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Engineered Grass Gone Wild

Genetically engineered creeping bentgrass is commonly found on golf courses but was recently found growing in the wild.

Genetically engineered creeping bentgrass that was meant to be grown on golf courses only has been found growing in the wild. The grass was engineered to resist Roundup to allow more efficient weed control on golf courses. According to scientists, modified grass could spread its resistant properties to the wild, becoming a nuisance for Mother Nature.

"This is not a killer tomato, this is not the asparagus that ate Cleveland,” said Norman Ellstrand, a geneticist and plant expert at the University of California, Riverside. However, Ellstrand said the engineered grass has the potential to affect more than a dozen other plant species that could also acquire resistance to Roundup, or glyphosate.

The increased resistance could lead to the need for stronger, "nastier" herbicides to control weeds and grasses.

The bentgrass variety is being developed by Scotts Miracle-Gro Co. in cooperation with Roundup’s manufacturer, Monsanto Co.
Spokesmen for both companies said they had been expecting the results of the study, to be published in the journal Molecular Ecology.

“We’ve been working to mitigate it,” said Jim King, spokesman for Ohio-based Scotts. “Now we’re down to maybe a couple dozen plants.”

King said seed from a test plot escaped several years ago while it was drying following harvest in the Willamette Valley, home to most of the U.S. grass seed industry and the world’s largest producer of commercial grass varieties.

The main question now, King says, is whether the government will allow commercial use of the experimental bentgrass for golf courses.

“Eradicating it has not been a difficult issue,” King said. “The only difference between the turf seed we’re working to produce and naturally occurring varieties is that it has a gene resistant to this specific herbicide (Roundup).”

The engineered bentgrass is under review by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which published a “white paper” in June that assessed the threat but did not reach any conclusions -- leaving that for an environmental impact statement being prepared by the department’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service.

But the USDA review paper noted that glyphosate is “the most extensively used herbicide worldwide,” and that creeping bentgrass and several of the species that can form hybrids with it “can be weedy or invasive in some situations.”

In 2003, the International Center for Technology Assessment in Washington, D.C., filed a federal lawsuit seeking to halt development of genetically engineered bentgrass. The suit is still pending, a USDA spokeswoman said.

The latest study was done by U.S. Environmental Protection Agency scientists based at Oregon State University.

Jay Reichman, an EPA ecologist and lead author, was not available Wednesday. But he has said there is a possibility the engineered strain could persist in the wild.

Associated Press

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June 26, 2019, 12:06 pm PDT

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