The Environmental Protection Agency said yesterday it will impose "mild sanctions" on a Montana State University researcher who without agency approval injected 14 trees on campus with genetically engineered bacteria he hoped would fight Dutch elm disease.
Jack Moore, an assistant administrator at the EPA, said that because Gary Strobel is a private individual and the early June incident was his first offense, the agency had few punitive options.
Moore said he sent a letter to Strobel warning that for the next year, the researcher must have a responsible cosponsor cited in any applications he makes to the EPA.
In addition, Strobel must first have applications reviewed and approved by the university's biosafety committee before he sends them to the EPA.
"There isn't anything else we could do with Professor Strobel, as far as I know," said Moore, who also acknowledged, "In some respects, they're mild sanctions."
The EPA will not order Strobel's experiment terminated, but Moore said he believed university officials would order the work halted and the experimental trees on campus cut down.
The university could face NIH sanctions for violating agreements governing research funds.
Strobel has said he injected the trees without approval as an act of "civil disobedience" to protest the time required to get EPA approval for the release of genetically engineered organisms into the environment.
Moore said the EPA did not believe the genetically altered bacteria Strobel injected into the elm trees presented any grave risk to the environment. The bacteria, which can live in elm trees, had been modified to produce a chemical toxic to the fungus causing Dutch elm disease.
Only after injecting the trees with the bacteria did Strobel apply for EPA permission to perform the experiment.
Moore said at the same time that the EPA heard from Strobel, it also received phone calls from other university faculty members informing the agency that the unapproved work was in progress.
About a month after injecting the trees, Strobel exposed the elms to the Dutch elm fungus to determine whether the trees were resistant to the disease.
Moore said that part of the experiment may have violated federal regulations or state laws covering introduction of plant pests, because the disease was not present in the Bozeman, Mont., area before the experiments.