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Biotech Technology

Cyanide-Producing GM Grass Linked To Texas Cattle Deaths 305

Peristaltic writes "Scientists at the U.S. Department of Agriculture are trying to determine if an unexpected mutation in a popular GM grass, Tifton 85, is responsible for the sudden deaths of a small herd of cattle in Elgin, Texas three weeks ago. The grass has been used for grazing since 1992 without incident, however after a severe drought last year in Texas, the grass started producing cyanide in sufficient quantities to kill a small herd of cattle in Elgin, Texas. Testing has found the cyanide-producing grass in nearby fields as well." Update: 06/23 22:59 GMT by T : Reader Jon Cousins writes with a correction that means the headline above is inaccurate for including "GM." Tifton 85, he writes, is "absolutely not genetically modified. It's a conventionally bred hybrid."
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Cyanide-Producing GM Grass Linked To Texas Cattle Deaths

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  • Holy f*** (Score:3, Interesting)

    by Anonymous Coward on Saturday June 23, 2012 @06:22PM (#40423793)

    This is scary movie nightmare stuff come true!!!

    Grass that kills!!!

    • by haruchai ( 17472 ) on Saturday June 23, 2012 @06:27PM (#40423841)

      Ever seen Reefer Madness (1936)?

    • This is amazing. I mean this is like something from The Onion. Except its real.
      • by Peristaltic ( 650487 ) * on Saturday June 23, 2012 @06:58PM (#40424099)
        Damn. I was just pulling my pitchfork and torch out of the shed. Thought it was interesting; should have done more research.
        • by kanto ( 1851816 )

          Damn. I was just pulling my pitchfork and torch out of the shed. Thought it was interesting; should have done more research.

          Stay negative; just with the old hybridization-method they managed to create something that in field conditions produced enough cyanide to kill a cow. Now consider GM crops, including possible hybrids, and if they're more or less likely to have unintended consequences. Yes, they're the most tested seeds and plants ever, but we test medicines too and there are occasional failures... also boxes of pills are easier to recall than plants from the wild.

          • by khallow ( 566160 ) on Saturday June 23, 2012 @07:59PM (#40424529)

            just with the old hybridization-method they managed to create something that in field conditions produced enough cyanide to kill a cow.

            Cyanide poisoning is apparently a potential problem with any variety of grass, not just the hybrids.

          • by X0563511 ( 793323 ) on Sunday June 24, 2012 @02:07AM (#40426747) Homepage Journal

            I'd say GM is less likely to cause such things. Why?

            Well, when you hybridize you're "patching in" shitloads of other genes in an attempt to get the trait you want. GM is much more targeted, therefore much less chances of something you didn't want coming over.

            Of course, in both cases you'll still have the problems that might come up because of a lack of understanding in the trait you are after. If a gene that makes wheat grow faster makes it build up toxins, it doesn't really matter how you got the trait in there, because it's the trait itself that is at fault!

            • by msobkow ( 48369 ) on Sunday June 24, 2012 @09:55AM (#40428793) Homepage Journal

              That's a nice theory, but in reality they gene engineer entire strands of DNA in most cases, not just a few targetted genes. So our current level of GM technology is no better than old fashioned hybridization in terms of targetting specific traits.

              Worse, we really don't have a detailed understanding of genetics and their interactions. We know that specific genes affect traits, but we don't know how all the genes that affect those traits interact. We are jumping the gun with our current efforts, and it is not only possible but very likely that we're going to create some truly monstrous mutations in the near future.

              Worse, we have no idea what the long term interactions of the GM genetics will be. GMs are not sterile. They are mixing with native crops and infesting the gene pool; Monsanto and others rely on that infestation to sue farmers they claim are "stealing" their technology when their pollen infests neighbouring crops, and blocking farmers from using their own crops as seed stock.

              Personally I have far greater faith in the productivity of "land race" genetics produced by self-seeding crop land with last year's seed for 15-20 years sequentially. You end up with a plant that is tailor grown for the specific environment, whereas a GM crop is a shotgun approach that is tailored for a specific trait rather than the general growing conditions of the environment.

              As far as I'm concerned, GM crops to date have one purpose and one purpose only: to sell more pesticides and herbicides.

