Ladybugs Dying To Warn Us
By Claire Gilbert, Ph.D.
© Copyright, 1997
HALF MOON BAY, California, October 24, 1997 -- Some ladybugs in Scotland have become very important this week because they may be the first proof that non-target species can be harmed by transgenic crops.Transgenic bio-engineering involves inserting genes into one species from another in order to gain some advantage.
Ladybugs -- or "ladybirds" if you are European -- have always been considered friendly insects in the garden and on the farm. They eat many insects that are harmful to crops and flowers. Ladybugs are part of the natural system.
The lifespan of ladybugs was reduced to half when they ate aphids that had fed on genetically altered potatoes in Scotland, according to a London Times article (10/22/97) by Science Editor, Nigel Hawkes. The ladybugs also laid fewer eggs.
Fears of genetic engineering critics were fanned by the news that ladybugs were damaged by eating insects feeding on altered potatoes.
Among the critics' concerns are: that non-target organisms may be affected by pesticide genes put into plants; that beneficial insects might be harmed; that unknown consequences may occur; and that ecosystems may be damaged.
Richard Wolfson, Ph.D., of Ottawa, Ontario, Canada, says that genetically engineered potatoes and corn produce their own pesticide. These vegetables, now on the market, contain a bacterial gene normally found in soil, called "bacillus thuringiensis," or Bt. In altered potatoes and corn, Bt creates a toxin in the plant itself to kill insects.
Agronomists are concerned that by making Bt an integral part of plants, the evolution of Bt resistant insects will speed up enormously. When used alone, as it occurs in nature, Bt is considered among the safest insect controllers.
The effects on humans of eating altered crops which contain Bt is unknown. The companies which have pioneered in inserting foreign genes into plants have successfully made the claim to regulatory agencies that the food plants are substantially equivalent to unaltered ones. The companies have been able to fast track their products to market, bypassing lengthy safety testing.
Scientists in Scotland now urge caution in the introduction of genetically modified crops after discovering that they could harm ladybugs. Nick Birch and a team from the Scottish Crop Research Institute in Dundee are responsible for discovering the reduced fertility and lifespan of the ladybugs.
The potato plant in question had been altered to produce a natural insecticide that deterred aphids from eating them. Non-potato genetic material is inserted into potatoes. While this did indeed discourage aphids, the reduction was not complete. The number of aphids on the potatoes was reduced by only 50% so that ladybugs were needed to eat the remaining aphids.
With the large number of transgentic crops being planted in the U.S. and the rest of the world, many unforseen consequences may be released. In the annual report of the Institute, the team that worked on the ladybug research said the deleterious effects on the ladybugs suggested that genetically altered crops could have unexpected consequences.

Part 2
By Claire Gilbert, Ph.D.
HALF MOON BAY, California, October 27, 1997 -- I called the Scottish Crop Research Institute in Dundee, Scotland, and got more of the story. Nick Birch, the researcher named in the London Times article, was not in his office at the time of my phone call. I spoke with an entomologist, Stuart Gordon, who shares an office with Birch.
The potatoes that adversely affected the ladybugs/ladybirds were transgenic. Genes from snowdrop lectin had been inserted in them. Gordon did not know the name of the poison, however. He was not directly involved in that project.
Birch, et al., plan to publish their research according to Gordon.
How did it get in the London Times? The Annual Report of the Institude describes research projects conducted. The London Times picked up the story from the annual report.
Gordon is passing a message on to Birch to send me the report. It has more information than Gordon, himself, could provide me.

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