Guidelines for safer GM crops proposed

UK committee sets out technologies for minimising gene transfer, other environmental risks

A compendium of techniques that the biotechnology industry could use to minimise potential environmental risks of genetically modified (GM) crops has been produced by a UK committee. A committee member told ENDS Daily that the document marked the first attempt by a European government to take a comprehensive approach to designing safer GM plants.

Produced by the advisory committee on releases to the environment, the guidance on best practice in the design of GM crops lists a wide range of techniques that it says firms can use or will be able to in future to reduce gene transfer, avoid pollen toxicity, prevent unintended survival of GM plants and prevent adverse effects on non-target organisms.

The document suggests a series of techniques to ensure that new traits in plants are "biologically contained" so as to minimise gene transfer and dispersal in the environment, including exploitation of flowering-time difference and production of GM crops that cannot produce pollen.

Several techniques under development for controlling flowering and fertility are discussed, all aimed at minimising gene transfer. These include production of seeds without fertilisation and crops whose flowers fail to open. Sterile seeds - also known as terminator technology - is also suggested as a route to biological containment.

The document recommends that biotechnology firms should minimise "extraneous" DNA so as to reduce risks of unexpected effects both by avoiding its insertion in the first place and by eliminating any introduced.

Unnecessary transgene expression should be minimised, it says, while alternative "markers" to antibiotic resistance genes should be used, such as reporter genes, cytotoxic resistance genes and genes that confer an ability to use particular compounds. Some of these could bring their own risk assessment issues, it notes.

Follow Up:
UK environment ministry, tel: +44 20 79 44 30 00, the report, and press release from English Nature.

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