        • by ChromeAeonium ( 1026952 ) on Saturday June 23, 2012 @08:55PM (#40424973)

          Damn. I was just pulling my pitchfork and torch out of the shed.

          That right there sums up the problem with the GMO debate (well, one of them). Caring about the process, not the product. You can bet your ass that none of the anti-GMO groups out there are going to see this and other problems [] that have arisen from breeding (like the Lenape potato and high psoralens celery) are going to take this story and call for more stringent research of conventionally bred crops where heaven only known how many genetic changes may be happening. No one is going to say that breeding is unpredictable with dangerous results,or that is should be labeled, or that it should be banned until the precautionary principle proves a negative, or anything else people say about GMOs, but if this really were the product of biotechnology, you know damned well that is exactly what they, and many others, would be saying.

          • They might. I know people who are opposed to pasteurization. It's really annoying.
            • by ChromeAeonium ( 1026952 ) on Saturday June 23, 2012 @09:54PM (#40425373)

              There are actually some people who oppose hybrids already. I've encountered some real extreme heirloom crop zealots who believe that hybrids are generally bad things. Funny enough, people once said of hybrids, unknowingly foreshadowing what would later be said of GMOs, that they 'did violence to the plant' and they would 'befoul the soil'. Of course, we know know that hybridization ranks right up there with vaccination in terms of life saving technologies, and I have no idea how anyone could oppose something that the world could not get by without. Well, without being ignorant anyway, which no doubt they are.

              Fun fact: once there were people who opposed grafting, which is now used for pretty much every fruit tree. Johnny Appleseed was actually one of the, who believed that grafting was against the will of God, or some nonsense like that. He was something of a religious nut. Ironically because the trees he spread were seed grown and not grafted, they were only good for making applejack (well, I guess you could make other things out of them too, but take a wild guess as to what most people did with them back then). I guess grafting was ungodly but getting hammered on that stuff wasn't.

      • Whoops, minor error. Very clearly no editorial bias here, right?

      • by Khyber ( 864651 )

        Selective breeding is nothing more than GM on a low-tech scale. Please.

        • by sp332 ( 781207 )

          Selective breeding does not make plants RoundUp-resistant. Monsanto modifies the genes of the plants in specific ways that do not occur randomly in plant genomes.

          • by sjames ( 1099 ) on Saturday June 23, 2012 @09:06PM (#40425055) Homepage Journal

            Actually, it can and has produced roundup resistant plants, both through deliberate breeding programs and through basic natural selection in the fields.

            GM can do things that wouldn't happen in nature and it can be a problem. That just isn't an example of it.

          • by mr_exit ( 216086 )

            The Roundup resistant gene was found in nature, and Monsanto just copied it into soya beans. There are also plenty of weeds that have naturally generated a resistance to Glyphosate, the active ingredient in Roundup.

  • by drewsup ( 990717 ) on Saturday June 23, 2012 @06:24PM (#40423811)

    How dare your heard of cattle defame the good name of our company by having the nerve to DIE after eating our product. You sir, will be hearing from our attorneys.

    The Monsanto Group

  • I hope so!!

    You know, of course, that a lot of the food you eat is GM food.
  • by mc6809e ( 214243 ) on Saturday June 23, 2012 @06:27PM (#40423839)

    Tifton 85 is actually a hybrid of African Bermuda grass and Tifton 68, a different hybrid produced in Tifton, Texas.

    It's not a GM grass.

    • Except that.. (Score:2, Insightful)

      by Anonymous Coward

      These two grasses likely would have never been close enough in nature to influence each other. While genetically modified doesn't technically include selective breeding, I would argue that we are still screwing with nature and creating something that wouldn't have otherwise occurred naturally. That's how we should be defining 'Genetically Modified.'

      • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

        by Anonymous Coward

        Then virtually every single crop cultivated would then be defined as "Genetically Modified" if we went along with that logic. It astonishes me that people actually think this way and it scares the shit out of me that they could ever be in a position to make policy.

        • by literal definition, all our cultivated crops *are* genetically modified. From high-yield wheat and rice crops, to triticale* and rape, to grapes and oranges, apples and potatoes. All selected for yield, biomass, taste, texture, use in processed food and in their raw forms, we as a species have been fucking with genetics in levels from cross-pollination to interbreeding animals and injecting chromosomes into cells in the lab, for thousands of years.

