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Models show gene flow from crops threatens wild plants

MADISON - In a river valley just southwest of Mexico City stands a small patch of teosinte - a wild, weedy grass thought to be the ancient ancestor of corn. As a gentle breeze blows gene-carrying pollen from a nearby crop of maize to its wild relative, the genetic integrity and even survival of this ancient plant and others could be jeopardized, according to new mathematical models.

The models, described in the July 23 online edition of the Proceedings of the Royal Society of London and developed by scientists at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and the University of Minnesota-St. Paul, show that genes from crops rapidly can take over those in related wild plants. The end result, say the researchers, could be major changes in the genetic make-up of wild plants, decreases in their population size and the permanent loss of natural traits that could improve crop health.

Although gene flow from crops to wild relatives has occurred ever since humans started farming, few studies before the 1980s examined the effects of this evolutionary process in a scientific manner. Most of the people concerned up until then were farmers, not researchers, says Ralph Haygood, a UW-Madison postdoctoral fellow and lead author of the paper.

But, as genetic engineering developed and emerged as both a biological and political issue, gene flow from crops containing transgenes - genetic information from other species that's artificially inserted - to wild plants gained more scientific attention.

"Most of the concern about crop-wild gene flow," says Haygood, "is driven by concern about transgene escape," the idea that these artificially inserted genes in a crop plant can leak into the genomes of wild relatives. According to Haygood, growers around the world have planted 145 million acres of transgenic crops.

Conserving the genetic integrity of wild plants, explains Haygood, is important for two reasons: protecting the survival of the plants themselv
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Contact: Ralph Haygood
rhaygood@wisc.edu
608-262-9226
University of Wisconsin-Madison
23-Jul-2003


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