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Gene deletor technology has potential to maximize benefits and minimize risks
By Cameron Faustman
Associate Dean of Academic Programs

One day many years ago, my college biology professor asked me to describe how to tell the difference between a male and female chromosome. I stumbled and fumbled with the answer and attempted an explanation that involved X and Y chromosomes. The professor shook his head, cracked a smile, and noted that in order to determine the gender of a chromosome, “one must pull down its genes!”

Genes are portions of chromosomal DNA that code for specific traits in plants and animals. The techniques of molecular biology and modern agriculture science have permitted researchers to identify a large number of genes associated with important commercial consequences. Laboratory manipulation of some of these genes has permitted scientists to produce large quantities of rennet enzyme for cheese-making and to improve the disease resistance of crops. In some cases, scientists have transferred genes from one organism and inserted it into the DNA of another organism, generating genetically modified organisms (GMOs). For example, the insertion of a gene obtained from the soil bacterium Bacillus thuringiensis into corn has permitted the latter crop to be protected against the damaging effects of the European corn borer. Genes from cold-water fish have been considered for insertion into tomatoes to achieve greater cold hardiness for this frost-sensitive fruit.

GMOs demonstrate the substantial potential of modern science to manipulate organisms for a specific purpose. But they are not without controversy; the European Community has been reluctant to adopt GMO varieties of agricultural crops. One concern regarding GMOs is that the critical transgene that made the GMO possible might “escape” and become contained within the wild population. For example, if a crop plant was modified via genetic engineering to be resistant to a particular herbicide and this modification was somehow transferred to weed plants, then an important tool for controlling those weeds would be lost.

Associate Professor Yi Li of the Department of Plant Science recently developed a technology that will permit selective removal of critical transgenes from the seeds and pollen of GMO plants. Working with colleagues from Southwest University in Chongqing, China, and the University of Tennessee, Li’s group has worked for the past seven years to develop “gene deletor” technology and recently published their findings in the Plant Biotechnology Journal. In simplest terms, the technology uses specific enzymes to act in a scissor-like fashion to physically cut out and remove the transgene.

Li sees the technology permitting the development of GMO
crops that maximize production with the ability to subsequently inactivate the transgene after its purpose has been served. His gene-deletor tool will also facilitate the removal of the transgene when the presence of a transgene may cause concerns (for example, if the transgene protein product demonstrates allergenicity).

Mary Musgrave, professor and head of the Department of Plant Science, notes that “the GM-gene-deletor technology is likely to usher in a new era for plant biotechnology. This is a workable bioconfinement method and is likely to find application for transgenic crops and perennials. This will have immediate benefits in the ornamental plant industry and in the production scheme for fast growing transgenic biofuel crops.”

A Google search of the gene deletor term with Li’s name yields more than 400 hits from around the world and provides ample evidence that every sector of the plant science and biotechnology industries consider this a significant finding. For further
information, visit Li’s gene deletor Web site at
http://gene-deletor.net/default.aspx.
 
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