Science in Society Archive

Advisory Committee Ignores Warning of GM Hazards

Prof. Joe Cummins rebuts decision on allowing the release GM potatoes

Britain’s Advisory Committee on Releases to the Environment (ACRE) has advised the Secretary of State to allow Leeds University to undertake open field releases of genetically modified (GM) potatoes resistant to potato cyst nematodes [1].  ACRE’s response to public comments reflects a disturbing bias towards GM technology and disregard for safety

ACRE considered 103 representations from members of the public but has mostly ignored the safety issues raised [2] (Transgenic Potato Not to be Released, SiS 38). I shall deal with some of them here.

On the presence of the nptII antibiotic resistance marker gene

ACRE is of the opinion that the therapeutic effect of antibiotics that are substrates for NPTII will not be compromised by the presence of the nptII gene in GM plants. ACRE’s advice on this issue is that (a) the likelihood of transfer of a functional gene from plant material to bacteria is extremely low; (b) bacteria with resistance to these antibiotics are widespread in the environment; and (c) acquisition of an intact gene is only one of the possible mechanisms for bacteria to develop resistance. These points also apply to the specific case of the proposed trial of GM potato cyst nematode (PCN) repellent potatoes.”

The nptII gene is for resistance to the antibiotic neomycin, a member of the aminoglycoside family. Thus resistance to neomycin may be cross-resistant to other members of the aminoglycoside family including kanamycin, streptomycin,  gentamycin and tobramycin all of which are used to treat humans or domestic animals [3] (Kanamycin Still Used and Cross-Reacts with New Antibiotics, ISIS News9/10). We have also prepared an extensive review which showed that horizontal transfer of transgenic DNA has indeed occurred, and that it has been greatly underestimated [4] (Horizontal Gene Transfer from GMOs Does Happen, SiS 38); hence, “There is little doubt that environmental antibiotic resistance will be significantly enhanced by planting crops modified with antibiotic resistance genes.”

The impact of the GM PCN resistant potatoes on natural populations of entomopathogenic nematodes

ACRE is satisfied by the evidence that shows that non-target nematodes would not be affected by either cystatin or repellent GM potatoes. The Committee advises that it is unlikely that PCN resistant potatoes would impact on natural populations of entomopathogenic nematodes (beneficial nematodes attacking insect pests), primarily because the exudates from potato is highly specific to PCN.

However, no evidence was provided in the application for consent [5] demonstrating that the cystatin or exudate from the modified potato was specific to the soil nematode potato cyst nematode and harmless to beneficial soil nematodes. The only nematode tested was the lab species Caenorhabditis elegans, which is not a soil nematode, and the application proposed testing beneficial predatory nematodes in the soil during the course of the field trial [6, 7]..ACRE appears to have falsely stated results from experiments proposed to be done in the field release that had not yet been done!

Article first published 02/06/08


  1. Applicant: University of Leeds ADVISORY COMMITTEE ON RELEASES TO THE  ENVIRONMENT Advice on an application for deliberate release of a GMO for research and development purposes Application: To release potato lines genetically modified for resistance to potato cyst nematodes Ref: 07/R31/01 1 Date: 29 April 2008
  2. Cummins J. Control of potato cyst nematodes in transgenic potato. Science in Society 38 (in press).
  3. Cummins J. Kanamycin still used and cross reacts with new antibiotics. ISIS News 9/10, July 2001,
  4. Ho MW  and Cummins J. Horizontal gene transfer from GMOs does happen. Science in Society 38 (in press).
  5. APPLICATION FOR CONSENT TO RELEASE GMOs (FOR PURPOSES OTHER THAN MARKETING) UNDER THE GENETICALLY MODIFIED ORGANISMS (DELIBERATE RELEASE) REGULATIONS 2002 – HIGHER PLANTS Centre for Plant Sciences University of Leeds Control of potato cyst-nematodes with minimised environmental impact 2008
  6. Kiontke  K. and  Sudhaus W. Ecology of Caenorhabditis species (January 09, 2006), WormBook, ed. The C. elegans Research Community, WormBook, doi/10.1895/wormbook.1.37.1,
  7. Khan Z and Kim Y A review on the role of predatory soil nematodes in the biological control of plant parasitic nematodes. Applied Soil Ecology 2007,35, 370-9/

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