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April 9, 2000


Why "GMO" is bad terminology.


- http://www.agbioworld.org, http://agbioview.listbot.com

I agree with John Cross's sentiments about the confusing nature of the
term 'GMO'. Not just because it confuses new and old types of genetic
manipulation (or even 'improvement'!), but because it lumps together all
types of genetic modification, which is, I believe a dangerous
over-simplification, and is, in my opinion, part of the reason why the
arguments both for and against what I term the 'new GM' have become so

May I draw the attention of readers of this newsgroup to a Correspondence
I had in Nature near the end of last year, presenting these points - 9
December issue, Vol. 402, p. 575. I have pasted crudenly below the text of
the letter as I submitted to Nature, which was published essentially

Mark Tester
mogeneous group. This distorts arguments and
weakens reasoning. It is time to introduce a classification of the
distinctive types of GM crops. I propose the use of three classes:
1) 'Wide transfer', referring to the movement of genes from organisms of
other kingdoms into plants;
2) 'Close transfer', referring to movements of genes between species of
plants; and
3) 'Tweaking', referring to the manipulation of levels or patterns of
expression of genes already present in a plant's genome.

Genetic modification, in its strictest meaning, has been performed for
10,000 years, including notably gross manipulations such as the
development of hexaploid wheat and triticale. Consequently, I think it
would also be sensible (and politically appropriate!) to refer to GM crops
generated using modern biotechnology as 'new GM crops', as distinguished
from the 'old GM' of traditional breeding technologies.

Use of such terminology will throw into relief some of the more extreme
claims made by both sides of the argument. For example, the use of
'substantial equivalence' (as employed for conventional crops) is most
likely to be sufficient for crops developed using 'close transfer' and
'tweaking', as the results of these manipulations are unlikely to be
different from processes used by traditional breeders. However, the
introduction into the food chain of significant amounts of novel proteins
by 'wide transfer' may well require more thorough testing, as for the
introduction of a drug. If such tests were introduced only for plants
generated by wide transfer, then the obvious objections to this suggestion
raised by Trewavas & Leaver2 would not apply.

Use of a refined categorisation of the new GM crops would focus arguments
and facilitate more balanced conclusions in a currently unnecessarily
polarised debate.

Mark Tester
Department of Plant Sciences, University of Cambridge, Downing St,
Cambridge CB2 3EA, UK

1 Millstone, E., et al. Nature 401, 525-526 (1999).
2 Trewavas, A. & Leaver, C.J. Nature 401, 640 (1999).


Dr Mark Tester, Tel: + 44 1223 333918
Department of Plant Sciences, Mobile: 0411 826743
University of Cambridge, Fax: + 44 1223 333953
Downing St,
Cambridge CB2 3EA, e-mail: mat10@cam.ac.uk

Also visit our web site, at http://www.plantsci.cam.ac.uk/Tester/home.html