GMOs & Conservation: Transgene Detection
One significant challenge facing the conservation of crop biodiversity has been the spread of transgenes from genetically modified (GM) crop.s
This part of the project is focused on testing to what extent transgene flow has occurred in the communities we work with in Mexico. We are also working to understand how it might be best to test for, monitor and control transgene flow into landraces and wild relatives of domesticated crop plants.
Maize is one of the world’s five staple cereals and its traditional varieties constitute a global resource critical to future agricultural development and breeding. Fifteen years ago, the discovery of transgenes in landraces of maize in Mexico started an international discussion on the spread of GM crops to centres of crop origin and genetic diversity. The discovery of transgenes in landrace maize sparked an intense dispute in which the livelihoods, culture and traditions of indigenous communities in Mexico were seen as threatened by the unchecked spread of patented biotechnological inventions from multinational companies. This dispute was reflected in a political and legal battle over the regulatory status of GM crops in Mexico, which continues today as the import of GM maize is permitted but approvals for cultivation remain subject contested in the courts. These legal, socio-political and environmental disputes have been further fanned by the existence of scientific divergence over methods for GM detection.
In this part of the project we are reviewing the scientific debate over GM detection in landraces of maize in Mexico and performing new empirical testing on landraces in the two indigenous communities we are working with in Oaxaca. We are also investigating how this issue is understood and perceived by these communities, how seed management is performed, and how transgene flow may be controlled. This involves testing landrace maize samples given to us by local farmers to and interviewing them to understand their views and practices.
The transgene detection work is being performed using state-of-art methods (i.e. real-time PCR), with results being independently tested and validated by three different laboratories. When the testing in the laboratories is complete, the results will be reported back to the communities so that potential management strategies can be discussed and developed together with them. If you are curious about how the process of GMO detection works, you can view the short film we made below.
Transgene detection analyses have been carried out in collaboration with laboratories at the American University of Science and Technology in Lebanon and the Institute of Integrative Biology at ETH Zurich. Our Lebanese partners are Dr. Gretta Abou Sleiman and MSc. Narmeen Mallah and our Swiss partners are Dr. Angelika Hilbeck and Dr. Miluse Trtiková. We have recently organized a workshop at GenØk’s headquarters in Tromsø to discuss the laboratory results and how to communicate those back to the farmers.