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February 19, 2007

'Gene deleting' tool could lead to safer GM crops

SciDev.Net has a report that scientists from China and the United States have devised a technique that could prevent the flow of transgenic genes into non-biotech crops — and might end the long-standing debate on terminator genes. This could free poor farmers from dependence on companies that sell genetically modified (GM) seeds, suggest the researchers.

If applied successfully to other crops, the technique could allow farmers to grow non-transgenic and fully viable plants using seeds or pollen from GM plants — unlike the terminator gene system, which makes the plants infertile. Terminator genes are inserted into GM seeds as a way to protect the companies' patents and ensure that no genes from GM crops contaminate
non-GM crops. But this means farmers have to buy the seeds every year.

Mohammed Gebriel, an Egyptian biotechnologist at the Belgium-based Ghent University, said the GM-gene-deletor system could free poor farmers from this dependency on multinational companies. He said it could also protect farmers' tradition of sharing seeds to improve crop varieties, as buying sterile seeds made this impossible. The gene-deleting technique also provides an important step towards tackling the environmental and health issues raised against GM crops,including consumer concerns over GM food.

The scientists designed specific molecular recognition sites around the foreign genes, targeting them for removal by specific enzymes. By incorporating these excision sites into the genome of GM tobacco plants, they found that all unwanted genes were removed from the pollen and seed with as much as 100 per cent efficiency under glasshouse conditions.

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