, Volume 16, Issue 3, pp 261-280
Date: 14 Apr 2007

Biosafety and risk assessment framework for selectable marker genes in transgenic crop plants: a case of the science not supporting the politics

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Abstract

Selectable marker gene systems are vital for the development of transgenic crops. Since the creation of the first transgenic plants in the early 1980s and their subsequent commercialization worldwide over almost an entire decade, antibiotic and herbicide resistance selectable marker gene systems have been an integral feature of plant genetic modification. Without them, creating transgenic crops is not feasible on purely economic and practical terms. These systems allow the relatively straightforward identification and selection of plants that have stably incorporated not only the marker genes but also genes of interest, for example herbicide tolerance and pest resistance. Bacterial antibiotic resistance genes are also crucial in molecular biology manipulations in the laboratory. An unprecedented debate has accompanied the development and commercialization of transgenic crops. Divergent policies and their implementation in the European Union on one hand and the rest of the world on the other (industrialized and developing countries alike), have resulted in disputes with serious consequences on agricultural policy, world trade and food security. A lot of research effort has been directed towards the development of marker-free transformation or systems to remove selectable markers. Such research has been in a large part motivated by perceived problems with antibiotic resistance selectable markers; however, it is not justified from a safety point of view. The aim of this review is to discuss in some detail the currently available scientific evidence that overwhelmingly argues for the safety of these marker gene systems. Our conclusion, supported by numerous studies, most of which are commissioned by some of the very parties that have taken a position against the use of antibiotic selectable marker gene systems, is that there is no scientific basis to argue against the use and presence of selectable marker genes as a class in transgenic plants.

Koreen Ramessar and Ariadna Peremarti contributed equally to the manuscript.