Genetically Engineered Sugar Beets Turn into Superweeds

New Scientist (UK)
October 21, 2000
SECTION: This Week, Pg. 6

Stray genes highlight superweed danger

BY Debora MacKenzie (Brussels)

SUGAR beets genetically modified to resist one herbicide have accidentally
acquired the genes to resist another. The accident provides yet more
evidence that the widespread use of herbicide-resistant crops could lead to
the creation of superweeds.

European regulations forbid the creation of plants resistant to several
herbicides because they might become uncontrollable. However, in September,
when trial plots of beets designed to resist the herbicide glufosinate were
sprayed with glyphosate to kill them off, not all the plants died. In nine
plots in Britain, France and the Netherlands, 0.5 per cent of the crop
survived. "That adds up to a lot of plants," says Brian Johnson of the
government conservation agency English Nature.

The errant resistance gene crept into the beets in the greenhouses of a
German seed company, says Wolfgang Faust of Aventis in Frankfurt, the
company that created the beets. A few of the beets were pollinated by
another variety engineered to resist glyphosate, making their offspring
doubly resistant. "If they can't prevent it there, there is little chance
they will avoid it in the field," says Johnson.

Faust says that such "stacking" of resistance genes is unlikely in beets,
because they flower in their second year and most are harvested in the
first. "But some plants always bolt and bloom in their first year,"
responds Johnson. Their weedy offspring have to be killed with
broad-spectrum herbicides. If these beets acquire additional resistance
genes, they can be killed only by more noxious herbicides.

While only one similar incident of gene stacking has been reported, in
rapeseed in Canada (NewScientist, 19 February, p 21), Johnson says there
are "informal" reports from the US.

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