Anti-Cancer Plants Being Grown
WHITE PINE, Mich., Jul 22, 2000 (AP Online via COMTEX) -- The high-intensity light bulbs and rows of plants make the scene look like an ordinary, garden-variety greenhouse. But these tobacco plants are growing 200 feet below the earth's surface - in an abandoned copper mine converted into what is believed to be one of the first underground plant growth chambers in the United States. In an environment where temperature, lighting and moisture are carefully regulated, a Canadian biotechnology company is cultivating genetically altered tobacco. Its seeds are being used to produce a protein that scientists hope to develop into medicine to fight bone marrow cancer, officials said in announcing the project Friday. "We're embarking on a new era in which we will mass-produce biopharmaceuticals using plants to generate these proteins, instead of doing it synthetically in a laboratory," said Brent Zettl, president of Prairie Plant Systems Inc., of Saskatoon, Saskatchewan. The Canadian national health agency, which engineers the tobacco plants, has signed a contract to have them grown in the White Pine underground chamber. The unique setting, with its elevated carbon dioxide level, speeds plant maturity. "They grow so much faster here, it cuts the production time in half," said Dr. Anil Dudani, a Health Canada scientist taking part in studies with the proteins. While using plants for medicinal purposes is nothing new, scientists are still learning to transfer human genetic material into plant cells. The plants are capable of turning the material into proteins, which are extracted from the seeds and made into drugs. Plants are a cleaner and less expensive vehicle for protein production than conventional means such as fermentation in vats, Zettl said. Somewhat ironically, given its reputation for endangering human health, tobacco is widely used in medical research because of its adaptability, he said. "It's the white rat of plant genetics," Zettl said. Prairie Plant Systems began growing plants in a copper and zinc mine in Manitoba nine years ago. When Copper Range Co. announced its plans to close of the White Pine mine in 1995, Zettl was invited to use a small section for a plant chamber. After four years of negotiations and studies, Zettl's company formed a joint venture with local investors. Start-up costs have reached about $380,000. Forty tobacco plants are now growing in the chamber. If they succeed, Health Canada will request 1,000, said Mark Pierpont, controller of SubTerra LLC, the joint venture. Officials hope eventually to get beyond the trial stage and begin commercial production, enabling them to expand the growth chamber from its present 3,000 square feet to perhaps 500,000 square feet. Plants such as rice and flax, which have bigger seeds, might be used for commercial production of plants that could fight a variety of chronic diseases, Zettl said. Another goal is to have laboratories on site, where seeds from the growth chamber could be processed into drugs instead of being sent elsewhere. All that will depend on whether the growth chamber lives up to its early promise, Zettl said. The tobacco plants, the first of which began growing in early April, are already flowering and producing seeds, which shortly will be shipped to the Health Canada lab in Ottawa. The chamber environment is a stark contrast with the rest of the dark, silent mine, where temperatures remain around a chilly 60 degrees. Inside, the plants flourish in 80-degree temperatures, with ideal amounts of water and artificial light and no pests or diseases. The setting also prevents any genetically modified material from being blown or carried by insects to other locations, one of the concerns with biotechnology, said Bob Craig of the Michigan Department of Agriculture. For Pete Rigoni, supervisor of Carp Lake Township, which includes the village of White Pine, the mine's new mission is a welcome - if unexpected - twist after its long history as a copper producer. He hopes the venture signals new growth and jobs for the village, where about 700 people - mostly retirees - now live. Most young families left after the mine closed and cut 1,000 jobs; only about 110 students attend the school, down from more than 600 in the mine's heyday. "We've been a one-industry community for a long time, with lots of peaks and pits ... always hinged on the price of copper," Rigoni said. "Now we have a high-tech underground growth chamber. Now that's really unique."
I love olive oils, especially those with garlic or herbs soaking in the bottle. But I've heard that they can give you food poisoning. Is that true?
July 24, 2000 -- Yes. Some garlic- or herb-flavored oils could be contaminated with a toxin that causes botulism, a type of food poisoning that can kill. Initial symptoms may include blurred vision, muscle paralysis, and speech and breathing difficulties. In fact, the toxin involved is so potent that a thumbnail's worth of the pure substance is enough to kill 10 million people!
The toxin doesn't just appear, however. It's produced by the bacterium Clostridium botulinum, which thrives in the oxygen-deprived atmosphere of a bottle of oil. Furthermore, storing the bottle under warm conditions (even at room temperature) encourages the bacteria to grow -- and produce more toxin. You're unlikely to find this type of bacteria in a bottle of plain, unflavored oil. That's because C. botulinum comes from the garlic or the herb, not the oil.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration now requires such products to contain phosphoric or citric acid, which discourage bacteria from growing, and to bear labels stating the need for refrigeration. This action was in response to an episode several years ago when three people were hospitalized for botulism after eating a commercially prepared garlic-in-oil product that had been stored at room temperature.
If you purchase flavored oil products, make sure you heed the label warning, especially after you have opened them. If you choose to make your own herb- or garlic-flavored oils, including margarine or butter mixtures, use them immediately and throw out any unused portion since you don't have the protection of citric or phosphoric acids. Even then, be careful when you use these products, because you can't detect the presence of C. botulinum by smell, sight, or taste.
To be safest, I strongly recommend sticking to the wide variety of naturally flavorful oils on the market, such as sesame, nut, and olive oils. They don't contain any herb or spice additives and therefore pose less of a health risk. Then use your herbs and garlic as seasonings. They'll add great flavors to your meal, with far less risk of food poisoning.