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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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  • 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.

  • 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: http://www.uwex.edu/ces/forage/pubs/sorghum.htm

  • by mynamestolen ( 2566945 ) on Saturday June 23, 2012 @06:32PM (#40423903)
    A different report says this can happen in any type of grass. http://www.uwex.edu/ces/forage/pubs/sorghum.htm [uwex.edu] 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.
  • by Anonymous Coward on Saturday June 23, 2012 @06:37PM (#40423943)

    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 [tamu.edu] 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.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Saturday June 23, 2012 @07:09PM (#40424163)

    You're commenting on a story about a widely distributed GM grass unintentionally producing cyanide yet still believing the anti-GM crowd must be nuts?

    Yes the anti-GM crowd is nuts and this story only confirms it. The grass in this case was not Genetically Modified.

  • by tomhath ( 637240 ) on Saturday June 23, 2012 @07:10PM (#40424181)

    still believing the anti-GM crowd must be nuts?

    Yes, absolutely. Many grasses produce cyanide (usually called prussic acid by farmers). It's common and avoidable (Pro tip: never, ever let livestock graze near cherry trees. Wilted cherry leaves contain toxic levels of prussic acid [answers.com]). Plus this is not a GM plant, it's a hybrid.

  • Re:Dear Mr Abel (Score:4, Informative)

    by tomhath ( 637240 ) on Saturday June 23, 2012 @07:17PM (#40424229)

    /s/The Monsanto Group/University of Georgia/

    University of Georgia at Tifton and USDA, Monsanto is not involved at all.

  • 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.

  • 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 [merckvetmanual.com]

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

    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 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.

  • Re:Holy f*** (Score:5, Informative)

    by Anonymous Coward on Saturday June 23, 2012 @08:09PM (#40424617)

    Why, cyanide production is common in lots of plants. Cattle sometimes die from eating too many cherry tree leaves. I don't understand the whole problem. Put plants under stress and they will produce more secondary metabolites for a multitude of reasons, including herbivore protection.

  • Re:Dear Mr Abel (Score:5, Informative)

    by khipu ( 2511498 ) on Saturday June 23, 2012 @08:11PM (#40424635)

    You'd be amazed by all the completely natural plants that cattle will eat and that will kill them.

  • Re:Dear Mr Abel (Score:5, Informative)

    by LordLimecat ( 1103839 ) on Saturday June 23, 2012 @08:27PM (#40424773)

    A) Tifton85 isnt a Monsanto product
    B) Tifton85 isnt a GM product-- its a hybrid
    C) Some plants actually do produce cyanide, and they dont have to be GM to do so.

  • 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 [tropicalforages.info]

    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).

  • by sp332 ( 781207 ) on Saturday June 23, 2012 @08:50PM (#40424937)

    PI-290884 is the name of a sample of wild grass taken from South America. Tifton 68 is a hybrid of PI 255450 and PI 293606 which are both samples from Kenya. https://www.hort.purdue.edu/newcrop/proceedings1993/v2-294.html [purdue.edu]

  • 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 Cruciform ( 42896 ) on Sunday June 24, 2012 @10:53AM (#40429243) Homepage

    Here in Canada the tank of milk is sampled before it even leaves the farm. If it's contaminated they get hit with a heavy fine and the tank is dumped, for about 12k+ in losses for a single tank.
    It's in the best interest of the farmer to isolate every cow with mastitis or a high somatic cell count from the line as the testing can easily determine even a small amount of those contaminants.

Machines that have broken down will work perfectly when the repairman arrives.