GENTECH archive


Better [sic] Plants for the "Pharm"

Transforming Pollen for Better [sic] Plants for the "Pharm"

ARS News Service
Agricultural Research Service, USDA
Don Comis, (301) 504-1625,
June 29, 1999

Alfalfa has long been sold in health food stores but it's now on its way to
becoming a manufacturer of mainstream medicines, thanks to a technique
patented by the Agricultural Research Service for altering future plants
through pollen. The technique, pollen electro-transformation, was first
developed about seven years ago by Agricultural Research Service biochemists
James A. Saunders and Benjamin F. Matthews in Beltsville, Md. ARS is the
USDA's chief scientific arm.

BTG International, Inc., in Gulph Mills, Pa., licensed the ARS technique in
1993. Now, BTG has granted a sub-license to Medicago Inc., Québec City,
Québec, Canada, to create "pharmable" varieties of perennial forage legumes
such as alfalfa and clover. In pharming, gene-engineered plants make
medicinal ingredients that pharmaceutical firms can harvest or extract
directly from plants. This may be less expensive than having microbes make
the pharmaceuticals in fermentation vats.

In electro-transformation, pollen receives an extremely brief electrical
shock that moves the desired new genes into the pollen cells' genetic
material. After this pollen is used to pollinate new flowers, the plants
bear seeds coded for the new genes. This eliminates the tedium of nourishing
gene-engineered cells into tiny plantlets in lab dishes and, ultimately,
into seed-bearing plants. It also saves time and money. ARS and BTG
scientists worked together to put the technology into practice for tobacco,
corn and alfalfa.

Medicago, Inc.--named for the alfalfa plant genus--plans on using the
technique to create alfalfa varieties that produce enzymes, proteins and
other compounds for human and animal medicines, vitamins, skin care
products, food additives and other products. This is the latest sub-license
from research agreements between ARS and BTG since 1993. Research agreements
with BTG resulted in the ARS patent.

BTG and ARS also have sub-licensing or option agreements with American
Cyanamid Co., Princeton, N.J., for soybeans and sugarbeets; Sanford
Scientific, Inc., Waterloo, N.Y., for ornamentals; and Okanagan
Biotechnology, Inc., Summerland, B.C., Canada, for cherry, peach and other
stone fruits. BTG officials are evaluating potential sub- licenses for other
crops and uses.

Scientific contacts: James A. Saunders, ARS Climate Stress Laboratory,
Beltsville, Md., phone (301) 504-7477, fax (301) 504-6626,; Benjamin F. Matthews, ARS Soybean and Alfalfa Research
Laboratory, Beltsville, Md., phone (301) 504-5730, fax (301) 504-5320,
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