As I was graduating from the department of agricultural engineering at the university in Leuven, Belgium, in 1981, something new and exciting was happening in the world. Innovative techniques were emerging that allowed the successful mixing of genetic material from unrelated species, say a bacterium and a crop plant, to construct a new genetically modified organism (GMO).
A Fortuitous Meeting
Life follows a direction that is often the consequence of seemingly trivial events. One such event in my life was meeting Marc van Montagu, a professor at Ghent University, who invited me to join his plant molecular biology team, which at that time was undoubtedly the world's number one. Spending 10 years in an international research group that is at the forefront of science automatically leads to an accumulation of knowledge and expertise that can hardly be acquired under different learning conditions. On top of that, being the only agricultural engineer in a group of more than 100 biologists, van Montagu delegated all agricultural- and developing country-related issues to me. Consequently, on top of my training in the technical aspects of the science, I also became acquainted with international collaborations, including agricultural field trials in Senegal and evaluating royal agricultural projects in Thailand.
After several years in Ghent I sent in my application, together with thousands of others, for a research post at the European Commission. "Send it in, and forget about it!" I thought.
Why the Joint Research Centre ( JRC) of the European Commission hired me in December 1990, I don't know, but I assume that the mix of an excellent training background and international expertise had pleased the members of the recruitment jury. So, I was recruited, packed my bags, and went to northern Italy, with only one word of Italian: "Buongiorno!"
It was lonely in the beginning. I was supervised by a professor in medical sciences who retired within a few months, and I was left to work alone on a project which was new to the JRC, focussing on the nuclear and chemical risks associated with large industrial facilities. At that time GMOs where still of marginal interest: They were grown in greenhouses or in very small field trials, and although the public was interested in the subject, it was certainly not as controversial as it is now. For several years I worked as a sort of "internal commission consultant", providing scientific and technical support in areas such as environmental risk assessment to Commission services and to the national responsible authorities.
Slowly but steadily the perception changed and together with the general public, the European Commission and the European Parliament also became more involved in GMO issues. By that time GMOs were no longer cultivated only in remote areas--they were available on supermarket shelves, and the matter had become very sensitive.
The JRC had been working quietly on GMOs for many years, building up credibility and demonstrating its expertise and the quality of its research to member states and Commission services. Now it was in a position to react strongly to the request for reliable tests to assure consumers of the presence, or absence, of GMOs in their food.
As in 1981, when joining the Ghent group led to a considerable change in my career, my professional life took a similarly big and decisive step in 2000. At that time, I had just chaired a meeting with national control laboratories to discuss the technical difficulties they were facing in distinguishing a GM from a non-GM food. The then director of my institute, and present director-general of the JRC, Barry McSweeney, not only grasped the value of the initiative but also made it an absolute priority to turn the GMO project into one of the major JRC themes. Now, only 3 years later, the group has about 30 staff members, two world-class laboratories, and is one of the eight priority areas of the JRC in the 6th Framework Programme. Furthermore, what was in 2000 still a hesitant initiative of control laboratories has now turned into the European Network of GMO Laboratories, which is considered as one of the most important tools for the implementation of the GMO regulations. It will officially be inaugurated on 4 December.
The JRC GMO Group
So what does the JRC's 30-strong GMO group do? Food must be labelled if any of the ingredients used for its production contain more than 1% of GMOs. Thus we must develop appropriate means for accurate sampling; we must be able to detect the GMOs in the food (looking for the needle in the haystack), even--or I should say especially--if it is unauthorised (looking for the invisible needle in the haystack); we must be able to measure "how much" GMO has been used; and we must ascertain through development of validated methods that those methods can be globally used for control purposes. The analyte we measure can be either DNA or proteins, and so we need a variety of molecular biology expertise.
