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Biotechniques. 2000 Oct;29(4):832-6, 838-43.

Transgenic plants and biosafety: science, misconceptions and public perceptions.

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  • 1Department of Biology, University of North Carolina, Greensboro 27402-6174, USA.


One usually thinks of plant biology as a non-controversial topic, but the concerns raised over the biosafety of genetically modified (GM) plants have reached disproportionate levels relative to the actual risks. While the technology of changing the genome of plants has been gradually refined and increasingly implemented, the commercialization of GM crops has exploded. Today's commercialized transgenic plants have been produced using Agrobacterium tumefaciens-mediated transformation or gene gun-mediated transformation. Recently, incremental improvements of biotechnologies, such as the use of green fluorescent protein (GFP) as a selectable marker, have been developed. Non-transformation genetic modification technologies such as chimeraplasty will be increasingly used to more precisely modify germplasm. In spite of the increasing knowledge about genetic modification of plants, concerns over ecological and food biosafety have escalated beyond scientific rationality. While several risks associated with GM crops and foods have been identified, the popular press, spurred by colorful protest groups, has left the general public with a sense of imminent danger. Reviewed here are the risks that are currently under research. Ecological biosafety research has identified potential risks associated with certain crop/transgene combinations, such as intra- and interspecific transgene flow, persistence and the consequences of transgenes in unintended hosts. Resistance management strategies for insect resistance transgenes and non-target effects of these genes have also been studied. Food biosafety research has focused on transgenic product toxicity and allergenicity. However, an estimated 3.5 x 10(12) transgenic plants have been grown in the U.S. in the past 12 years, with over two trillion being grown in 1999 and 2000 alone. These large numbers and the absence of any negative reports of compromised biosafety indicate that genetic modification by biotechnology poses no immediate or significant risks and that resulting food products from GM crops are as safe as foods from conventional varieties. We are increasingly convinced that scientists have a duty to conduct objective research and to effectively communicate the results--especially those pertaining to the relative risks and potential benefits--to scientists first and then to the public. All stakeholders in the technology need more effective dialogues to better understand risks and benefits of adopting or not adopting agricultural biotechnologies.

[PubMed - indexed for MEDLINE]
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