Science in Society Archive

UK 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. Dr. Mae-Wan Ho, Angela Ryan and Joe Cummins report.

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 who have been staunchly defending GM crops from critics like ourselves, even as they have been pointing out 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 out of control to unrelated species, with the potential to create 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 are noteworthy in the latest annual report from JIC, the first reveals that GM barley lines became unstable and variable in later generations of field trials. The researchers concluded, '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', and also call for 'detailed molecular and genetic analysis' Both of these I-SIS have demanded for years along with other scientists.

The second item concerns the CaMV 35S promoter. When I-SIS 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 that 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.

Quotes from JIC Annual Report 2000

On page 28, analysis of transgenic barley in a small-scale field trial admits genetic instability

  • 'Data from the 1998 trial showed that transgenic barley lines performed as well as non-transformed control plants and controls from tissue culture-derived parents for several agronomic traits, including yield. For other traits, a significant difference was seen between transgenic and control lines. The transgenic lines were significantly shorter and also slightly later flowering […]. When we examined the next generation of the same transgenic line in the field during 1999, there was evidence that the transgenic plants were more variable compared to the controls than those in the 1998 field trial. This could be because somaclonal variation, resulting from the tissue culture and transformation procedures, and was more obvious in later generations. These results show that transgenic lines need to be examined over a number of generations under field conditions to obtain the necessary data on transgene stability and agronomic performance. Further field trials […] combined with detailed molecular and genetic analysis will allow us to increase our understanding of the transformation process so that we are better able to assess the long term effects of genetic modification.' (italics ours)

On page 29, admission that problems of GM and CaMV 35S promoter have been understated in the past:

  • 'Analysis of junctions between genomic and transforming DNA, and between individual plasmid molecules at integration sites, demonstrates the predominance of microhomology-mediated illegitimate recombination events involving regions with secondary structure. One such region occurs in the CaMV 35S promoter, widely used to drive transgene expression in plants. The plasmid backbone provides other such regions, including the origin of replication [...]. The influence of transgene rearrangements on expression and silencing has been understated in the past, but our research may allow improved construct design to discourage rearrangements and improve transgene-expression stability.'

Article first published 26/01/01

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