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Human Gene Gets Put Into Rice

GM industry puts human gene into rice
By Geoffrey Lean, Environment Editor 24 April 2005

Scientists have begun putting genes from human beings into food crops in a dramatic extension of genetic modification. The move, which is causing disgust and revulsion among critics, is bound to strengthen accusations that GM technology is creating "Frankenstein foods" and drive the controversy surrounding it to new heights. Even before this development, many people, including Prince Charles, have opposed the technology on the grounds that it is playing God by creating unnatural combinations of living things.

Opponents say that no one will want to eat the partially human-derived food because it will smack of cannibalism.

But supporters say that the controversial new departure presents no ethical problems and could bring environmental benefits.

In the first modification of its kind, Japanese researchers have inserted a gene from the human liver into rice to enable it to digest pesticides and industrial chemicals. The gene makes an enzyme, code-named CPY2B6, which is particularly good at breaking down harmful chemicals in the body.

Present GM crops are modified with genes from bacteria to make them tolerate herbicides, so that they are not harmed when fields are sprayed to kill weeds. But most of them are only able to deal with a single herbicide, which means that it has to be used over and over again, allowing weeds to build up resistance to it.

But the researchers at the National Institute of Agrobiological Sciences in Tsukuba, north of Tokyo, have found that adding the human touch gave the rice immunity to 13 different herbicides. This would mean that weeds could be kept down by constantly changing the chemicals used.

But he and other scientists caution that if the gene were to escape to wild relatives of the rice it could create particularly vicious superweeds that were resistant to a wide range of herbicides.