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FEMS Microbiol Rev. 1998 Jun;22(2):79-103.

Horizontal gene transfer from transgenic plants to terrestrial bacteria--a rare event?

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UNIGEN-Center for Molecular Biology, Norwegian University of Science and Technology, Trondheim, Norway.


Today, 12 years after the first field release of a genetically modified plant (GMP), over 15,000 field trials at different locations have been performed. As new and unique characteristics are frequently introduced into GMPs, risk assessment has to be performed to assess their ecological impact. The possibilities of horizontal gene transfer (HGT; no parent-to-offspring transfer of genes) from plants to microorganisms are frequently evaluated in such risk assessments of GMPs before release into the field. In this review we indicate why putative HGT from plants to terrestrial (soil and plant associated) bacteria has raised concern in biosafety evaluations. Further, we discuss possible pathways of HGT from plants to bacteria, outline the barriers to HGT in bacteria, describe the strategies used to investigate HGT from plants to bacteria and summarize the results obtained. Only a few cases of HGT from eukaryotes such as plants to bacteria have been reported to date. These cases have been ascertained after comparison of DNA sequences between plants and bacteria. Although experimental approaches in both field and laboratory studies have not been able to confirm the occurrence of such HGT to naturally occurring bacteria, recently two studies have shown transfer of marker genes from plants to bacteria based on homologous recombination. The few examples of HGT indicated by DNA sequence comparisons suggest that the frequencies of evolutionarily successful HGT from plants to bacteria may be extremely low. However, this inference is based on a small number of experimental studies and indications found in the literature. Transfer frequencies should not be confounded with the likelihood of environmental implications, since the frequency of HGT is probably only marginally important compared with the selective force acting on the outcome. Attention should therefore be focused on enhancing the understanding of selection processes in natural environments. Only an accurate understanding of these selective events will allow the prediction of possible consequences of novel genes following their introduction into open environments.

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