3 July 1998

PROTEIN GENE IMPLANTS

Advances in genetic engineering could result in new crops

that thrive under northern conditions. Heres how

researchers hope to harness the latest technology

GENETICALLY engineered crops, marine mussels and common spiders could prove a winning combination for the Yorkshire growers of tomorrow.

York University biologists are studying the potential of gene transfer technology to persuade plants to generate special proteins which are produced naturally by mussels and spiders.

Marine mussels secrete adhesive proteins which enable them to bond to wet surfaces – something no man-made adhesive can do. Having identified the proteins in the adhesive, which has the strength of an epoxy resin, the next stage is to transfer the gene from mussel to plant. That will enable the adhesive protein to be produced in commercial quantities.

The research has already attracted interest from the marine engineering industry. Medical interest has also been sparked by the proteins potential to close internal and external body wounds without the need for stitching. And it could be used to improve dental health care.

Dr Simon McQueen-Mason will be attending the show to discuss the research in the Northern Universities exhibit. Working with the company Smith and Nephew, Dr McQueen-Mason hopes all the technical problems will be resolved within three years. Work can then begin with a seed company to find the best plant in which to insert the gene.

That could be industrial oilseed rape, he suggests. Inserting the gene could allow oil and adhesive protein to be extracted in separate operations.

He estimates this work and the production of seed from transgenic crops could take up to five years. Commercial production of the adhesive could become a reality within 10 years, predicts Dr McQueen-Mason.

Far longer term research is aimed at producing spider silks from plants. Spider silks are composed of structural proteins which could be useful in the defence industry. Research is being directed towards cloning the genes which encode the silk proteins and transfering them into plants.

York University is working with a Danish spider expert and the Defence Industries Research Association to produce high performance fibres. The Ministry of Defence is said to be interested in the material for use in flak jackets and as vehicle armour. &#42

Dr Simon McQueen-Mason working on genetically modified plants at York University. His aim is to produce renewable sources of structured proteins to be used in medicine and dentistry as an internal and external wound healer.