Although GMOs have been making a lot of headlines only recently, they have been around for many decades. In 1983, the first genetically modified plant was produced. In 1994, FDA approved the transgenic Flavr Savr tomato for marketing in United States. While some scientists and companies like Monsanto claim that GMO foods could help end world hunger, in 1990’s they almost ended the world instead.
Klebsiella Planticola – The Genetic Monster
In the 90’s a biotech company in Europe created and wanted to field test the ground-breaking GE soil bacteria called Klebsiella Planticola. It was seemingly created out of need, as the conventional method of disposing of dead plants was to burn them which not only pollutes the environment but damages the lungs of the farmers. Decomposing plants would turn into useless sludge once they died, but what if farmers could turn it into an alcohol or very efficient fertilizer instead?
This is exactly K. Planticola was designed to do. It would turn previously useless plant waste into alcohol that could be then distilled into fuel, burned as cooking oil or otherwise wisely used. However, this Eden-like dream turned into horror when scientists decided to take it a step further.
What Went Wrong
Scientists realized that they could make the process even more efficient. After the plant waste is turned into alcohol by the K. Planticola bacteria, the leftover sludge is quite rich in Nitrogen and similar useful nutrients, which can be then used into fertilizer. They realized they could spread this sludge on fields, fertilizing them in the process and getting rid of all waste altogether. This is where this genetic monster almost ended the world as we know it.
The scientists “thoroughly” tested the bacteria. However, at the time the only agency overseeing the process was EPA, whose policy was to test all new bacteria on sterile soil. The purpose of sterile soil is to eliminate all normal and unexpected elements out of the environment thus producing a pure setting where they could precisely see the effects of only the bacteria they were testing.
They had seemingly forgotten that their plan was to spread this sludge back into the farm soils. Into dirt, which is a inherently dirty place with normal and unexpected elements. What they didn’t find out through their sterile testing was that K. Planticola would not wait until the plants died to start working. It would kill any living plant it touches by overproducing alcohol. If released, the bacteria would have spread in just several months throughout the world and poisoned and killed every specie of plant that exists and sent us into mass famine.
Almost Got Away With It
Just how close was it? While some scenarios of how the world could have ended are actually quite far-fetched, this wasn’t one of them. 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.
A Valuable Lesson for GMOs and Our Future
With the current the lack of pre-market safety testing, Ingham makes a notoriously scary comment and says that future biological monsters like K. Planticola are almost guaranteed to be released into the environment. With billions of dollars at stake for companies like Monsanto, they simply cannot afford their products to be thrown in the trash and sometimes they’re pushed into the market and our environment regardless if they carry huge risks or are missing long-term studies. It would be naive to think that every GE product that is released in the biotech or food industries is actually 100% safe and tested for every possible scenario.
Just like the K. Planticola scientists, the modern day engineers and scientists may actually want to improve our world, but this horror story should serve as a reminder to be careful. The earth we have today has evolved through billions of years naturally and something that was developed in a lab by humans can never compete with nature and may in fact destroy it very quickly. Next time you judge GMO skeptics, remember K. Planticola and the time GMOs almost ended the world.