funded by AGS, was to construct more effective biological control agents to prevent frost damage. Modern molecular biology techniques allowed him to modify bacteria by removing the genetic information responsible for the proteins involved in making ice-formation centers. The resulting ice-minus bacteria behaved identically to the original strains. By existing definitions, however, this deletion of genetic information constituted the creation of a genetically altered organism.

The legal issues surrounding release of genetically altered organisms date to 1976, when the National Institutes of Health National Institutes of Health;genetically altered organisms (NIH) issued guidelines governing research with genetically altered materials. These guidelines were designed to contain modified organisms in laboratories and specifically prohibited the release of such organisms. In 1978, the guidelines were modified by NIH director Donald S. Fredrickson Fredrickson, Donald S. to permit case-by-case analysis of proposed environmental release. All proposals went through the Recombinant DNA Advisory Committee Recombinant DNA Advisory Committee (RAC), a group of scientists, technicians, and policy makers that, at that time, was empowered to make such decisions.

By 1982, Lindow had conducted laboratory tests that showed that ice-minus bacteria reduced frost damage in laboratory plants, and he was ready to take the next step, which was to test their effectiveness in the field. Lindow submitted his proposal to release the ice-minus bacteria to the RAC in 1982, and a revised proposal was approved in April, 1983. This proposal called for an ice-minus bacterium, Pseudomonas syringae, Pseudomonas syringae to be applied to potato plants the following October.

On September 14, 1983, Jeremy Rifkin, a social activist and head of the Foundation on Economic Trends in Washington, D.C., filed suit against the NIH to prevent Lindow’s experimental release. Rifkin claimed that the NIH had not complied with the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) National Environmental Policy Act (1969) in giving its approval, and he cited NIH failure to file an environmental impact statement or prepare an environmental impact assessment. Peter Raven, Raven, Peter director of the Missouri Botanical Garden, filed an affidavit in support of the legal action, noting that insufficient testing had been done to determine potential hazards, that the advisory committee lacked an ecologist to comment on the ecological consequences of release, and that the effect of displacing indigenous bacteria was unknown.

The legal delays pushed the date of Lindow’s experiment to 1984. On April 12, 1984, Rifkin again went to court to block Lindow’s experiment. On May 16, 1984, federal district court judge John J. Sirica halted the deliberate release of genetically altered ice-minus bacteria. He indicated that all such tests would be held up until the NIH conducted an exhaustive evaluation of potential environmental impacts.

Lindow returned to the laboratory and began conducting the required environmental impact testing. After two years of further research and review by outside agencies, his request to conduct a field test of ice-minus bacteria was again approved and was scheduled to proceed in August, 1986. On August 6, 1986, before Lindow could begin his test, Rifkin’s Foundation on Economic Trends, Foundation on Economic Trends residents of Tule Lake, California, and a public-interest group called Californians for Responsible Toxics Management, Californians for Responsible Toxics Management among others, obtained a temporary restraining order from the California Supreme Court. The groups asserted that the California Department of Food and Agriculture had failed to comply with the California Environmental Quality Act in permitting the bacterial release. A court-supervised negotiated settlement was reached on August 19, whereby Lindow and the University of California agreed to delay the test until the spring of 1987 while appropriate environmental studies could be made.

Meanwhile, AGS also obtained approval to proceed with field tests of two genetically altered bacteria. The company wanted to field-test its product, Frostban, on strawberry plants. As a result of public protest, AGS switched the location of the release from its original site in Monterey County to a rural location in Contra Costa County, California.

Rifkin and Californians for Responsible Toxics Management again tried to stop the planned releases. They argued that AGS had not conducted an environmental impact report as required by California law. The case was dismissed when Judge Lewis determined that the plaintiffs had failed to show that irreparable harm would result from the test, and the planned release was conducted the next day.


Twenty-four hours after the court’s decision to allow AGS to proceed with its release, the plot of twenty-five hundred strawberry plants was vandalized in what one opponent of the field tests described as “an act of self-defense.” Later, on May 25 or early on May 26, 1987, vandals also uprooted half of the four thousand potato plants treated with genetically altered Pseudomonas syringae at Lindow’s Tule Lake experiment site. In both cases, the plants were replaced and the experiments continued.

The EPA permit to field-test ice-minus bacteria in 1987 required studies on aerosol dispersal of spray-applied inoculum; surveys of marked strains on plants, soils, insects, and water in and around the plot area; and destruction of all treated material to test the feasibility of eradication. Lindow and AGS ultimately found that the released bacteria did not spread outside the treated area; rather, it remained on or near the plants on which the bacteria were sprayed. The bacteria behaved in the field as they had in laboratory settings. Treated potatoes had 80 percent less frost injury than untreated plants after two early-season frosts, but the results with strawberries were less significant because the control plants were already populated by bacteria that did not cause ice formation. Attempts to eradicate the bacteria from the test sites were successful; the bacteria were not subsequently detected there.

Preemptive colonization of leaf surfaces by naturally occurring ice-minus bacteria is similar to biological control with genetically altered microbes. Lindow concluded that the altered bacteria did not provide substantially superior protection to that provided by naturally occurring ice-minus strains. Subsequently, a naturally occurring ice-minus strain of Pseudomonas fluorescens, Pseudomonas fluorescens named Frostban B, was registered commercially to control frost injury to pears.

