GM transformation abstract

Feeding the World
Are GM Crops fit for Purpose? If not, then what?
12th November 2008
Queen Elizabeth II Conference Centre, Westminster, London

The GM transformation process applied to crops: A basic science and technological perspective
Dr Michael Antoniou, King’s College London, UK


The GM transformation of plants is a laboratory-based procedure that represents a radical departure from natural reproduction and involves the transfer of artificial gene units between unrelated organisms, imparting on them new properties. GM is a powerful and invaluable research tool with a relatively good, safe track record when used under contained use conditions with notable successes within a clinical context.

However, the GM transformation process as applied to plants (tissue culture of plant material/cells plus foreign gene insertion process) for novel crop development suffers two major drawbacks that severely limit any contribution that it may be able to make towards meeting current and future world food needs in an effective and above all safe manner.

Firstly, the GM transformation process is highly mutagenic causing hundreds if not thousands of alterations in the DNA of the host plant. Some of these mutations will invariably disrupt the highly ordered and regulated function of plant host genes, which leads to unpredictable outcomes with unknown consequences for human/animal health and the environment. This widespread mutagenic effect of GM can manifest itself in many different ways including impaired crop growth, reduced yields, reduced nutritional value of food, toxic effects as revealed by numerous animal feeding studies and novel allergic reactions shown in both animal and human subjects.

Secondly, the GM transformation process at present can only transfer to a plant host at most a few minimised gene units that generally lack coordinated control. GM crop technology is therefore unable to transfer complex, tightly regulated arrays of genes that are at the basis of properties such as balanced enhanced nutrition, improved yield potential, pest and blight resistance, and tolerance to drought, heat and salinity. Fortunately, there already exist many highly nutritious and tasty types and varieties of food crops that are naturally adapted to grow under harsh conditions and on marginal land. A return to these traditional types and varieties of foods would have an immediate positive impact on food availability and security. In addition, if new food crop varieties are needed then the use of the rapidly emerging and expanding non-GM biotechnology tool known as “marker assisted selection (MAS)” is generally recognised as a more powerful systems biology (holistic) approach for future development. MAS makes use of our increasing knowledge of food plant gene maps to safely augment natural cross-breeding programmes between existing crop varieties and crop plants and their related wild relatives. This saves many years in the selection of new varieties with highly desirable but genetically complex traits, which GM at present and for the foreseeable future cannot deliver.               

“Genetic-modification technologies just treat the symptoms rather than dealing with the causes”, Hans Herren, president of the Millennium Institute, Arlington, Virginia (USA); co-chair of the International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology for Development (IAASTD). [Jane Qiu, Nature, 455: 850-852, 2008].


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