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6-Regulation: UK government published guidance on GM crop design

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TITLE:  A) Guidance on best pactice in the design of genetically modified 
        B) Make them safe
SOURCE: A) Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions, UK
        B) New Scientists, edited and send by Agnet, Canada
DATE:   A) October 23, 2000
        B) October 28, 2000

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Guidance on best pactice in the design of genetically modified crops

Comments on this guidance note should be sent before 21 December 2000 to
The Secretary, ACRE Best Practice Sub-group, Floor 3/H11, Ashdown House, 
London, SW1E 6DE.

[the report can be downloaded at the web page given above]


Section 1: Aims and Scope of this Guidance
Section 2: The Philosophy of Best Practice in the Design of GM Crops
Section 3: Best Practice Philosophy - in Practice
Section 4: Enabling Technologies
alternative markers to antibiotic resistance genes
removal of extraneous DNA strategies for control of flowering and fertility
seed sterility
chloroplast transformation
gene excision systems to avoid unnecessary gene expression
introns and editing sequences
chemically inducible promoters

Annex I: Legal framework for decision making on the release and marketing 
of GMOs in the European Union
Annex II: Glossary of terms used in this guidance


Technologies are available to produce GM plants that contain only minimal 
genetic modification. Insertion of the smallest quantities of DNA required 
to obtain the desired trait will help to simplify risk assessment and 
further reduce uncertainty. More challenging, although the technology is 
under development, will be the integrated use of risk management traits to 
biologically contain transgenes and their products and so avoid or minimise 
environmental exposure. The reliability of these systems is testable. These 
approaches, which include the regulation of processes such as seed 
fertility and flowering to minimise pollen dispersal will need to satisfy 
the requirements imposed by breeders, seed producers and agricultural 
practice. Where novel technologies have been developed, intellectual 
property rights may restrict access and have a large impact on how widely 
they are employed.


B) Make them safe

Biotech companies could, according to a committee of experts advising the 
British government and cited in this story, do a lot more to ensure the 
safety of genetically modified crops, and that new technologies could be 
used to prevent the nightmare scenarios dreaded by consumers and 
campaigners: genes resistant to herbicides crossing into other plants 
creating an unstoppable superweed; plants with genes for toxic substances 
pollinating crops and producing poisonous food; or modified plants 
containing novel proteins provoking allergic reactions.

The story says that the Advisory Committee on Releases to the Environment 
(ACRE) has issued a set of guidelines telling companies how to use the 
latest advances in biotechnology to minimise any risks of gene flow—the 
first time a regulatory body has offered such advice. Brian Johnson of the 
government conservation body English Nature, a member of ACRE, was quoted 
as saying,"We're not saying that they are unsafe. We're saying, yes, you 
could reduce the risks even further, especially the risks to biodiversity." 
Johnson says there will be no changes in the law to force companies to make 
such improvements.

But if they don't, he adds, they will find it much more difficult to get 
their products approved. The story says that the ACRE report, which was 
released for consultation this week, details the tools biotech companies 
could use to enhance safety. But some of the technologies are still being 
developed, and patenting might restrict their use. "Patenting technologies 
such as these has serious implications for biosafety," Johnson says. "My 
personal view is that the technology should be made widely available."

While the report puts pressure on the biotech industry to change its ways, 
for anti-GM campaigners it poses something of a dilemma. The new 
technologies eliminate some of the dangers they are concerned about, but 
the crops will still be genetically modified. "I think it is really 
encouraging that [ACRE] has started to think about these sort of issues," 
says Sue Mayer of GeneWatch UK. The report, entitled "Guidance on Best 
Practice in the Design of Genetically Modified Crops", sets out three main 

First, plants should be engineered in a way that minimises the risk of gene 
flow to other crops or wild relatives via cross-pollination. There have 
already been several examples of such gene flow, including the case of the 
sugar beet that was accidentally endowed with resistance to two different 
herbicides (New Scientist, 21 October, p 6). At the moment, the only way to 
prevent gene flow is to set up buffer zones between closely related 
species. This is not 100 per cent effective.

But the report outlines numerous ways of preventing gene flow altogether, 
such as engineering plants so they're incompatible with other strains, 
don't produce viable pollen, don't flower or reproduce asexually (see "The 
next revolution"). Controversially, this list includes "terminator" 
technology, a method for making crops produce sterile seeds which 
campaigners say would enslave farmers by making them buy new seed each 
year. But the ACRE report points out that there are practical as well as 
ethical problems with using terminator crops.

The second recommendation says that as little DNA as possible should be 
added to plants. In particular, companies should avoid using antibiotic 
resistance genes as markers. Researchers use these genes as labels for 
other implanted genes. While the overuse of antibiotics is the main cause 
of antibiotic resistance, "we must not add to the risks", Johnson says.

Lastly, the report recommends that genes added to plants should be 
expressed only when and where they are needed. For example, if foreign 
proteins are not expressed in the parts of plants used for food, there 
would be little chance of them provoking an allergic reaction. Such an 
approach could also stop foreign proteins being expressed in the pollen of 
modified plants. There was an outcry last year when studies suggested that 
pollen from maize engineered to make the bacterial Bt insecticide could 
kill monarch butterflies (New Scientist, 22 May 1999, p 4). 

The report also suggests that GM traits in plants could be activated only 
when a specific chemical is applied to a field. Anti-GM activists have 
attacked such technology because they think companies will use it to force 
farmers to buy expensive activation chemicals. But the report says that it 
could have benefits if used in the right way. Mayer welcomes the report 
because she says regulators underestimate the risks posed by the current 
generation of modified crops. They assume that farmers will follow rules 
about, say, maintaining buffer zones between crops. "That is very 
unlikely." Biotech companies have cautiously welcomed the report. Monsanto 
described it as well-considered and comprehensive. "As a leading player, we 
are looking at the feasibility and potential benefits of the technologies 
mentioned," says its spokesman Tony Combes. Mark Bailey, chair of the ACRE 
subgroup that compiled the report, says he very much hopes that other 
countries will adopt this new approach. "Nothing like this exists 
elsewhere," he says.

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