Can subterranean laboratories ease safety woes over crops that sprout medicine?

Don’t tell anyone, but Doug Ausenbaugh has built an underground drug farm—in bucolic southern Indiana, no less. It’s cleverly cached in an old limestone mine near the hamlet of Marengo. There, carefully cultivated stalks flourish under the glare of artificial lights and the rainlike spatter of drip irrigation.
The facility, run by Ausenbaugh’s biotech startup firm, Controlled Pharming Ventures, in cooperation with researchers from Purdue University, is intended for growing pharmaceutical crops—corn, tomatoes, tobacco and other plants whose DNA has been altered to produce a vaccine or medicinal compound. Drug companies have hailed this new field, known as biopharming, as a low-cost alternative to traditional manufacturing. But environmentalists, food-industry officials and other critics have decried pharma crops—which aren’t meant to be eaten and in some cases are toxic to humans—because of the danger of contaminating food supplies.

The fears aren’t based on mere conjecture. In 2000, evidence of a genetically modified corn intended only for animal consumption showed up in Taco Bell taco shells. Aventis CropScience, the corn’s grower, quickly abandoned the product and was forced to pay $2.4 million to people who said they had suffered allergic reactions to it. Two years later, federal officials fined the biotech company ProdiGene $3 million for allowing pharma corn carrying an experimental pig vaccine to contaminate soybeans in Iowa and Nebraska. Regulations have since been tightened, and the young industry suffered a huge blow when biotech behemoth Monsanto abandoned its biopharming research in 2003. Although several plant-produced biopharmaceuticals are still under clinical evaluation, none have reached the market yet.

Going underground, Ausenbaugh says, will resolve many of the sector’s problems. The 60-acre mine in Indiana provides a formidable barrier between the grow room and the rest of the world, easing the burden of containment in several ways. It makes pesticides unnecessary (the space is free of bugs), and it reduces the threat of vandalism (the entrance is policed by armed guards). What’s more, the constant 51°F air temperature in the cavern serves as a natural cooling system for the hot grow lights. And there’s no danger of a Midwestern storm unhinging Ausenbaugh’s creation and strewing hazardous materials for miles. (A tornado flattened Marengo just last spring.)

All things considered, a properly run underground facility “would probably be an order of magnitude safer” than a surface operation for a typical crop such as corn, says geneticist Norman Ellstrand of the University of California at Riverside. As a result, it would let growers sidestep some of the regulatory rigmarole to which biopharming is usually subjected by the U.S. Department of Agriculture—one of at least three federal agencies that scrutinize the various aspects of production, along with the Environmental Protection Agency and the Food and Drug Administration. “We probably wouldn’t have regulatory authority inside a contained facility such as a mine,” says John Turner, director of policy coordination in the USDA’s Biotechnology Regulatory Services branch.

Best of all, the underground yield can be surprisingly bountiful. Scientists at the Marengo facility recently harvested their first test crop (a modified but edible variety of corn, not an actual pharma product), and the output was prodigious—the equivalent of 337 bushels per acre, more than twice the typical amount for field corn. Each plant was grown separately from a container full of a claylike artificial soil designed for the underground conditions and irrigated with fertilized water. A computer maintains the room’s environmental conditions, including temperature, humidity and carbon dioxide level.

Considering the vast number of unused mines and other cavernous spaces in many parts of the country, Ausenbaugh sees potential for more facilities like his. He’s built a second grow room and will spend the next few months working with tomatoes, tobacco and other pharma crop candidates to see whether they fare as well as the corn. If the crops flourish, drugmakers could very well find themselves venturing into the stygian depths. Although no deals have been struck, Ausenbaugh is hopeful that his idea will help put the biopharming industry back on track, while keeping the meds out of your cornflakes.

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