          *an entirely manmade hybrid of durum wheat and rye, devel

      • Good plan. (Score:5, Insightful)

        by daninaustin ( 985354 ) on Saturday June 23, 2012 @06:58PM (#40424095)
        Let's get rid of all those awful hybrid plants and let most of the people in the world starve. We should be thankful for all the wonderful discoveries that saved billions of lives. []
        • It has never actually been proven that Green Revolution agriculture saved one single life, but it has been proven that Green Revolution agriculture has numerous significant drawbacks and has done massive damage to our long-term ability to produce food []. The end result of Green Revolution agriculture will be that all crops will have to be produced hydroponically, and in greenhouses.

          • You criticize the idea that the green revolution has saved lives, but you consider that "hydroponic crops are the true green revolution," you consider that to be a substantiated statement?

            You need to read Feynman's talk on cargo cults, you're failing.
      • Well, I hope you don't like domesticated dogs.
        Or cattle.

      • by arose ( 644256 )
        So? What about rhubarb leaves to pull a random example? Not natural enough still?
      • I hope you've never eaten corn in your life, then. Or wheat. Or tomato. Or basically any commercially grown crop. Because that would make you a filthy hypocrite.

      • by khipu ( 2511498 )

        I would argue that we are still screwing with nature and creating something that wouldn't have otherwise occurred naturally

        We've been screwing with plants in this way for millennia. Almost every plant and animal you eat has been screwed with this way. Without it, humanity wouldn't have survived.

    • Re: (Score:2, Informative)

      by Anonymous Coward

      Hey your facts are getting in the way of the usual anti GM circle jerk around here!

    • by cervesaebraciator ( 2352888 ) on Saturday June 23, 2012 @06:41PM (#40423969)
      For those who're interested, here's a reference [] from the Texas Ag Extension Service. Finding more info on the matter is proving difficult (by which I mean it's taking more than five minutes) but here's a relevant quote:

      Tifton 85 is a hybrid bermudagrass that was jointly developed and officially released in 1992 by the USDAARS and the University of Georgia Coastal Plain Experiment Station in Tifton, Georgia. It is a cross between a selection from South Africa (PI 290884) and Tifton 68.

  • I guess those cows failed the Turing test...

  • BS (Score:5, Informative)

    by Anonymous Coward on Saturday June 23, 2012 @06:28PM (#40423855)

    You've got to be kidding: this report needs to be retracted as it is completely wrong. Tifton 85 is a conventionally bred grass.

    It's incredibly irresponsible to print something this inflammatory and wrong. You've now aerated people all over the world with this misunderstanding, and it will continue to be flogged forever with this incorrect information.

    Further, people who hear about this won't know what the real issue is and it could cause more cow deaths.

    Fix or retract this article immediately.

    Pull the story. Get your facts straight. This farmer needs education from a local co-op extention. Any native or hybrid (NOT GM) grass can create this condition! Those that care for truth and real data go here and learn:

    • Re: (Score:2, Funny)

      by CAIMLAS ( 41445 )

      So? That's really not all important at the time being. Whether it's conventional or not, the grass needs to be firebombed before it's allowed to spread any further.

      No, I'm not kidding.

      It's reputedly a cold intolerant grass which has high yields. That means it spreads quickly and will only become more prevalent as the world warms. Supposedly, this is an actual mutation and not just a short-term response to the severe climatic stressors.

      If it spreads, it will not only kill off one of the most effective and i

      • by jamesh ( 87723 )

        So? That's really not all important at the time being.

        No it's very important. A major piece of misinformation like that is enough to cast doubt on all aspects of the story.

        Maybe I'm being alarmist, but to me, it's better safe than sorry - sorry being a desert planet. :(

        The "think of the children" approach?

      • Re:BS (Score:5, Informative)

        by rohan972 ( 880586 ) on Saturday June 23, 2012 @07:33PM (#40424383)

        Maybe I'm being alarmist, but to me, it's better safe than sorry - sorry being a desert planet.

        You are being alarmist and it is not better to take drastic action unnecessarily than to know what you are doing. You are not going to get a desert planet from this. They are testing to see if it's a mutation because the weather events were not the ones they would have expected to produce cyanide. Production of cyanide by grasses is known and understood, this just happened unexpectedly and in combination with poor animal husbandry.

