EU scientists see risk from GMO marker genes

Influential committee says antibiotic genes should be removed from GMOs as a precaution

The European Commission's top scientific committee has called on the biotechnology industry to phase out the use of antibiotic resistance genes in new genetically modified organisms. A report by the EU scientific steering committee examines the issue of growing microbial resistance to antibiotics, which it attributes mainly to overuse of antibiotics for humans and livestock. However, it also recommends ending the practice of using antibiotic resistance "marker genes" to help identify organisms into which target DNA has been successfully inserted. Scientists have warned for many years that this might lead to the genes being transferred in the environment to harmful microbes, thus worsening still further the spread of microbial resistance. More recently, anti-GM groups have waged a strong campaign against the practice. In February, the European Parliament called for antibiotic resistance marker genes to be banned under the revised EU directive on GMO testing and commercialisation. There is as yet no evidence that antibiotic resistance genes in modified organisms have actually been transferred in the environment, according to the EU committee. However, it recommends removal of any such gene that could confer resistance to a clinically important antibiotic before a GMO is commercialised as a short-term precautionary measure, followed by an end to their use in the development of new varieties.

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