Novartis launches "safer" gene marker

Company hails alternative to antibiotic resistance genes as "breakthrough" for GM crops

Swiss-based international life sciences firm Novartis yesterday claimed a "breakthrough" for plant biotechnology, announcing a new way of tagging genetically modified crop cells that could replace the use of antibiotic resistance genes. The company said it hoped to see regulatory reviews of the first commercial genetically modified (GM) crops to use the system begin within two years.

Antibiotic resistance genes have been the biotechnology industry's main technique for selecting cells that have successfully integrated new genes in the laboratory for growth into plants. For all of this time, fears have been raised over potential adverse effects of widespread expression of antibiotic resistance genes in the environment. With the rapid escalation of European controversy over GM crops in the late 1990s, the issue took on a far greater political significance.

According to Novartis, the new gene marker system it has developed is based on giving cells the ability to use a simple sugar called mannose to grow. Transformed cells will be cultivated in mannose; only those which have successfully integrated the new genetic material will survive.

However, the firm continued to maintain that antibiotic resistance markers did not, in fact, pose risks to health or the environment. They were, instead, "often confused with antibiotic use in healthcare" where it is undisputed that over-use has led to growing microbial resistance to medically important drugs.

Follow Up:
Novartis, tel: +41 61 324 2200, and press release.

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