To develop some consistency in the regulation of biotechnology, the U.S. Office of Science and Technology Policy Office of Science and Technology Policy, U.S. had issued the Coordinated Framework for Regulation of Biotechnology Coordinated Framework for Regulation of Biotechnology (1986) on June 26, 1986, and had announced an overall federal policy for review of biotechnology products and regulatory issues. This framework clarified the roles of regulatory agencies with jurisdiction over genetically altered organisms ranging from microbes to animals. It also defined the levels of review needed before a product could be released. Approval for further releases of genetically altered organisms soon followed. On May 15, 1987, Biotechnica International’s Biotechnica International plan to release three strains of a bacterium, Rhizobium meliloti, Rhizobium meliloti that had been genetically altered to increase nitrogen fixation in alfalfa was tentatively approved. The release was planned for Pepin County, Wisconsin. This was the first case of an organism subject to regulation under the EPA’s new biotechnology policy.

Rifkin said he would not attempt further legal action in the case of frost resistance, but later in 1987, Rifkin’s attorneys filed lawsuits in federal court to block approval of further biotechnology releases. Rifkin sought to overturn the Coordinated Framework for Regulation of Biotechnology, arguing that its policies were regulatory. He also sought to force the EPA to modify its rules governing the deliberate release of genetically altered organisms on the grounds that the EPA did not require companies to be financially able to repair damage that might be done to the environment. These lawsuits were ultimately dismissed.

In the period since the initial release of genetically altered microbes, restrictions on such releases have been relaxed. By 1991, permits for field tests of more than 180 genetically altered plants and microorganisms had been granted. Lindow’s experience appeared to be a warning to other scientists, however, and the number of field releases of recombinant material has been much smaller than the permitted releases.

In the months leading up to the original field release, observers and scientists debated whether the EPA was stifling biotechnology research with its regulations. The Food and Drug Administration had already determined that it would treat genetically altered microorganisms no differently from strains obtained through traditional microbial techniques. The debates concerning EPA regulations continued into the twenty-first century. An EPA-sanctioned study in the United States must receive an experimental use permit from the EPA, which is usually needed only for the testing of chemical pesticides. The EPA also requires extensive greenhouse and laboratory studies. The principal arguments in favor of regulation have been that nonhuman species are exposed in an environmental release, the spectrum of potential effects is unknown, and the degree of control and containment are unknown. In addition, differences in scale between small field plots and large-scale application need to be considered.

The appearance of genetically altered organisms and their protein products in foods is a human health issue that has been raised by groups such as the Environmental Defense Fund, Environmental Defense Fund;genetically altered organisms particularly with regard to the Bacillus thuringiensis Bacillus thuringiensis toxin, which has been incorporated into plants. The production of toxic metabolites and the potential interaction between genetically altered microbes and the immune systems of people have become major concerns.

With respect to the environment, five essential ecological concerns must be considered in the assessment of the risk associated with a deliberately released genetically altered organism: Will the released organism survive, multiply, spread, transfer genetic information, or prove harmful? In 1989, a panel of ecologists suggested guidelines pertaining to genetically altered material. Fundamentally, they determined that genetically altered organisms should be evaluated and regulated according to their biological properties, or phenotypes, rather than according to the genetic techniques used to produce them. Still, the ecologists cautioned that release of genetically altered organisms carries with it significant risk: Precise genetic characterization might be possible, but it does not guarantee that all the ecologically important aspects of a phenotype can be predicted. The consensus of the panel was that genetically altered organisms are unlikely to replace native organisms because of ecological principles such as fitness and competitive exclusion. Biotechnology Bacteria, genetically altered Agriculture;biotechnology Ice-minus bacteria[Ice minus bacteria] Genetic engineering Recombinant DNA technology Frostban

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Crawford, Mark. “California Field Test Goes Forward.” Science 236 (May, 1987): 511. Provides a summary of the first release of ice-formation-deficient bacteria in California. Includes some historical background.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Davis, Bernard. “Bacterial Domestication: Underlying Assumptions.” Science 235 (March, 1987): 1329-1335. Concise essay presents the arguments for relaxed regulation of genetically transformed organisms. Serves as a companion piece to the article by Frances Sharples cited below.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Lindow, Steven. “Integrated Control and Role of Antibiosis in Biological Control of Fireblight and Frost Injury.” In Biological Control on the Phylloplane, edited by Carol Windels and Steven Lindow. St. Paul, Minn.: American Phytopathological Society, 1984. Presents a technical description of ice formation and discusses the role of microbes in controlling it. Provides some of Lindow’s rationale for the proposed field tests of 1987.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Marx, Jean. “Assessing Risks of Microbial Release.” Science 237 (September, 1987): 1413-1414. Article published after the first deliberate release of genetically altered microbes summarizes some of the results of those studies and speculates on the future of science, society, and genetic engineering.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Schacter, Bernice. Issues and Dilemmas of Biotechnology: A Reference Guide. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1999. Presents the views of doctors, scientists, insurance companies, and other interested parties on the proliferation of biotechnological innovations. Chapter 4 discusses the release of genetically engineered microorganisms.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Sharples, Frances. “Regulation of Products from Biotechnology.” Science 235 (March, 1987): 1329-1332. States some of the arguments for close regulation of genetically altered organisms, drawing on historical examples of previous ecological disasters for justification.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Tiedje, James, et al. “The Planned Introduction of Genetically Engineered Organisms: Ecological Considerations and Recommendations.” Ecology 70 (April, 1989): 298-315. Essential background reading for an understanding of the ecological implications of genetically altered microbes in the environment. Provides a series of conclusions and guidelines about such release.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Wilson, M., and Steven Lindow. “Release of Recombinant Microorganisms.” Annual Review of Microbiology 47 (1993): 913-944. Review article places the release of ice-minus microbes in the context of other deliberate releases that occurred during this period.

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