- The Washington Times - Friday, April 5, 2002

ASSOCIATED PRESS

In an unusually bitter and public dispute among scientists, the journal Nature says it should not have published a study concluding that DNA from genetically engineered corn contaminated native maize in Mexico.

"Nature has concluded that the evidence available is not sufficient to justify the publication of the original paper," editor Phillip Campbell said in a terse message in the latest issue of the distinguished journal.

However, Mr. Campbell stopped short of retracting the original paper, which was peer-reviewed and published in November. Instead, Nature printed two harsh new criticisms of the work, as well as a defense by the researchers that included new data.

Mr. Campbell wrote that Nature would allow its readers "to judge the science for themselves." Nature said Mr. Campbell was on vacation and the journal would have no further comment.

In their study, David Quist, a graduate student at the University of California at Berkeley, and microbial ecology professor Ignacio Chapela reported that genes from laboratory-altered strains of corn, which Mexico banned in 1998, had found their way into native corn growing in Oaxaca. The researchers' findings had heightened fears about risks from genetically engineered crops.

Critics primarily suggested the researchers misidentified sequences in the maize genes and mistook them for genetically modified material.

"The Quist and Chapela study is a testament to technical incompetence," said Matthew Metz of the University of Washington, a co-author of one of the two criticisms. "Evidence for the presence of transgenic DNA in Mexican maize remains dubious and empirical."

"Since Quist and Chapela published bad science in Nature, both scientists and Nature must come absolutely clean, retract and apologize. There is no other issue," said geneticist Michael Freeling, also of Berkeley and a co-author of a critical letter published by Nature.

Additionally, Nature arranged for three more scientists, all unidentified, to review the criticisms, the original paper and the additional material supplied by the authors.

All three concluded that technical errors marred the research. Only one called for a retraction; the others said that genetically modified corn is probably growing in Mexico, but that scientific proof is still lacking.

The study's authors conceded only minor interpretive errors.

"We certainly stand by our original, main statement and I have yet to see anyone challenge it legitimately," Mr. Chapela said.

Technology advocates described the article as a "full-blown distortion" that Nature's reconsideration does not completely erase.

"It will be very difficult to uproot the misperceptions that have been sown in the public's mind," said Lisa J. Dry, spokeswoman for the Biotechnology Industry Association in Washington.

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