The International Consortium on Agricultural Biotechnology Research (ICABR)

Environmental impact of transgenic crops: potential risks associated with "Terminator" gene technology.

Manuela Giovannetti

Department of Chemistry and Agricultural Biotechnology

University of Pisa

Italy

Ecological risks associated with the environmental release of transgenic crops have been reported by different authors. They concern GM pollen diffusion, the impact of toxins produced by transgenic crops on non-target organisms, horizontal gene transfer from GM plants to microorganisms and among microorganisms. However, the fundamental risk relates to the fate of transgenes after their field release. In particular, we do not know the impact of GM crops and their residues on organisms which feed on them, such as insects, animals and microbes. What we do know is that not only in the lab, but also in nature, genes can be transferred from one organism to another.

"Terminator" seed technology is a paradigmatic case which helps us to point out potential environmental risks and envisage possible disasters.

In March 1998 the seed company Delta and Pine Land, together with the USDA, obtained the US Patent Number 5723765: Control of Plant Gene Expression, later dubbed "Terminator Technology". The plants obtained through this technology contain the genes for the death of second generation seeds. Thus, any other new gene introduced is protected against further utilization.

After considering that the location of transgenes on chromosomes is an unpredictable event, that many of the introduced genes may be unpredictably silenced or activated, and that they may be transferred among different organisms, the paper examines the risks associated with the cultivation of "Terminator" seeds in agriculture.

Awareness that scientists and technologists are unable to predict all the possible interactions between transgenes and different components of complex ecosystems should foster long-term studies aimed at evaluating the environmental impact of particularly dangerous genes, such as "Terminator", which interfere so heavily with fundamental life processes.

Moreover the paper deals with the impact of the utilisation of "Terminator" seeds on the survival of human populations in developing countries: the introduction of death genes in crops such as rice or wheat could leave the fate of millions of people to the mercy of a few seed companies.


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