Science in Society Archive

Terminator Alert

UK GM Field Trials Contain 'Terminator' Crops

Among the GM crops undergoing field trials in the UK are Aventis' spring and winter GM oilseed rape (canola) engineered with the 'terminator technology' that makes seed or pollen sterile. The application to the UK from AgrEvo (now part of Aventis) makes clear that such terminator crops have been field-trialed in France and Belgium from the beginning of 1990, and subsequently on larger scales, also in Sweden and Canada before coming to the UK.

The original purpose of the terminator technology was to enforce corporate patents on GM seed, so farmers cannot resow harveted seeds. The first terminator patents that came to the attention of the public were jointly owned by US Department of Agriculture and Delta and Pine Land Company, which Monsanto had intended to acquire. As a result of universal condemnation and rejection by farmers and non-Government organisations world wide, Monsanto had announced it will not commercialise terminator crops. But research and development continued unabated.

Now, the technology is being promoted simultaneously on both sides of the Atlantic. The USDA is soliciting public comment on the technology itself with the recommendation that it could be used to prevent gene flow http://www.usda.gov/agencies/biotech/downloads/paper72000.html TheUK Government's Advisory Committee on Releases to the Environment (ACRE), meanwhile, is soliciting comments on a draft document, 'Guidance on Best Practice on the Design of GM Crops', which presents the technology as one of the main methods for preventing gene flow, and thereby improving the safety of GM crops http://www.usda.gov/agencies/biotech/downloads/paper72000.html

'The technology is ineffective in preventing gene flow, and it makes use of two very dangerous genes that should never , never be released.' Says Dr. Mae-Wan Ho, Director of the Institute of Science in Society. The first is the gene coding for 'barnase', an enzyme that breaks down RNA, an intermediate in the expression of all genes, and that is why it is a universal cell poison. 'It kills all cells', says Dr. Joe Cummins, Emeritus Professor of Genetics, University of Western Ontario, Canada. 'Experiments have shown that it causes cell-death when introduced into animal and human cells, and causes kidney damage when perfused into rat kidneys.'

The second is the gene coding for a 'recombinase', an enzyme in the 'site-specific recombination system' which breaks and rejoins DNA at specific sites. Unfortunately, the recognition of specific sites by the enzyme is far from 100% accurate, so it has the potential to scramble genomes by breaking and rejoining at inappropriate places. This technology is not only used on plants but also in animals, and experiments have already indicated that such genome scrambling can occur.

Article first published 06/12/00



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