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GM tomatoes 'offer health boost' 30 August, 2001, BB

By BBC News Online's Jonathan Amos


Future food: Regenerating tomatoes in the lab

German scientists have produced a "safer" genetically modified tomato, which they believe could lead to a range of fruits and vegetables that give a health boost to anyone who eats them.

The tomato plant has been engineered in a way that prevents its new genes from passing to other crops - something which has been a major concern for organic farmers and conservation groups.

New laboratory techniques also mean much higher levels of a desired health-giving protein appear in the edible tissues of the plant - the bright red fruits themselves.

The scientists envision "super tomatoes" that offer consumers substantially increased vitamin content. "We are also planning to make tomato plants that express vaccines in the fruits for oral immunisation," lead researcher Professor Ralph Bock, at the Institute of Plant Biochemistry and Biotechnology in Munster, told BBC News Online.

Non-leafy tissues

The work of Bock and colleagues builds on a newly developed technique for the genetic modification of plants.

Instead of introducing a gene for a particular trait into a plant's nuclear DNA, the coding sequence is put in amongst the small amount of DNA found in small cellular compartments known as plastids. In this case, the German team targeted chloroplasts, which generate energy from sunlight.

Crucially, the DNA in chloroplasts, unlike nuclear DNA, is not transmitted in pollen. So this eliminates the possibility that the modified plant's genetic material might "contaminate" other crops or pass undesirable traits to weeds.

Until now, though, chloroplast transformation has been achieved routinely only in tobacco; other plants have been sterile or shown disappointing results in the non-leafy tissues, such the fruits.

'New applications'

"Tobacco is a good model for basic science but for applied biotechnology you need a food plant," Professor Bock said.

"That's why we've focused on tomatoes. To make it work, we've had to solve a number of technical difficulties - mostly related to plant tissue culture and regeneration. You need to optimise a lot of parameters in these areas such as nutrients, plant hormones and light intensity."

"And in our case we got really good expression in the tomato fruit, which opens up a lot of new applications."

So far, the German team has used only a marker gene in its experiments - to prove the approach works. More useful genes will now be incorporated into the tomatoes.


Tomato seedlings: The maker gene means modified plants will stay green when exposed to an antibiotic The team reports its work in the journal Nature Biotechnology.

The scientists write: "Given the generally very high foreign protein accumulation rates that can be achieved in transgenic chloroplasts, this system paves the way to efficient production of edible vaccines, pharmaceuticals, and antibodies in tomato."

And in an accompanying article, a US expert agreed that GM tomatoes with transformed plastids could make it easier to develop edible vaccines.

Pal Maliga, from Rutgers University in Piscataway, New Jersey, writes: "The report of plastid transformation in tomato is... a milestone achievement, and the capacity to express foreign proteins at a high level in consumable fruit should open new opportunities for engineering the next generation of medicinal products that are more palatable to the consumer."

A number of research groups are now looking to produce food crops that have enhanced nutritional or medicinal value. These new foods are sometimes referred to as nutraceuticals.

GM trees fight Dutch elm disease 27 August, 2001, BBC


Professor Kevan Gartland led the research team Genetically modified elm trees resistant to Dutch elm disease have been grown by scientists at a Scottish university.

The disease, which is carried by a bark beetle, has affected more than 20 million elm trees in the UK since 1970.

Researchers from Dundee's University of Abertay transferred anti-fungal genes into the elm genome using minute DNA-coated ball bearings.

They believe their work could lead to elm trees being reintroduced into their native habitat.

Professor Kevan Gartland, the university's head of molecular and life sciences, said the ground-breaking initiative could help landscapes and ecosystems damaged by fungal tree diseases.

"This is an example of environmentally friendly biotechnology," he said.

'Damaged landscapes'

"Our work in elm trees could be used to help damaged landscapes caused by diseases such as Dutch elm disease and chestnut blight, throughout the world."

There are 40 different species of elms, some of which have a lifespan of up to 300 years.

In the United States, 70% of mature elms have been destroyed since 1930.

The Scottish researchers say they hope their work will make such figures a thing of the past.