        It's not the only pasture crop that can kill cows if you put them in hungry to fresh grass, either. Even lucerne and other legumes can kill cows by releasing gas and foam in the stomach. I hope you don't think we should kill all legumes just in case.

      • Newsflash: Several plants-- even some grasses-- produce cyanide in response to stress. []

        What is really being displayed in these posts are the dangers of being both opinionated and ignorant.

    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      by jamesh ( 87723 )

      Lets hope Monsanto can quickly genetically engineer this dangerous hybrid grass to something safer before it destroys the world!!

      Realistically though, their business model would be more likely to come up with cyanide resistant cows as a more marketable solution...

    • Re:BS (Score:5, Informative)

      by westlake ( 615356 ) on Saturday June 23, 2012 @07:57PM (#40424513)

      Pull the story. Get your facts straight. This farmer needs education from a local co-op extention.

      Cyanide poisoning in veterinary medicine:

      Cyanides are found in plants, fumigants, soil sterilizers, fertilizers, and rodenticides (eg, calcium cyanomide). Toxicity can result from improper or malicious use, but in the case of livestock, the most frequent cause is ingestion of plants that contain cyanogenic glycosides. These include Triglochin maritima (arrow grass), Hoecus lunatus (velvet grass), Sorghum spp (Johnson grass, Sudan grass, common sorghum), Prunus spp (apricot, peach, chokecherry, pincherry, wild black cherry), Sambucus canadensis (elderberry), Pyrus malus (apple), Zea mays (corn), and Linum spp (flax). The seeds (pits) of several plants such as the peach have been the source of cyanogenic glycosides in many cases. Eucalyptus spp , kept as ornamental houseplants, have been implicated in deaths of small animals.

      The cyanogenic glycosides in plants yield free hydrocyanic acid (HCN), otherwise known as prussic acid, when hydrolyzed by Î-glycosidase or when other plant cell structure is disrupted or damaged, eg, by freezing, chopping, or chewing. Microbial action in the rumen can further release free cyanide.

      Apple and other fruit trees contain prussic acid glycosides in leaves and seeds but little or none in the fleshy part of the fruits. In Sorghum spp forage grasses, leaves usually produce 2-25 times more HCN than do stems; seeds contain none. New shoots from young, rapidly growing plants often contain high concentrations of prussic acid glycosides.
      The cyanogenic glycoside potential is slow to decrease in drought-stricken plants containing mostly leaves. Grazing stunted plants during drought is the most common cause of poisoning of livestock by plants that produce prussic acid.

      Frozen plants may release high concentrations of prussic acid for several days. After wilting, release of prussic acid from plant tissues declines. Dead plants have less free prussic acid. When plant tops have been frosted, new shoots may regrow at the base; these can be dangerous because of glycoside content and because livestock selectively graze them.

      Ruminants are more susceptible than monogastric animals, and cattle slightly more so than sheep. Hereford cattle have been reported to be less susceptible than other breeds.

      Cyanide Poisoning: Introduction []

      A history of cyanide poisoning generally, and a good read: Cyanide Poisoning []

      Some common cyanogenic edible plants reported to cause cyanide poisoning include cassava, sorghum, sweet potatoes, yams, maize, millet, bamboo, sugarcane, peas, lima beans, soybeans, almond kernels, lemons, limes, apples, pears, peach, chokecherries, apricots, prunes, and plums. Cassava (manioc) and sorghum are staple foods for hundreds of millions of people in many tropical countries and are blamed in part for the high incidence of central and peripheral neuropathies in those areas.

      Since the time of ancient Egypt, plants containing cyanide derivatives, such as bitter almonds, cherry laurel leaves, peach pits, and cassava, have been used as lethal poisons. Peach pits used in judicial executions by the ancient Egyptians are on display in the Louvre Museum, Paris, and an Egyptian papyrus refers to the "penalty of the peach."

  • by mynamestolen ( 2566945 ) on Saturday June 23, 2012 @06:32PM (#40423903)
    A different report says this can happen in any type of grass. [] Young plants, including roots, and leaves of older plants contain a compound called dhurrin which can break down to release a substance called prussic acid or hydrogen cyanide (HCN). The recommendation is not to graze or cut for green chop until the plant is 18 to 20 inches tall.
    • This was something I was wondering.

