by Roger Highfield
August 13, 1998
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THE world-renowned scientist who triggered a global scare over the safety of genetically modified food was relieved of his responsibilities yesterday and will retire shortly.
The Rowett Research Institute in Aberdeen, Scotland, said that Dr Arpad Pusztai (68), had not started crucial experiments to support his fears and that it ''regrets the release of misleading information about issues of such importance''.
Tests conducted by Dr Pusztai supposedly suggested that long-term consumption of potatoes modified with a gene that codes for a powerful insecticide could damage the immune systems of rats and stunt their growth.
The furore resulting when Dr Pusztai's work was publicised by a British TV programme led to demands by MPs for a ban on genetically altered food.
According to its director, it was "locked in with governments across the globe, locked in the European Union and simultaneously looking at the data''.
It emerged yesterday that long-term feeding experiments had not been conducted with modified potatoes containing a gene from the Jack Bean plant responsible for concavalin A, or con A, a type of protein called a lectin which is a powerful insecticide.
The point of the experiment was to highlight the value of long-term feeding tests, not to show that genetically altered foods were dangerous.
The harmful effects of con A are well known and it was unlikely to have been considered for use in a food crop. "It is known to be a vicious stimulant of the immune system,'' said Prof Philip James, Rowett's director.
He learnt on Tuesday that con A modified potatoes had not been fed to rats when Dr Eva Gelencser, carrying out the experiments for Dr Pusztai, returned from abroad.
The reported effects on the immune system and growth of rats were noted when con A was added to a diet of potatoes, an experiment that has been done before.
This is different to using potatoes genetically altered to make con A because the shape, and thus activity, of the protein can differ according to the host cell that makes it. The activity can also be affected by the environment in which it is made.
''What I discovered at five o'clock last night was that the con A potatoes were sitting there, ready to start feeding trials,'' said Prof James.
''He Dr Pusztai got carried away. He thought that his team had done at least the short-term con A studies.
''We cannot assume that he is guilty of anything other than, in his terms of course, inadvertently misleading us and the whole of the world.''
Prof James stressed that it remains possible that Dr Pusztai will be proved right. "But he was wrong about the details of his experiment, as portrayed to us, and it is because of that second point that I have decided that he ought to retire because he did mislead us and has admitted to that.
"He is well recognised as a world-leader in lectins. That is the tragedy. He has had international prizes for his work. If anyone wants to know anything about lectins, they phone him up.
"Everybody in my team thinks it was a genuine mistake. He is absolutely mortified. This guy has been with us for 35 years and is known as an outstanding, phenomenally rigorous scientist.''
Ironically, an effect on rats had been found with a different engineered potato. A lectin called GNA affected rats' immune systems. The short-term data provides support for Dr Pusztai.
Prof James said that he could not give the GNA gene a clean bill of health, nor was he willing to discuss this preliminary data.
Dr Andrew Chesson, a senior Rowett scientist, said: ''It may well be that he Dr Pusztai is right in the end, but he could not have drawn that conclusion at the time."
(Daily Telegraph London)
Monsanto manager for Ireland Dr Patrick O'Reilly said it was pleased that the Institute had publicly regretted "tremendous harm caused by the misleading publicity'' and called on World in Action to issue a retraction.
He said Monsanto had declined to participate in the programme because it was not provided with details of the study from World in Action.
"Monsanto would also like to congratulate the Institute on their brave action. The potential benefits for consumers, the environment and farmers of advances in genetic science have unfortunately in recent months been overshadowed by alarmist publicity stunts of one kind or another,'' he said.
However, Genetic Concern said that the results presented on the programme were not necessarily the issue of consumer concern and the real issue was that such testing had not been carried out at all on other genetically engineered foods currently on the market.