The disease prevents water and minerals reaching the branches and the leaves.

Traditional plant breeding techniques have had limited success in tackling Dutch elm disease.

No more ceremonial switch-ons? GM Christmas tree would glow
BBC Monday, October 25, 1999

Frustrated fiddling with Christmas tree fairy lights could become a thing of the past as genetic engineers have proposed a tree which grows its own lights.

The idea for glowing pine needles was dreamed up by five postgraduate students at the University of Hertfordshire, UK, as their entry in a biotechnology competition.

It is a perfectly possible proposition, as genetic engineers elsewhere have already created glowing mice, silk and potatoes.

'Only problem cost'

Neurophysiology student Katy Presland, 29, said: "We're talking about a green luminescent Christmas tree that glows in the dark and produces a noticeable light during the day.

"It is quite feasible. The only problem in reality is the cost," she added.

"We calculate that the initial trees would cost about £200, which means going for the upper end of the market. But I'm sure a lot of people would love them, especially the Americans."

Jellyfish and fireflies

The team detail a plan to modify a Douglas spruce with two genes to make it illuminate. These would taken from fluorescent jellyfish and fireflies. The first gene produces a substance called green fluorescent protein (GFP), while the second results in an enzyme called luciferase.

The trees would be modified by infecting seedlings with a harmless bacterium carrying the genes. A chemical compound called luciferin is needed to activate luciferase, which in turn "switches on" GFP and makes it glow.

In the case of the luminous Douglas spruce, the luciferin would be mixed into a special fertilizer sold with the tree.

The genes for green fluorescence have been widely used by genetic engineers because they allows scientists to see at a glance whether an attempt to introduce a gene into an organism has been successful.

Blue fluorescent proteins have also been discovered and, last month, a red fluorescent protein was found in a coral. This means that, in theory, the GM Christmas tree could grow its own multicoloured lights.

UK Astronaut warns of Earth impact Friday, 31 August, 2001, 07:27 GMT 08:27

Astronauts can mark change over time The commander of the International Space Station (ISS) has expressed his concern to the BBC at the impact mankind is having on the Earth's environment.

Commander Frank Culbertson - who has just begun a four-month tour on the ISS - told the Radio 4 Today programme he and fellow astronauts had witnessed signs of climatic change.

"We see storms, we see droughts, we saw a dust storm a couple of days ago, in Turkey I think it was, and we have seen hurricanes," he said.

"At night you see cities well lit up in populated parts of the world.

Land usage

"It's quite amazing to see how many people actually live down there and how much effect they are having on the environment and the land we live on."

"It is a cause for concern. Since my first flight in 1990 and this flight, I have seen changes in what comes out of some of the rivers, in land usage.

"We see areas of the world that are being burned to clear land, so we are losing lots of trees.

"There is smoke and dust in wider spread areas than we have seen before, particularly as areas like Africa dry up in certain regions.

"We have to be very careful how we treat this good Earth we live on."

'Global change'

Klaus Topfer, executive director of the United Nations Environment Programme, told Today that climate change was a worrying reality.

"We have really dramatic change on a global level," he said. "We are losing yearly something like fifteen million hectares of forest, mostly in developing countries.

"It is time to take stock and ask what we have to do to stop these developments."

But he warned other social needs would need to be tackled in order to improve the environment.

"If you cannot combine the fight for a better environment with the fight against poverty, you cannot blame people in Africa for cutting down a tree to burn when they have no fuel."

Experimental mission

Earlier this month, the space shuttle Discovery returned to Earth with three astronauts who spent almost half a year aboard the International Space Station (ISS).

Russian commander Yuri Usachev and US astronauts James Voss and Susan Helms lived on the ISS for more than five months.

Discovery left behind the so-called Expedition Three crew - Commander Culbertson and Russian cosmonauts Vladimir Dezhurov and Mikhail Tyurin.

The trio will remain on the ISS for four months. The new residents will work on 40 or more planned US and Russian experiments, until they leave in December.

Research will be conducted to look at the effect of space travel on the body, in order to better understand how certain illnesses affect the organs of patients.