GM industry puts human gene into rice

Scientists have begun putting genes from human beings into food crops in a dramatic extension of genetic modification. Supporters say the controversial new departure presents no ethical problems and could bring environmental benefits.

In the first modification of its kind, Japanese researchers have inserted a gene from the human liver into rice to enable it to digest pesticides and industrial chemicals.

  • The gene makes an enzyme, code-named CPY2B6, which is particularly good at breaking down harmful chemicals in the body.

  • Present GM crops are modified with genes from bacteria to make them tolerate herbicides, so that they are not harmed when fields are sprayed to kill weeds.

  • But most of them are only able to deal with a single herbicide, which means that it has to be used over and over again, allowing weeds to build up resistance to it.

    But the researchers at the National Institute of Agrobiological Sciences in Tsukuba, north of Tokyo, have found that adding the human touch gave the rice immunity to 13 different herbicides. This would mean that weeds could be kept down by constantly changing the chemicals used.

    Supporting scientists say that the gene could also help to beat pollution.

    Professor Richard Meilan of Purdue University in Indiana, who has worked with a similar gene from rabbits, says that plants modified with it could "clean up toxins" from contaminated land. They might even destroy them so effectively that crops grown on the polluted soil could be fit to eat.

    He adds: "I do not have any ethical issue with using human genes to engineer plants," dismissing talk of "Frankenstein foods" as "rubbish." He believes that European opposition to GM crops and food is fuelled by agricultural protectionism.

    Source: Geoffrey Lean, GM industry puts human gene into rice, Independent, April 25, 2005.

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    FMF Policy Bulletin/ 03 May 2005
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