Deep inside the laboratories of Epcot's The Land pavilion -- beyond the world-record tomato tree or the Mickey Mouse-shaped pumpkins -- a tiny part ofone of Walt Disney's dreams is being kept alive in petri dishes.
Visitors' only brush with science there might involve Epcot's programs togrow lettuce in water or to shape vegetables like Mickey Mouse. Yet morecomplex, far-less-known, potentially more practical and possibly controversialwork has been going on side by side with those show projects for years.
In some of those tiny dishes, within microbiology laboratories walled offfrom the public, one of Epcot's primary missions is being cultivated specimenby specimen, cell by cell, gene by gene.
Scientists working in The Land labs for Disney and the U.S. Department ofAgriculture's Agriculture Research Service are trying to alter nature'sdesign for the pear tree on a molecular level.
Funded by and operating as a branch laboratory for a research project underway at a federal agriculture laboratory in Kearneysville, W.Va., the Epcotscientists want to create a new rootstock for pear trees that would stunt thegrowth of the trees, making them shorter and easier to grow and harvest, andtherefore more productive and more commercially attractive.
And they are doing so by genetically altering the cells of pear-treerootstock specimens.
"It's more than just a show," said Frederick L. Petitt, Walt Disney World'sdirector of Epcot science. "This is pretty long-term research."
Low-profile, but controversial
But unlike most Epcot research -- such as projects involving pestmanagement or dolphin communication -- it risks powerful controversy. Geneticengineering of crops draws a high level of public suspicion and has harshcritics who deride the products as "Frankenfoods."
While the pear-tree work should not affect the genetic makeup of the pears,earlier projects at Epcot have had the goal of designing better food.
"I wouldn't think Disney would touch this project with a 10-foot Cinderellawand, but Disney isn't your grandfather's cartoon company anymore," said NancyAllen, an activist with the Green Party.
Her group is part of an environmental coalition campaigning against thecreation of genetically engineered trees -- though not specifically the Epcotwork -- arguing that genetic engineering must be slowed so the consequencescan be studied more carefully. "There just is no way to know what is going tohappen in the long term, even for the growers," said Anne Petermann,co-director of the Global Justice Ecology Project.
Research-project director Ralph Scorza of the U.S. Agriculture ResearchService said he thinks such critics overlook the extreme care taken in theresearch -- and its potential benefits. That's one reason Epcot's labs wererecruited.
"It does give us a chance to talk to people about the whole process, andabout the safety of it, and the oversight," Scorza said.
One of Walt Disney's original plans for Epcot -- which didn't open until16 years after his death -- was that it would be a center of cutting-edgescience and technology. Walt Disney's vision was to build a full-fledged city,called the Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow, or EPCOT for short.
Throughout today's version of Epcot, visitors are treated to "shows" ofinteresting but often old and relatively simple technology, such as The Land'shydroponic gardens, which allow Disney to grow the world's most prolifictomato "tree" or to create Mickey Mouse-shaped vegetables.
There is nothing simple about the pear-tree project.
"That laboratory in Epcot could just as well be a laboratory down thehall," Scorza said, talking recently by phone from his Kearneysville office."People are doing the work that we need them to do for our program. It's notmade for show. It's real research that we're doing. It's very important forthe program. But also, we think, it has a story to tell."
Petitt said the public has raised almost no concerns about the research atEpcot. And the pear-tree project is not the first there to involve geneticengineering.
In the early 1990s, Epcot and the Agriculture Research Service teamed ongenetically altered peanuts, to create more nutritious peanut oil. Later, theyworked together on genetically altered peach trees, seeking to create peachesthat stay firm longer. Epcot's Innovations pavilion also housed a multimediaexhibit espousing genetic engineering for several years and got little publicbacklash, he said.
Cutting-edge, behind the scenes
Sometimes visitors floating past the laboratories on tour boats in the"Living with the Land" ride or wandering backstage in the "Behind the Seeds"walking tour might see people in white coats doing some sort of laboratorybench-top work. But tour guides often don't mention the work'sgenetic-engineering aspects, unless a tourist asks.
The scientists are using molecular-transfer techniques to extract from asmall, specific weed, genes that are associated with dwarf growth so they cantransplant them into the root cells for a pear tree. If the new genes cancontrol the growth of the new culture, they could produce pear-tree rootstocksthat would produce only shorter-than-normal pear trees.
Contrary to some Internet rumors, nothing from the genetics lab ever isserved to people in Epcot restaurants. The work is expected to take many yearsbefore any viable rootstock specimens might proceed far enough to outgrowpetri dishes or small glass jars.
The development of actual trees capable of bearing fruit likely won'thappen at Epcot, Scorza said. And long before anything edible could beproduced, the research would have to receive scrutiny and approval from avariety of federal agencies, he said.
"I don't understand what scares people," he said. "I think it's [becauseit's] something new. It's something different."
Source: Orlando Sentinel