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Replacement found for bacterial DNA in transgenic crops

August 21, 2005 By Roxanne Khamsi This article courtesy of Nature News.

Possible spread of antibiotic resistance to gut bacteria squelched by using weed genes.

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Scientists may have developed a potentially less controversial way to bioengineer plants, by replacing a marker gene normally borrowed from bacteria with a gene from weeds. The new technique could make genetically modified crops less contentious in places such as Europe, the team says.

Modern technology allows experts to mix and match DNA from different organisms to enhance favourable crop properties; a gene from fish, for example, can make tomato plants frost resistant.

Most transgenic crops also contain a bacterial gene, which helps researchers distinguish between plants that have successfully picked up foreign genes and those that haven't during crop development. The two genes, one for the favourable trait and one for antibiotic resistance, are tacked together and inserted into seeds. When the growing plants are then doused with antibiotic, those that haven't picked up the foreign genes die off.

The marker gene typically comes from the Escherichia coli bacterium. But critics of the technology have pointed out that the code for antibiotic resistance could hop, in a process known as horizontal gene transfer, from the bioengineered food we eat into the bacteria that live in our gut, thereby creating a superbug and a health menace.

Gene for gene

Some companies take an extra step to remove the antibiotic-resistant gene before marketing their seeds. But this doesn't always happen (see ' Stray seeds had antibiotic-resistance genes').

Now Neal Stewart and Ayalew Mentewab of the University of Tennessee in Knoxville, Tennessee think they have a more foolproof way to eliminate this threat, which involves scrapping the E. coli gene and using one from a plant instead.

A gene called Atwbc19 in the well-studied weed Arabidopsis thaliana also confers antibiotic resistance; when this gene is expressed at unusually high levels it helps to capture and squelch antibiotic compounds.

Stewart and Mentewab designed a piece of DNA including this gene and another that codes for blueish pigments, making plants that pick it up easily identifiable. The Atwbc19 gene is three times larger than the antibiotic-resistance gene from bacteria. Both the large size of the gene and the fact that it comes from plants makes it less likely to hop into microbes, they say.

Weeding out fears

To test whether the Arabidopsis gene worked, they incorporated the linked genes into tobacco plants; the tobacco seedlings with the Arabidopsis gene continued to grow when blasted with antibiotics. The results appear in the journal Nature Biotechnology1.

Microbiologist Michael Syvanen of the University of California, Davis agrees that the study could calm fears about GM crops, particularly since the plant gene simply can't be expressed by bacteria. "It produces a gene which, if displaced by horizontal gene transfer back into bacteria, would never be able to confer resistance to antibiotics," he says.

The technique could be adopted in parts of the world that have remained skeptical about bioengineered foods, suggests Stewart. "There would be some interest, especially in Europe, to move away from a bacterial gene towards a plant gene," he says. But he cautions that further testing is needed. Scientists must demonstrate, for example, that the protein made from the weed gene has no negative effect in humans.


  1. Mentewab A. & Stewart C. Nature Biotech., Advanced Online Publication. doi: 10.1038/nbt1134 (2005).


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