Science in Society Archive

Top Research Centre Admits GM Failure

Scientists in UK's top GM crop research institute, the John Innes Centre, are finally admitting to the public that GM crops are no good. It amounts to pronouncing the death sentence on GMOs.

The John Innes Centre (JIC) is UK's leading plant research institute, publicly funded by the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC) to the tune of more than £10m in grants every year. It also houses the Sainsbury Laboratory and has research alliances with Zeneca and Dupont.

Not surprisingly, JIC has some of the most pro-GM scientists staunchly defending GM crops from critics like ourselves, even as they are pointing to the same problems in scientific papers published in specialist journals. For years, we have been drawing attention to the instability of GM constructs and GM lines. This raises serious safety concerns over the possibility that the GM genes could spread horizontally to unrelated species, creating new bacteria and viruses by recombination. More recently, we have also argued that the promoter from cauliflower mosaic virus (CaMV 35S promoter), which is in practically all GM crops already commercialised or undergoing field trials, will make GM constructs and GM lines extra unstable, and hence greatly exacerbating the problems of horizontal gene transfer and recombination.

Two items in the latest annual report from JIC are note worthy. The first [1] reveals that GM barley lines became unstable and variable in later generations of field trials. The researchers conclude, "The results show that transgenic lines need to be examined over a number of generations under field conditions to obtain the necessary data on transgenic stability and agronomic performance". They also call for "detailed molecular and genetic analysis". ISIS has been demanding the same for years, along with other scientists.

The second item [2] concerns the CaMV 35S promoter. When ISIS pointed out the dangers of this promoter in the scientific journals, we were reviled and attacked. Our fiercest critic was leader of a research group in the JIC that had discovered the promoter has a 'recombination hotspot', a breaking point that makes it much more likely to recombine. Now, two years later, the same group admits the need to avoid recombination hotspots such as that in the CaMV 35S promoter as well as the 'origin of replication' in the plasmid serving as vector for the GM construct, which is also often integrated 'accidentally' into GM crops.

The authors of the second report also suggest the development of 'clean DNA' technology as a possible solution to the problem. But that amounts to pronouncing the death sentence for all GMOs. All GM crops currently on the market or under review contain the CaMV 35S promoter and many, also the plasmid backbone, including the origin of replication.

The Director of JIC and the scientists concerned have issued a strongly worded denial since our press release. (Readers can judge if our reading was justified from the full texts reproduced in ISIS' press release.) Apart from attacking ISIS, and repeating all the objections that we have already replied to in detail in published papers, they said essentially that the issue was one of agronomic performance and not safety. Furthermore, they claim that their transgenic rice lines are stable. We beg to differ, and do watch out for our reply.

Joe Cummins has replied personally to the tired old point they raise and again, that people have been eating lots of CaMV in infected cabbages for thousands of years without ill-effects. He writes, "It is worth pointing out that virus infected crucifers are not tasty items and they are avoided by most animal predators including humans. JIC may be exceptional in consuming large quantities of virus infected crops and certainly those laboring at the institute are worthy of fuller study"!

(We thank Mark Griffiths for drawing our attention to the items in the JIC Report. For the detailed quotes from the JIC report see ISIS Press Release.)

  1. Harwood, WA, Hardon J, Ross SM, Fish L, Smith J and Snape JW. Analysis of transgenic barley in a small scale field trial. John Innes Centre & Sainsbury Laboratory Annual Report 1999/2000, p.28.
  2. Christrou, P, Kohli A, Stoger E, Twyman R, Agrawal P, Gu X, Xiong J, Wegel E, Keen D, Tuck H, Wright M, Abranches R and Shaw P. Transgenic plants: a tool for fundamental genomics research. John Innes Centre & Sainsbury Laboratory Annual Report 1999/2000, p.29.

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