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Tuesday, April 20, 1999 Published at 15:40 GMT 16:40 UK


Oilseed gene leak 'unsurprising'

Hybridisation of the plants was expected, say scientists

UK Government scientists have cross-pollinated oilseed rape with a species of wild turnip, regarded as a weed by many farmers.

John MacLeod explains the purpose of the experiments
The experiment demonstrates a route by which genes in genetically-modified (GM) rape might "leak" into the environment.

But the Director of the National Institute of Agricultural Botany, John McLeod, told BBC News Online: "It is not at all surprising that oilseed rape will hybridise with some of its very close relatives."

The purpose of the experiment, he said, was to find how frequently the hybridisation occurred, not if it occurred at all. The full details will not be made public before further experiments are completed and published in a scientific journal.

Food under the microscope
Concern on this issue has arisen because if GM rape was altered to make it resistant to a herbicide, for example, then this research shows it is possible for this trait to be passed to the wild turnip. A so-called "superweed" could be created that would also be tolerant to the herbicide.

Scientists from Niab in Cambridgeshire grew the test plot of wild turnips just four metres from the oilseed rape.

Seeds taken from the turnip showed the adult plants had been pollinated by the rape. About a half of the hybrids grown from the seeds were found to be fertile and therefore capable of passing on their genes to subsequent generations.

Oilseed rape (B napus) is a brassica, as is the wild turnip (B rapa) and rape is, itself, a product of hybridisation. It is grown for its edible oil and is one of the most important commercial crops in Europe.

GM oilseed experiment

A second experiment carried out by Niab in Yorkshire showed that GM and non-GM oilseed rape varieties also hybridised when grown next to each other.

"The result, as you would you expect, showed that there was some level of hybridisation between these compatible but different varieties," said Professor McLeod.

Those groups opposed to genetic modification have seized upon the announcements. Friends of the Earth said it showed that herbicide resistance and other traits engineered into oilseed rape would inevitably be transferred into the wild populations.

"We need to proceed with the utmost caution before we commercialise any of these GM crops," said a spokesman. "We need to know far more about what makes a weed become a problem on agricultural land before we embark on something that is supposed to give us the benefits of reduced herbicide inputs but, in the long-term, may actually cause us to use more herbicides."

He said the imposition of "sterile" barriers between GM and conventional crops was also counterproductive because this would in itself harm biodiversity.

Farm-scale trials

The Environment Minister Michael Meacher, whose responsibilities cover the planting of GM test crops, said the news underlined the need to press ahead with farm-scale trials.

Only then, he told the BBC, would the precise impact of releasing new organisms into the environment become clear.

"If, instead of having field trials on a contained basis, we now have whole fields which are planted with these crops, and they are checked against comparable fields nearby which have conventional crops in them, we can test what the effect will be on biodiversity, on the wildlife, on the field margins, on the predator species and, indeed, on superweeds."

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