Skip to main content

Gene barrier could boost farming, environment

October 12, 2000 By Terry Devitt

Working with teosinte, a wild cousin of maize, a university scientist has found a molecular barrier that, bred into modern hybrid corn, is capable of completely locking out foreign genes, including those from genetically modified corn.

The discovery is important because it means farmers will have access to technology that can ensure the genetic integrity of their corn crop, making it easier to export to countries wary of recombinant DNA technology. It also would provide a built-in buffer for potential environmental problems, such as the threat to monarch butterflies from corn engineered to make its own biological insecticides.

“Governing the flow of genes between populations is what’s at stake,” says Jerry L. Kermicle, the professor of genetics who discovered teosinte’s genetic barrier.

Corn varieties of all kinds – from organic to genetically engineered – easily cross-fertilize through pollen carried from one field to another. The new discovery, however, could permit American farmers to recapture markets in Europe and Asia by ensuring that organic or traditional hybrid corn is uncontaminated by genes from genetically modified crops.

Commercial quantities for planting by farmers are possible by the year 2003.

The new gene-barrier technology has been patented. In addition to its commercial potential, Kermicle’s discovery may also provide new scientific insight into the genetic barriers that prevent other species from acquiring foreign genes.

Similar barriers may exist in nature for other important plants, Gerrish says. Kermicle’s discovery is certain to inspire quests for those plants and barrier genes.