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Only Apple Genes in the Apples
Matthias Meili

Translated by Christopher Ortler, ACCESS!

The cultivation of genetically modified plants is controversial. Now a biologist has developed a method that puts many of the fears to rest.

Shut securely in an incubator, the promising seedlings are growing on small Petri plates in the second floor underground cellar of a research laboratory in Zurich. They are genetically modified, apple scab-resistant apple trees that may one day be organic-certified.

"In nine months I could be starting with field trials," says Cesare Gessler, Professor of Integrative Biology at the ETH Zurich and director of the highly anticipated project. "A start in Fall 2009 is more likely."

Crisis in fruit growing

Plant biotechnology, or the use of genetics to improve on some aspect of an agricultural crop, such as lowering fertilizer or pesticide requirements, or enhancing appearance or flavour of a crop, is highly controversial. The attack on a field trial of genetically modified wheat near Zurich on Friday is the latest reminder of this.

The Swiss Federal Council just recently extended a moratorium on the commercial cultivation of genetically modified crops that the population voted for in November 2005. And in the "organic" agricultural sector, obviously, such genetically modified plants are a strict taboo.

But because Gesslers´s apples contain only apple genes, his trials represent a kind of alternative path for gene technologists. He calls them cys gene plants (Latin cys = this side) to differentiate them from the plants that contain genes from other plant species or different types of organisms altogether, such as viruses and bacteria, which he refers to as trans gene plants (Latin trans = other side).

The Swiss National Fund is also a supporter of Gessler´s research, providing almost half-a-million Francs, largely because "this new type of genetic modification eliminates many of the problems." Furthermore, in the Fall of 2007 the Swiss Federal Council made it clear to a parliamentary inquiry that it intended to support cys genetics in order to get a handle on the rapidly growing Fire Blight crisis.

It is clear that fruit cultivation needs new ideas and new directions. Apple Scab is the most destructive fungus in local orchards and without counter-measures it would result in high losses. The application of potent fungicides is a given.

In addition, in the last few years there has been a steadily increasing occurrence of Fire Blight. This is particularly bad because the common method of combating this damaging bacterial disease is to spray with the antibiotic streptomycin, which is an environmental and health hazard. There is therefore a need for resistant apple varieties. These can be developed either by classical plant breeding or with the help of gene technology.

"We decided early on that we aren´t interested in trans gene plants," explained Professor Gessner. In transgene organisms, the inserted genes originate from foreign organisms such as bacteria, viruses or other plant species not capable of interbreeding. In his project Gessner has inserted an apple scab resistance gene from an old wild apple sort into the genome of a common Gala apple.

"Our apples are genetically modified but they contain only apple genes. We even found a solution for the technically challenging selection of the plants." Until now special selection genes from plant viruses have been necessary for this step of the process but Gessler was able to replace these with apple genes too.

The black sheep

The 59 year-old Cesare Gessler could be referred to as the black sheep of genetic research. He repeatedly voiced concern that the time for commercial application of gene technology had not yet come and supported the moratorium. But the born Tessiner, who has worked for almost thirty years in Zurich, applies the technology when it is necessary. "It is wrong to blindly and totally condemn the technology. We must judge the products," says Gessler.

The ETH plant researcher, Christof Sautter, who has developed a genetically modified wheat variety, supports Gessler´s project "if it helps broaden acceptance of gene technology."

However, Sautter notes that the location of the inserted gene within the apple genome is uncontrolable even with cys technology. "For me the question is therefore not whether one works with cys or trans plants, but whether gene technology should be used at all to combat Fire Blight."

Fewer problems

In any case, farmers and the public are uniformly against genetically modified plants in Switzerland, theoretically because of the inherent risks. Foreign genes, so it goes, could result in the production of new, allergy causing substances in such plants. Another fear is of a biological nature, namely that through interbreeding a new super weed may results that crowds out all other plants.

Many of these problems are eliminated, however, when genes from the same kind of organism are utilized. There is no more health risk for consumers because the genes are from an apple tree whose fruit has been consumed by countless people over many years. There is no risk of transferring the resistance gene to other apple trees or wild sorts because the resistance gene has been widespread in apple trees for many centuries.

Soon, Gessler would like to address the Fire Blight problem. "We are not as far along with Fire Blight as we are with apple scab, though," admits Gessler frankly. "There are old apple sorts that are resistant to Fire Blight. But in contrast to apple scab, the resistance cannot be definitively assigned to one specific gene."

Swiss agriculture and Swiss Bio agriculture in particular, stand to profit considerably from Professor Gessler´s research. Especially in fruit production, the word "organic" means anything but pesticide-free in Switzerland.

While farmers who follow the ecologically oriented guidelines of Integrated Production (IP) spray fungicide in their orchards 8 to 10 times per year, depending on type of apple and weather, the organic producers are not much better. They spread copper solution in their orchards up to 18 times per season. Copper is an effective inorganic fungicide that is still permitted - even though the substance is listed by Bio Suisse as a health and environmental hazard.

But without the copper, one would never be able to get rid of the fungi in the orchard. "About 8 sprayings per season can be eliminated with our apple scab resistant apple sort" says Professor Gessler. "That is a great accomplishment."

Swiss Bio representatives are however still strictly against the possibility of putting cys plants into the organic category. The association Bio Swiss, which can bestow the attractive label, continues to support research in traditional agricultural methods.

"The application of gene technology is contradictory to our philosophy," answers Bio Suisse Public Relations Representative Jacqueline Forster, when questioned if cys plant cultivation is being considered by BioSuisse.

The guidelines for permits to cultivate genetically modified plants will also remain unchanged according to the Swiss Department for the Environment (Bafu). According to Bafu media speaker Adrain Aeschlimann, "it makes no difference to the government if the genetic modifications are of a cys or trans nature. The key criterion is whether there was a transfer of DNA by gene technological means."

Organic scene is interested

In other countries such as Australia the thinking is quite different. Cys gene plants require neither approval nor labelling. Recently, the German geneticist Bernd Muller-Röber of the Max Planck Institute for Molecular Plant Physiology, in Potsdam, appealed to the EU to reconsider its position with regard to cys plants.

All the while, Gessler´s research is being looked at with interest by the Geman organic scene. Already two years have gone by since the advisory organization Ecological Fruit Production concluded "the general rejection of gene technology for the out-of-date products of the large biotech companies was correct and sufficient."

For the next generation of genetically modified plants whose modifications and gene make-up remain within the species, and which possess ecologically beneficial qualities such as apple scab resistance, there is a need for objective discussion and evaluation of the products.

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