16 February 1996

Should OSR be focus of gene manipulation?

GENETIC manipulation of oilseed rape is already producing plants from which plastics and an increasing range of useful oils and fatty acids can be extracted.

But Ray Mathias, plant scientist at the John Innes Centre, Norwich, questions whether oilseed rape should be the principle focus of such work.

"Concentrating on one species in this way has disadvantages – rotation requirements may limit the annual area that can be grown commercially; there is a risk of cross-contamination of seed for different uses; and there may be cross-contamination in the crop through volunteers," he points out.

With fewer than 20 out of more than 8000 oil-bearing plants being exploited, an alternative strategy would be to develop other species, through conventional breeding as well as biotechnology, into commercially viable crops, he suggests.

Instead of transferring genes from different plants to rape to produce new end-products, why not genetically enhance plants that already produce desirable end products to turn them into economically competitive crops?

"Developing new crops in this way would provide greater species diversity, giving farmers increased flexibility in crop choice to match conditions on their farms," argues Dr Mathias. "And it provides the opportunity to design plants for more sustainable agricultural systems involving lower inputs."

lTurn to page 59 for more arable stories on barley net blotch, sugar beet spraying and potatoes. &#42

Developing new oilseed crops rather than engineering existing ones could avoid many problems, says Norwich- based scientist Ray Mathias.