GENET archive


APPROVAL / SEEDS: Interview with the head of the German gene bankon GE wheat trials

------------------------------- GENET-news -------------------------------
TITLE:  "We have 60 years' experience of propagating wheat seed."
SOURCE: GMO Safety, Germany
DATE:   18.03.2007

"We have 60 years' experience of propagating wheat seed."

Several genetically modified wheat lines are currently being tested in a
field trial on the site of the Leibniz Institute of Plant Genetics and
Crop Plant Research (IPK) in Gatersleben. The IPK also has one of the
world's largest gene banks. Well over a hundred thousand plant
specimens, including wheat, have been stored there for years. Every
summer, a proportion is planted in the field and propagated. Does the GM
wheat trial represent a threat to the gene bank's work? - GMO Safety
spoke to the head of the gene bank, Prof. Andreas Graner.

On 23 November 2006 the Federal Office of Consumer Protection and Food
Safety (BVL) (the German authority responsible) approved the release
trial of GM wheat lines with a modified protein composition.

As a self-pollinator, wheat generally fertilises itself with its own
pollen inside the floret. This means that from a purely biological
perspective, outcrossings are unlikely, which means a spread of the
transgenic DNA is also unlikely. Nevertheless, the trial field has been
set up 500 metres away from the gene bank's wheat propagation plots. As
we have just learnt, the BVL recommended that the gene bank move its
wheat propagation plots as a precaution.

GMO Safety: When these specimens are propagated in the field you have to
make sure that they do not mix. Can you rule this out and what measures
do you take to prevent it happening?

Andreas Graner: For a start we use agronomical measures - for instance,
in the cereals assortment we don't plant the different wheat specimens
next to each other; we alternate them with barley. This "disjunctive"
cultivation method was established in Gatersleben years ago. It enables
us to avoid cross-fertilization to a large extent - in this case in
wheat and barley. We can also ensure that when it comes to harvesting we
differentiate clearly between harvested material from neighbouring plots
and keep it separate. Cross-fertilizing species are planted on isolation
plots with a minimum distance of 250 metres between them. This
separation distance prevents e.g. pollen from different rye populations
from being mixed by the wind. And for the third group - cross-
fertilizing species that are pollinated by insects - we cultivate the
plants in small greenhouses. The fronts and backs are covered with an
insect-proof gauze. We have 170 of these greenhouses that are full every
year during the growing season.

GMO Safety: Do you check whether you are actually achieving your aim of
avoiding cross-contamination?

Andreas Graner: Yes. And there are other measures that we take as part
of our conservation management. For instance, the propagation plots are
regularly monitored by the curators and assortment managers during the
growing season in the summer months. This means that the material is
checked for authenticity using certain morphological characteristics,
e.g. changes to flower colour or leaf position. Any deviations caused by
e.g. cross-fertilisation or mixed seed, can be spotted.

GMO Safety: Do you really find all the deviant plants?

Andreas Graner: For instance, if by chance a seed from the previous
years' plantings is left in the soil and germinates, this plant will not
correspond to the material that we want to propagate. When such deviant
plants emerge they are removed by the assortment managers - just like
weeds. The descriptor characteristics used are described in detail in a
list. In addition, a few years ago we introduced detailed tests using
DNA markers specifically for wheat. Control specimens were used to
compare wheat varieties, some of which had been propagated up to 20
times over recent decades. We established that in all the cases we
investigated the end specimen was still identical to the original
specimen - even after 20 propagations. So we found no deviations. This
is surely an indication that our assortment managers are doing their job well.

GMO Safety: The IPK has a large number of agricultural and plant
research projects. Some of the plants developed in these projects must
surely be used in field experiments, such as the current trials with
genetically modified wheat lines. Does this lead to particular risks for
the gene bank's propagation plots?

Andreas Graner: The number of release trials on the IPK site is
manageable - not least because of the administrative work involved. They
do not pose a risk to the gene bank. As part of our quality management
we have taken a number of measures to avoid potential outcrossings or
cross-contamination with the gene bank material. In the case of this
latest trial, we are respecting a separation distance of 500 metres
between the trial and the gene bank's wheat propagation plots. This
distance is sufficient to prevent any cross-fertilisation through pollen
transfer. If we didn't do this we would not be able to conserve the
genetic authenticity of the 30,000 wheat specimens that we have in the
gene bank. In Gatersleben we have been propagating wheat specimens using
disjunctive cultivation methods for 60 years. We use plots measuring two
square metres laid out like a chess board with wheat - barley - wheat -
barley... If there were any significant cross-pollination in wheat, the
material that we have in the gene bank today would be nothing like the
material we collected in the past.

GMO Safety: When approving the release trial for genetically modified
wheat, the Federal Office of Consumer Protection and Food Safety
recommended that the gene bank move the propagation plots for wheat.
Leaving aside the question of whether this is necessary - is it in fact

Andreas Graner: From our point of view it is virtually impossible. It
would mean that we would have to set up the gene bank at a different
site, at least for the propagation period in the summer months. And
where should this site be - one kilometre away or ten? There is no
scientific justification for the "correct" distance. And logistically it
would be impossible - or at least only possible at great effort and
expense. We would have to rent fields and then transport the 65 or so
people involved with the gene bank propagations there every day during
the summer months, and transport the harvested seeds back to IPK. With
such a small release trial - we are talking about around a thousand
individual plants - and, in my view, the absence of any residual risk,
moving the propagation sites would be an impracticable and unjustifiable step.

GMO Safety: Thank you for talking to us.

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