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Festival of science Friday, 8 September, 2000, 12:02 GMT 13:02 UK
GM apples could fight tooth decay
By BBC News Online's Helen Briggs

GM technology could transform the humble apple into a cure for rotten teeth or a saviour of Britain's ailing fruit-growing business, claim industry scientists.

Experiments are underway to develop genetically modified apples and strawberries that prevent tooth decay.

Researchers are also trying to engineer longer-lasting apples and strawberries resistant to mould.

Unless British fruit growers embrace such technology their future looks bleak, said Professor David James of Horticulture Research International, a leading plant biotechnology research institute.

But pressure groups say GM technology is not the solution to the problems of fruit growers.

Apple orchard decline

Speaking at the British Association's Festival of Science, Professor James said the county of Kent, famous for growing apples, had already lost 30% of its orchards in the last five years and time was running out.

"It's a matter of whether the technology can be applied in time," said Professor James. "It may be too late. Places like China, South Africa and the Pacific rim countries, particularly, will adopt the technology eventually, so we could be faced with the prospect of importing fruit into this country in 10 or 20 years' time."

Professor James appealed to anti-GM campaigners to find out more about the technology: "There's been a lot of heat and very little light in this debate," he said.

But Dr Sue Mayer, director of independent policy research group Genewatch UK, said fruit growers should not be swayed by "bullying biotechnology companies".

"Judging by the current situation, if fruit growers were to adopt GM fruits, they would completely lose their market in Europe," she said. "All major food producers have taken abrupt steps to remove those GM foods that exist at the moment from their food products. There's no evidence that either they or the public are looking positively at GM foods."

Tooth fairies

Professor James told the Festival of Science that scientists are also working on producing health care products in fruit. He is collaborating with dental researchers on a project to develop an anti-tooth-decay therapy that might one day be manufactured in fruit.

Scientists at Guy's Hospital in London have identified a protein that prevents tooth-rotting bacteria from sticking to teeth. Trials are underway to see if the protein, when painted on teeth, can protect against decay.

The ultimate goal of the work is to introduce the gene that makes this protein into fruit. This would turn strawberries or apples into bio-factories producing anti-tooth-decay drugs.

Dr Charles Kelly from the immunology department at Guy's Hospital said they had already synthesised a protein that appears to stop tooth decay. "It may be that one day producing it in plants would be a good way of making it in large quantities," he told BBC News Online.

The BBC's science correspondent, David Concar
"Not everyone thinks GM is the answer"
Professor David James
"You need a delivery system"
See also:

12 Oct 99 | Sheffield 99
22 Feb 00 | Washington 2000
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