….Kirk was developing the market in the West for two types of GM cotton. Bt cotton was engineered with a gene from a soil bacterium, Bacillus thuringiensis. Organic farmers use the natural form of the bacterium as an insecticide, spraying it occasionally during times of high pest infestation. Monsanto engineers, however, isolated and then altered the gene that produces the Bt-toxin, and inserted it into the DNA of the cotton plant. Now every cell of their Bt cotton produces a toxic protein. The other variety was Roundup Ready® cotton. It contains another bacterial gene that enables the plant to survive an otherwise toxic dose of Monsanto’s Roundup® herbicide. Since the patent on Roundup’s main active ingredient, glyphosate, was due to expire in 2000, the company was planning to sell Roundup Ready seeds that were bundled with their Roundup herbicide, effectively extending their brand’s dominance in the herbicide market.
In the summer of 1997, Kirk spoke with a Monsanto scientist who was doing some tests on Roundup Ready cotton. Using a “Western blot” analysis, the scientist was able to identify different proteins by their molecular weight. He told Kirk that the GM cotton not only contained the intended protein produced by the Roundup Ready gene, but also extra proteins that were not normally produced in the plant. These unknown proteins had been created during the gene insertion process.
Gene insertion was done using a gene gun (particle bombardment). Kirk, who has an undergraduate degree in biochemistry, understood this to be “a kind of barbaric and messy method of genetic engineering, where you use a gun-like apparatus to bombard the plant tissue with genes that are wrapped around tiny gold particles.” He knew that particle bombardment can cause unpredictable changes and mutations in the DNA, which might result in new types of proteins.
The scientist dismissed these newly created proteins in the cotton plant as unimportant background noise, but Kirk wasn’t convinced. Proteins can have allergenic or toxic properties, but no one at Monsanto had done a safety assessment on them. “I was afraid at that time that some of these proteins may be toxic.” He was particularly concerned that the rogue proteins “might possibly lead to mad cow or some other prion-type diseases.”