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Despite confinement, crop genes can spread fast to wild

MADISON - With the slim chance that farmers will stop planting crops containing genes from other organisms, researchers have started to develop strategies that trap these foreign genes, reducing the risk that they'll spread to wild relatives.

But an investigation by scientists from the University of Wisconsin-Madison and the University of Minnesota-St. Paul shows that these containment strategies can quickly fail.

Using mathematical models, the team of scientists explored the effectiveness of proposed containment strategies to inhibit the escape of transgenes - genetic information from other organisms that's artificially inserted into crop plants to make them more resistant to pests, herbicides or climate conditions. The findings, published in the March issue of Ecology Letters, show a high probability that leakage can occur much sooner than expected.

"Lots of people are worried about gene flow from cultivated crops to wild relatives," says Ralph Haygood, a UW-Madison postdoctoral fellow and the lead author of paper. Transgene escape - when artificially inserted genes flow from crops to nearby wild populations and become a permanent feature of their genomes - is worrisome, he says, because it can change the genetic make-up of wild populations, sometimes eliminating genes that could be used to improve crops, and possibly turning these wild populations into aggressive weeds.

The goal, then, is to develop strategies to prevent transgene escape.

"Environmentalists say we should stop planting transgenic crops, but that's not going to happen," says the Wisconsin researcher. "Aside from not growing transgenic crops near sexually-compatible wild relatives, we need to investigate ways to reduce the risk."

Strategies currently being developed involve gene containment, where the artificially inserted genes are confined and, theoretically, inhibited from escaping or being favored in wild populations. For example, the techniqu
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Contact: Ralph Haygood
rhaygood@wisc.edu
608-262-9226
University of Wisconsin-Madison
23-Feb-2004


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