Ignacio Chapela (born 1959) is a microbial ecologist and mycologist at the University of California, Berkeley. He is best known for a controversial 2001 paper in Nature on the flow of transgenes into wild maize populations, as an outspoken critic of the University of California's ties to the biotechnology industry, as well as a later dispute with the University over denial of tenure that Chapela argued was politically motivated. Chapela is also notable for his work with natural resources and indigenous rights.
In the late 1980s, Chapela did his PhD dissertation research at Cardiff University on the ecology of microbial wood-rotting fungi. He continued research on a number of areas of fungal ecology through the 1990s, as a visiting scholar at various research institutions, private companies, and NGOs, finally settling at UC Berkeley, where he has been on the faculty the Department of Environmental Sciences, Policy, and Management (ESPM) since 1996.
He has worked on the symbiosis between leafcutter ants and their cultivated fungi. His research seems to indicate that some leaf-cutter ants have "domesticated" a single lineage of fungi for over 30 million years; Chapela is currently studying this symbiosis from evolutionary and agricultural perspectives, as well as looking for ways to manipulate it.
Chapela was co-author (with his graduate student, David Quist) of a controversial 2001 Nature paper about the flow of transgenes into wild Mexican maize. Controversy over the accuracy of the claims and methodological concerns about the paper led to an editor's note saying there was insufficient evidence to justify the original publication. Advocates of GM crops widely, and erroneously, called this a retraction.
A subsequent study performed in 2003–2004 at two independent labs, found no evidence of transgenic DNA in Mexican maize. However, a more recent study published in the February 2009 issue of Molecular Ecology confirmed the presence of transgenic DNA in Mexican maize. The study, however, did not confirm an important conclusion from the 2001 Nature paper, namely, that the transgene-contaminated corn has replicated. Chapela is reported to have stated in response to the study, "It is good to see this...but it took seven years."
Disputes with University of California
Chapela objected to an agreement in which the department and faculty of Plant and Microbial Biology at UC Berkeley took money from Novartis in exchange for a degree of publication scrutiny and trade secrecy, taking a strong position on the issue.
Chapela was initially denied tenure at UC Berkeley in 2003. Supporters claim that this stems from opposition to Chapela's anti-Novartis activism from Molecular and Cell Biology faculty member Jasper Rine, who was both a member of the tenure committee and in a research relationship with the company. However, Chapela was ultimately awarded tenure in 2005.
Chapela has also spoken out against the deal between UC Berkeley, University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, and British Petroleum to research the development of biofuels, which may involve genetically engineering microorganisms and plants. The grant went into effect in 2007. The case is detailed in the German documentary Gekaufte Wahrheit - Gentechnik im Magnetfeld des Geldes (Bought Truth - Gene technology influenced by money).
Chapela founded The Mycological Facility in Oaxaca state, a facility dealing with questions of natural resources and indigenous rights, and collaborates with indigenous communities in Mexico, Costa Rica, and Ecuador on issues of rights to genetic resources. He is also an advisory board member for The Sunshine Project, an organization promoting citizens' concerns with biosafety and biowarfare.
Chapela is a member of the San Francisco Bay Area group Retort collective.
- Quist, David; Ignacio Chapela. (2001). "Transgenic DNA introgressed into traditional maize landraces in Oaxaca, Mexico". Nature 414 (6863): 541–543. doi:10.1038/35107068. PMID 11734853.
- Dalton, Rex. (2008-11-12). "Modified genes spread to local maize". Nature 456 (7219): 149. doi:10.1038/456149a. PMID 19005518. Retrieved 2010-12-26.
- Wagner, Holly. (2005-08-08). "Genetically modified maize not found in southern Mexico". Ohio State University Research News. Retrieved 2010-12-26.
- Pineyro-Nelson A. et al (2009). "Transgenes in Mexican maize: molecular evidence and methodological considerations for GMO detection in landrace populations". Molecular Ecology 18 (4): 750–761. doi:10.1111/j.1365-294X.2008.03993.x. PMC 3001031. PMID 19143938.
- Schwartz, Emma. (2003-04-30). "Colleagues fear professor's research may adversely affect his tenure review". The Daily Californian. Retrieved 2010-12-26.
- Dalton, Rex. (2004-08-04). "Review of tenure refusal uncovers conflicts of interest". Nature 430: 598. doi:10.1038/430598a. Archived from the original on 2007-09-29. Archived at Archive.org, 2007-09-29.
- Bergman, Barry. (2005-05-21). "For controversial biology researcher Ignacio Chapela, the long and winding road ends with tenure at Berkeley". UC Berkeley NewsCenter. Retrieved 2010-12-26.
- Burress, Charles. (2005-05-21). "Embattled UC teacher is granted tenure". San Francisco Chronicle. Retrieved 2010-12-26.