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Friday, 13 October, 2000, 16:50 GMT 17:50 UK
Plant barrier to 'jumping genes'
Bee AP
Pollen spread by bees can transfer genes between plants
Maize plants with a genetic barrier against 'jumping genes' have been developed by scientists in the United States.

The new breeds do not pick-up foreign genes from other plants, including genetically modified ones, say researchers at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. They believe the maize will be useful to organic farmers concerned about gene spread from GM plants growing nearby or to act as a buffer zone around GM varieties.

The plants exploit the natural ability of the weed teosinte to exclude foreign genes by a molecular barrier.

But the Soil Association, which promotes organic farming in the UK, said the technology would fail to protect the rights of organic farmers and consumers who wish to farm and eat GM-free-food.

Gene traffic

Corn varieties of all kinds, including organic and GM, are able to take-up genes from other strains when they come into contact with pollen, forming hybrids.

When this happens accidently, crops may have to be destroyed.

"Governing the flow of genes between populations is what's at stake," said Jerry Kermicle, a professor of genetics at the University of Wisconsin, who led the research. He studied teosinte, a weed that grows in the cornfields of Mexico.

"The weed is the probable ancestor of corn," Professor Kermicle told BBC News Online. "When it grows in cornfields as a weed it has remarkably little hybridisation, or cross-breeding."

Teosinte strains rarely acquire genes from cultivated corn, despite being grown alongside maize for thousands of years. The reason, said Professor Kermicle, is that teosinte has a built-in barrier that keeps foreign genes out.

This genetic barrier is now being transferred into modern varieties of maize, using traditional breeding methods.

The barrier should prevent the maize being cross-fertilised by gene-laden pollen carried by bees or blown from one field to another, said Professor Kermicle.

The new plants have not been genetically-engineered, he added: "We don't have the gene cloned so we would be unable to do that. It was classical genetic transfer through cross-breeding we used."

Organic farming

But the UK's Soil Association, which represents the interests of organic farmers, was not impressed by the new research.

"This new gene barrier will fail to protect the rights of organic farmers and consumers who wish to farm and eat GM-free-food, as GM seed and pollen will still transfer from nearby GM crops into organic fields and grow unnoticed," said a spokesperson.

"It would also place an unfair burden on organic, GM-free-farmers who would not only be forced to plant one of the few maize varieties containing this new trait but also become guinea pigs in a genetic experiment."

The new varieties of maize are not yet available commercially and are unlikely to be tested until at least 2002.

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See also:

31 May 00 | Sci/Tech
Scientists plan a virtual plant
26 May 00 | Sci/Tech
GM seed fears grow
18 May 00 | Sci/Tech
Polluted pollen's 'limited impact'
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