One California biotechnology company has had better luck on the slopes than in the fields this winter.
The company's snow-making bacteria has blanketed ski runs at nine resorts this year and may someday be used to build industrial icebergs or to freeze Popsicles.
But the company, Advanced Genetic Sciences Inc., continues to struggle against opposition to its plans to spray its frost-inhibiting bacteria across a field of strawberry blossoms.
Although derived from the same microorganism, the two products have grown to reflect both the possibilities and pitfalls of biotechnology -- the chance to use biological processes in novel ways that may either produce promising new products or legal headaches.
The snow-making product, "Snomax," was well received during its first year of commercial sales and is expected to generate revenue of more than $1 million in this country, said Douglas J. Sarojak, director of marketing and product development for the Oakland firm.
But "Frostban," which was developed to prevent frost damage to crops, has generated lawsuits and a national debate about the environmental hazards of genetic engineering. "We are frustrated," Sarojak said.
Both products employ strains of a common microbe, called Psuedomonas syringae, that grows on most plants.
The differences between the two bacteria are both microscopic and monumental: one is normal, while the other is missing part of one gene; thus, one is dead, while the other is alive.
Both Frostban and Snomax take advantage of the fact that the Psuedomonas syringae bacteria secrete a protein that acts to promote ice-crystal formation.
The protein serves as a "nucleator," a substance that draws water molecules into position to form ice. Dust is believed to be the usual source of nucleation for snow; silver iodide is the usual choice of snow-makers at ski resorts.
To make Frostban, AGS scientists have removed part of the gene that directs the bacteria to produce the ice-nucleating protein. The company hopes to spray the genetically altered living microbe on young plants, where it should thrive and thereby prevent the normal frost-promoting bacteria from growing.
To make Snomax, AGS has grown the normal bacteria through fermentation, nurturing the microbes so they produce the ice-nucleating protein in large quanitites.
The bacteria, with the protein attached, is then freeze-dried and turned into a creamy-colored powder that can be mixed with water and squirted from snow-making guns onto the slopes.
Opponents of Frostban contend that genetically altered living organisms, if released into the environment, could multiply, migrate and threaten the environment.
Snomax fans say it produces great snow and can make the difference between a profitable season and a loss for resorts that depend on snow-making equipment.
Jeremy Rifkin, an author and activist who filed a lawsuit to prevent outdoor testing of Frostban, said Snomax tampers with the natural ecological balance, but "it doesn't give me a lot of problems. . . I don't sit up nights thinking about it."
An advisory panel of the National Institutes of Health deemed the Frostban experiment to be safe, and the Environmental Protection Agency has given AGS permission to conduct a limited field test on a plot of strawberries in Monterey County, Calif.
But environmentalists, including Rifkin's Foundation on Economic Trends, which is based in Washington, have asked a federal court to block the experiment, arguing that EPA lacks the scientific tools to judge the risks.
The Monterey County Board of Supervisors has imposed a 45-day moratorium on such experiments to allow time for the legal and environmental issues to be reviewed.
While the court, county and company wrestle with the questions raised about Frostban, AGS is enjoying smooth skiing with Snomax.
"It's great," said Willis Stoick, owner of the Alpine Valley Ski Area, a resort about 10 miles west of Pontiac, Mich.
"It freezes better, it's less mushy and gives you more quality at warmer temperatures," he said.
Stoick said Alpine Valley makes about 95 percent of its snow and that the skiers preferred the Snomax-produced snow. "They said they liked it and wanted to know what I did to the snow."
The product was sold on a limited basis this season, and more than 20 resorts have said they want to try it, he said.
The company packages the powder like a cake-mix in a waterproof pouch inside a box. One 12-ounce package mixed with water should cover one acre with one foot of snow, Sarojak said.
At $65 a box, Snomax is "definitely a saving" for Alpine Valley, Stoick said.
But Schuss Mountain Resort, near Traverse City, Mich., decided the product was not worth it in very cold weather. "We had hoped to try it in warmer temperatures," said Ron Aldrich, the resort's manager. Because the resort had unusually cold weather this season, Snomax "didn't make a big enough difference" in snow production, he said.
AGS's initial marketing targets are the approximately 850 North American ski areas that depend upon snow-making to stay in business. The company estimates this to be about 50 percent of the potential world market.
The company also is testing Snomax for use in producing ice as a construction material in the Arctic. Ice is used there to build support surfaces for buildings and runways, and could possibly be used to construct ice platforms for oil drilling.
AGS also is working with an electric utility to explore the possible use of Snomax in air-conditioning systems.
Another potential market is the food-process industry, which could use the product to increase the speed of freezing items, such as Popsicles and ice cream. The company also claims that "Snomax may also improve the flavor of Popsicles."