The techniques we apply may seem simple: Mostly we apply the molecular gene-copy machine, polymerase chain reaction (PCR), to multiply the transgene that is characteristic for the GMO but absent in the mother crop, until we have such a huge quantity of multiplied DNA that we can see the band when applied on a gel. Simple, yes, if carried out by skilled people. The protocols applied must also be highly robust, very specific, and very reproducible. Think about it: If a batch of flour does not contain material from a GMO but tests positive because the method is not specific, or because we have contaminated reagents, this is not of great help to the industry, because we may accuse them of something they are not responsible for. Similarly, if that flour contains a GMO but we can't detect its presence, this is hardly of any help to the consumer. Once we have seen the GMO, we also need to know how much GMO is present. Setting up the PCR reaction to be able to distinguish between a 0.8% GM concentration (no need for labelling) and a 1.2% GM concentration (labelling required) requires the best skills and the best protocols.
At present half of the staff in our group is permanent, with the other half consisting of visiting researchers who are either preparing their PhDs or are at the postdoctoral level. About 10 different nationalities are represented, distributed over five major projects that all share the same objective: to provide efficient and robust means for the harmonised implementation of GM regulation in the EU. In the lab, all have a molecular biology background, either in pure molecular biology, or in some specialist field such as plant molecular biology, environmental population genetics, or protein chemistry. It is fascinating to manage a team that has great intellectual diversity, from bioinformatics to immunological assays and from sampling to method validation, but that works toward the same goals. Such a team cannot work alone, and we therefore have a vast network of collaborating laboratories. This pan-European networking is the essence of commissioner Philippe Busquin's vision for the 6th Framework Programme, and it certainly applies to our research as well.
The JRC also has an important role to play in the process of EU expansion, and we have a very active policy for training and hosting scientists from the accession states. In fact, we organise--in collaboration with the World Health Organization--three training sessions per year to ensure that national laboratories throughout the world will be able to carry out the tests required by EU legislation.
So far, we have not been confronted with a change in the political environment and expect that the GMO issue will remain high on the political agenda during the coming years. Therefore, we can lay down a work strategy for the short, medium, and probably even long terms. However, if things should change, then the expertise of permanent members of the group could and would be redeployed without too much difficulty to other issues of interest to the JRC, such as virology, microbiology, allergens, or to any other area that requires expertise in genomics, proteomics, or bioinformatics. Having such a "backdoor" option is important for the appropriate management of people and facilities.
Never a Dull Moment
Probably the most fascinating part of working in this field at the JRC is being able to operate at the unique intersection between policy-making, science, consumer protection, and industrial advancement. Although I still consider myself a scientist, the "science" I perform is different from the science in university laboratories. Indeed, being a European Commission laboratory, our work should serve the Commission and the national governments and we should carry out work that cannot be easily carried out by national institutes because, for instance, impartiality is required. Method optimisation and validation studies are typical examples of science at the JRC. Consequently, the scientists we recruit should be open-minded about the world out there; he or she should be able to understand what "serving the European citizen" means.
Working at this intersection is probably also the most difficult part of the job. Although I have never encountered any difficulties with the science part of the work, dealing with policy-making and policy-makers requires different skills, and can be tricky. In this respect I found it very valuable to have spent a few months in Brussels to feel what life is like, running around between Commission and Council meetings, meetings with competent authorities and with industry. The experience has made me understand much better what it means to provide appropriate "scientific and technical support."
Another aspect of working in the JRC that I enjoy very much is that, not only at the JRC site, but in the entire working environment (at the Commission in Brussels, collaborating laboratories in member states, national governments ...) all contacts are multinational, multilingual, and multicultural. National quarrels disappear and make way for new and attractive viewpoints, stimulating opinions, and not least, the opportunity to be introduced to fascinating customs, foods, and so forth, from numerous cultures. Thus, it is essential that JRC scientists not only enjoy moving around on the international scene, but that they can do so with ease. A high-level of resistance to home sickness is an advantage.
What are the drawbacks of working at the JRC? For those that fit in well, there are hardly any. Responsible people working on relevant issues normally get all the support they need to carry out their tasks under the best professional and social conditions. It is a great place for those that like to apply their scientific knowledge to the reality of everyday life. The scientific drawbacks must be accepted: The type of research done here is not always easy to publish, and a lot of time must be spent on providing different types of services. But once a hectic working week is over, it is time to enjoy the alpine mountains and the charming lakes, or just to hang around with probably the most fascinating people in the world: the Italians.