11 September 1998

Non-GMfuture is mapped out

By Charles Abel

Oilseed crops can replace oil from non-renewable fossil sources -and genetically modified crops need not play any role in the revolution.

New aspects of technology mean conventional breeding could be accelerated and even non-crop species domesticated to meet the needs of industry.

Within the next two years a multinational team of scientists will complete the first genetic map of an entire plant, pinpointing where in its genetic code each characteristic is controlled.

Significantly that first genetic map will be for Arabidopsis – an oil-bearing weed. Much of what is learned will be directly applicable to its near relatives, oilseed rape and the vegetable brassicas, says Denis Murphy of the John Innes Centre in Norwich in a paper prepared for the annual British Association for the Advancement of Science conference in Cardiff this week.

"This knowledge will allow us to identify and manipulate genes that control factors such as canopy architecture, seed weight and disease resistance, all of which contribute to improving crop yields," explains Prof Murphy.

"It will also allow us to improve the quality of such crops, enhancing the nutritional value of brassica vegetables, which can form natural protection against many forms of cancer."

But such developments need not rely upon GM techniques. One alternative is to use genetic maps and markers to accelerate the selection of new characters in conventional breeding programmes.

The other option is to domesticate entirely new species as non-GMO sources of useful oils. Modern biotechnology means this could be done in as little as 10 years, says Prof Murphy.

"This is a novel strategy that is not widely appreciated as yet. But it could provide a real alternative to the use of GMOs."

Using new crops would avoid many of the problems which can arise when several GM varieties of the same crop produce significantly different end products. Volunteer control, rotation management and segregation during storage and processing would all be less onerous.

Moving away from GM crops would also solve environmental concerns, Prof Murphy notes.

Crops which are highly efficient, environmentally friendly green factories for renewable resources currently obtained from petrochemicals can be developed, he says.

"This approach could enhance agricultural diversity and supply us with valuable, renewable products for as long as the sun shines on the earth." &#42

NON-GM BIOTECH

&#8226 First genetic map nearly complete.

&#8226 Direct application to oilseed rape and brassica crops.

&#8226 Agronomic, yield and quality characters could be changed, without using GM techniques.

&#8226 New crop species could be developed rapidly.

Is oilseed breeding set to take another turn, this time away from GM techniques? Researchers in Norwich believe it could.