UA Graduate Student Presents Research to Congress

PhD student Shannon Heuberger shared the results of her study to track the unwanted gene flow between genetically engineered pest resistant crops and non-pest resistant crops with an eye toward developing containment strategies.
Oct. 4, 2009
UA doctoral entomology student Shannon Heuberger as she examines cotton crops in her search to find unwanted gene flows in pest resistant cotton crops and non-pest resistant crops.
UA doctoral entomology student Shannon Heuberger as she examines cotton crops in her search to find unwanted gene flows in pest resistant cotton crops and non-pest resistant crops.

A University of Arizona graduate student's work was one of 28 research projects selected nationally to be presented on Capitol Hill.

UA doctoral entomology student Shannon Heuberger grew up in Oregon near farming areas, which resulted in her developing an interest in agriculture. Growing tired of flipping burgers as a high school student, she pursued a summer internship with the U.S. Department of Agriculture at an entomology laboratory that jump started a career in the study of agricultural gene flow and its environmental consequences.

Heuberger works in the laboratory of professor of entomology Yves Carriere in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences and has developed a method for documenting and understanding unwanted gene flow between genetically engineered pest resistant crops and non-pest resistant crops, with an eye toward developing containment strategies.

She presented her work in September during the 2009 United States Environmental Protection Agency's Science to Achieve Results (STAR) Graduate Fellowship Conference and had the opportunity to educate policymakers and show congress the results of their funding.

In the U.S., 50 percent of corn and cotton crops are pest resistant genetically modified organisms that contain the DNA from other species. Traditionally cotton has been one of the most pesticide intensive crops and in Arizona the cotton industry relies heavily on pest resistant genetically modified cotton that prevents pest feeding of the crop. 

"In high school I began working on farms with farmers and learning about challenges they face. I learned that pest management is one of the huge problems facing farmers today. Farmers need more options, more effective ways to control pests in their fields and also more sustainable ways to protect their fields," Heuberger said.

Heuberger was attracted to the UA for graduate work because of the collaboration between several laboratories on campus who were working with cotton, a major crop in Arizona. She was impressed with the variety of professionals from various fields who were collectively working on the issue.  

"I believe that to solve these huge challenges in agriculture we need all disciplines to work together. The reality and the challenge is that when we think we have a pest management strategy that will be the big solution to the problem, we find that those pests evolve and it's not the case any longer," she added.

Heuberger's work had concentrated on studying the management of pest resistance to genetically engineered cotton, until she discovered the genetic overflow of pest resistant crops onto non-pest resistant crops.

The implications, Heuberger said, are important for farmers in that gene flow into unintended areas may affect the marketability of organic crops, complicate the removal of genetically modified organisms, lead to pest resistance to the genetically modified trait and alter the genetics of wild plants.

Long field days in Southern Arizona collecting data included one in which Heuberger became overheated in a humid, close-canopied cotton field, and after collapsing , was barely able to make it back to her truck.   

The rigorous field work paid off as she developed a strategy to test, measure and map insect pollinated crops to understand how transgenes or genetically engineered traits move out of fields into unintended places. The study is the first of its kind to look at all the possible sources of gene movement within insect pollinated crops.  

For Heuberger, the opportunity to share her work with policymakers revealed another interesting aspect about her research and the career path she chose.

"It was an amazingly important experience because I'm interested in helping farmers and I'm interested in research that actually translates to changes in people's lives. Research has led to more sustainable methods of crop production. Having the chance to bridge the gap between science and policy was pivotal for me," Heuberger said.  

In addition, Heuberger said, the opportunity to educate people about genetically modified crops was eye opening, revealing to her that many people, including policy makers, have no idea that the food they eat is genetically engineered.

"A goal of sustainable pest management is to reduce insecticice use, and genetically engineered crops have contributed greatly to that effort," Heuberger said.

In fact, Heuberger said, sustainable pest management is imperative for humans.

"We are facing amazing agricultural challenges with global warming and with rapid human population growth. Technological advances are totally necessary to meet those challenges. And it is in everyone's best interest to ensure that the right strategies are in place to guide those technologies," she added.