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Study suggests genetically modifying sunflowers for white mold resistance

One of the major environmental concerns that has been raised about the use of genetically modified (GM) crops has been the possible effects that artificially inserted genes, called transgenes, may have if they spread to wild relatives.

A number of studies performed in the last ten or so years have found that commercial plants exchange genetic material with wild relatives in their vicinity with considerable regularity. But now one of the first studies of what actually happens to a transgene when it moves from a genetically modified cultivar into a wild population indicates that such transfers need not have a major environmental impact.

Results of the field study, which was conducted by plant scientists at Vanderbilt University and Indiana University, are reported in the May 23 issue of the journal Science. The subject of the study was a transgene that can provide commercial sunflowers with additional protection against a disease called white mold, which is caused by a pathogen named Sclerotinia sclerotiorum.

The experiment found that wild sunflowers already possess a degree of resistance to white mold that the commercial variety lacks. As a result, wild sunflowers that pick up the transgene do not gain a reproductive advantage that would cause them to spread widely. Although subject to some significant caveats, the finding suggests that this particular transgene is unlikely to spread throughout the wild sunflower population, making wild varieties hardier and more aggressive.

White mold is one of the worst diseases afflicting commercial sunflowers. Sunflower is one of the world's four most important oilseed crops, with a value of $40 billion per year. White mold infection, which causes the rapid wilting and death of cultivated sunflower plants, is the source of economic losses that range from $50 million to $80 million annually.

Efforts of sunflower breeders to improve the resistance of their plants to this disease using traditional techniqu
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Contact: David F. Salisbury
david.salisbury@vanderbilt.edu
615-343-6803
Vanderbilt University
22-May-2003


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