Selina Mitchell and Leigh Dayton November 18, 2005
CSIRO scientists have abandoned a decade-long GM crop project in its last stages of research after learning that peas modified to resist insects had caused inflammation in the lung tissues of mice. It is only the second time in the world a GM project has been abandoned after a gene transfer from one crop to another, deputy chief of CSIRO Plant Industry T.J.Higgins said yesterday.
The findings - published in the Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry this week - suggest the allergic-style reaction in the mice was triggered because the protein was altered by a natural process. Dr Higgins said it was disappointing to have to discontinue work on the genetically modified field pea, which had proved almost 100 per cent effective against insect attack. But he said the case demonstrated the effectiveness of strict regulations on research into genetically modified crops. The regulations did not allow the commercial release of a genetically modified crop unless it satisfied all health and safety requirements.
"It's a good example of why the regulations are necessary," he said. "This work strongly supports the need for case-by-case examination of plants developed using genetic modification and the importance of decision-making based on good science."
But Greenpeace GM campaigner Jeremy Tager disagreed. "That's complete nonsense," he said. "Withdrawing a failure doesn't show the success of the regulatory system. It just shows the failure of the science in relation to this gene product."
Director of the GeneEthics Network Bob Phelps was pleased the project was scrapped. "Not only are these experiments on a minor crop a waste of public money, they highlight the growing concern worldwide about the health impacts of all GM foods," Mr Phelps said.
The GM peas will be destroyed, Gene Technolgy Regulator Sue Meeks said. "The whole proof-of-concept study will be wrapped up under contained conditions - nothing has entered the human food chain," Dr Meeks said.
The CSIRO was working with the Grains Research and Development Corporation to genetically modify peas to resist attack by the pea weevil (Bruchus pisorum) and fungus. Pea weevils alone can cause yield losses of up to 30per cent a year in the $100million-a-year field pea industry. The scientists added a gene that produces a bean protein to the peas that causes weevil larvae to starve. Humans have been eating the naturally occurring bean protein for years.
But a team at the John Curtin School of Medical Research found that when mice were fed the GM peas, they suffered an adverse reaction and their lung tissue became inflamed. "It was not life-threatening, but nonetheless it was a concerning reaction," Dr Higgins said. However, he said the search for weevil and fungus-resistant peas would continue, using the gene transfer system that was developed at the CSIRO as part of a $3million project.
In an earlier case of GM research, work on a protein-enhanced soy product was abandoned when it was discovered that the brazil nut gene transferred to the soy produced a protein that could cause allergic reactions in some people.
Grains Research and Development Corporation managing director Peter Reading said it was good to be able to identify problems "early in the piece". A spokeswoman for Bayer Crop Sciences, also involved in researching GM products, said the CSIRO's decision had no impact on the firm's GM work. Melbourne-based Monsanto - which has developed several GM food products, including corn - was unavailable for comment yesterday.