      Even though I don't doubt this happened, the whole summary and concept sounds too much like a cheap scare tactic. The mechanisms for cyanide production had to come from somewhere. The cyanide production had to either be natural to the plant strain originally or involved with whatever was added. What you say is similarly true for yeast. Fermentation of alcohol has to occur in anaerobic environments as otherwise yeast produce other compounds. Still more research needs t

  • by flibbidyfloo ( 451053 ) on Saturday June 23, 2012 @06:38PM (#40423951)

    Something deadly like this could never naturally evolve in plants! This must be the work of unnatural, man-driven processes! Stop all science now! Anthropocentrism at its finest.

    • by tbird81 ( 946205 )

      It's as if producing cyanide has some sort of adaptive advantage to the grass. Why would Gaia do this? It's those evil scientists.

      Here's some propaganda from HowStuffWorks, pretending that clover does the same thing:

      "Some species of clover developed a mutation that caused the poison cyanide to form in the plant's cells. This gave the clover a bitter taste, making it less likely to be eaten. However, when the temperature drops below freezing, some cells ruptur, releasing the cyanide into the plant's tissues

      • It's as if producing cyanide has some sort of adaptive advantage to the grass.

        Correct. A good many plants create their own natural pesticides. Yeah, I know, citation needed, but google your own damned results, I'm not your high school biology teacher, dammit!

  • by couchslug ( 175151 ) on Saturday June 23, 2012 @06:49PM (#40424043)


    "Moo!" (thud)

  • This grass is obviously defective and should be replaced with a variety that produces equal parts cyanide and happiness. []
  • It's not GM (Score:5, Funny)

    by Alien Being ( 18488 ) on Saturday June 23, 2012 @07:07PM (#40424151)

    This is a cross of Bluegrass, Kentucky Bluegrass, Featherbed Bent, and Northern California Sensemilia. The amazing stuff about this is, that you can play 36 holes on it in the afternoon, take it home and just get stoned to the bejeezus-belt that night on this stuff.

  • Selective pressure hybridization is just a really low-tech form of genetic modification.

    Saying this is not a GM crop is misleading.

    • by tbird81 ( 946205 )

      Ahhh, so we've been doing GM for thousands of years then?

      Well good. Because now there's nothing new for the "Greenies" (who are more about control and stopping science than helping the environment) to complain about.

  • by Jerry ( 6400 ) on Saturday June 23, 2012 @08:45PM (#40424883)

    Tifton 85 was bred using PI290884, from South Africa, and Tifton 68, which is a cross between PI255450, from Kiboko, Kenya, and PI293606, from Nairobi, Kenya.

    See Fact Sheet - Cynodon Dactylon []

    Some varieties have the potential to produce high levels of prussic or hydrocyanic acid (HCN), especially when high levels of nitrogen are applied. However, instances of prussic acid poisoning in cattle grazing C. dactylon are rare. Although levels of total oxalate of >1% of the DM have been recorded, there is no experience of detrimental effects on grazing cattle. Frosted C. dactylon can cause photosensitization.

    What happened at ELGIN, Texas, is just an example of a RARE event. That the field in question has been in production for 15 years, and no other sites using Tifton 85 have reported animal deaths from cyanide, proves how rare the event is.

    Tifton 85 has nothing to do with the laboratory manipulation of DNA (Genes).

  • Most forage grasses (such as Tifton 85) produce prussic acid (HCN) in the young plants and new shoots.

    The level of prussic acid reduces as the plants mature, but the reducion of prussic acid levels is much less during drought conditions.

    When establishing a forage plot, it is comon practice to apply the selective broadleaf killing herbicide 2,4-D. A side effect of 2,4-D application is an increase in prussic acid levels 3 hours and 6 hours after application.

    The combination of drought conditions and 2,4-D application, as well as early grazing on this plot are likely to be the culprit here.

    In terms that the slashdot crowd can understand: Operator Error and Not Reading the Documentation are likely to be the cause.

    And yes, I am an Agricultural Worker.

    (Also, I know how to google for facts before I post.)

This process can check if this value is zero, and if it is, it does something child-like. -- Forbes Burkowski, CS 454, University of Washington