28 May 1999

Marker gene use must end

TOP government scientific and medical advisers have recommended that the use of antibiotic resistance marker genes in genetic modification of crops should be stopped as soon as possible.

Chief medical officer Liam Donaldson and the chief scientific officer Sir Robert May made the recommendation in their joint report Health Implications of Genetically Modified Foods.

The technique of using antibiotic resistance genes to mark modified genetic material is widespread and was the centre of media attention last month when a microbiologist and member of governments Advisory Committee on Novel Foods and Processes, John Heritage, voiced concerns over the technique.

He feared that the marker genes, carrying resistance to medicines needed to combat human diseases such as meningitis, could pass their resistance to bugs in humans if consumed in GM foods.

While Sir Robert and Prof Donaldson made no mention of the media coverage, they highlighted that "the technique warrants particular consideration".

The report said that although the transfer of complete antibiotic resistance marker genes from plant material was very unlikely, it could not be ruled out. And it recommended that those developing GM foods should be encouraged to phase out the use of the process as soon as is feasible. &#42