Editorial | Published:

The truth about high-nicotine tobacco

Nature Biotechnology volume 17, page 1041 (1999) | Download Citation


As is too often the case when it comes to reporting biotechnology-related news, there seems to be no discernible difference between the facts as they are, and as some would like them to be. In a prominently positioned story, "How Inquiry Into Tobacco Lost Its Steam," in the September 26, 1999 New York Times, veteran reporters Barry Meier and David Johnston write this tantalizing opening sentence: "After five years and millions of dollars, the Justice Department's criminal investigation of the tobacco industry boiled down to this: one misdemeanor charge against an obscure biotechnology company."

Fully nineteen paragraphs later, we learn that this charge stems from government attempts to establish whether it had been lied to by Brown & Williamson tobacco company executives "about efforts to genetically engineer seeds to produce plants with higher nicotine levels."

According to Meier and Johnston, regulators discovered that DNA Plant Technology Corporation of Oakland, California had "developed" such a seed (code-named Y-1), prompting the Justice Department to bring the "first and only charge...in the criminal case," accusing the firm of "conspiring with a cigarette maker to produce nicotine-enriched tobacco."

And in a final telling paragraph, the reporters write "In January 1998, DNA Plant Technology pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor count of conspiring to illegally export the Y-1 seeds and agreed to cooperate in the Government's continuing inquiry. Brown & Williamson officials were soon brought to testify before a grand jury in Washington. But that inquiry also died. Raymond C. Marshall, a lawyer in San Francisco who represented DNA Plant Technology, said he never heard from Justice Department officials again."

The relationship between the above and the truth is, at the most charitable, extremely tenuous, at least as concerns the genetic engineering part. DNAP did indeed accept a contract in 1983 from Brown & Williamson, but it had absolutely nothing to do with the genetic engineering of increased nicotine levels—a formidable feat of metabolic reorganization that even today could not easily be accomplished. Rather, the then-truly obscure biotechnology company did something much more straightforward. It took the Y-1 seed of Brown & Williamson—which has a modest 5% increase in the nicotine content of its leaves, and ironically enough had actually been developed in the 1970s at a USDA agricultural research station in Oxford, NC through perfectly ordinary genetic crosses—and engineered it for male sterility, a necessary commercial prerequisite to export.

While it is probable that the misrepresentations in the New York Times story remain legally shy of falsehood, as they permit a parsing worthy of modern-day presidents, their intent is nonetheless patent, and deplorable. Agricultural biotechnology has enough public perception problems without being used as a pawn in the political crusades of mass media journalists.

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