How modified genes can make their way into the wild

British scientists figured out how genetically modified genes can transfer from a bacterium to a fungus.
Written by Boonsri Dickinson, Contributing Editor on

University of Bristol researchers wanted know what would happen if a certain bacterium could transfer genes into non-plant organisms like fungi. If so, it could certainly give synthetic genes a promiscuous way of escaping into the wild.

The scientists used the bacterium Agrobacterium tumefaciens, which is commonly used to genetically modify different types of plants, to replicate what happens when it interacts with a fungus at a plant's wound site.

In the lab, the researchers found that the genes transferred from the bacterium to the fungus. The plant wound hormone, acetosyringone, was necessary for the gene transfer to occur.

This study suggests that the encounter between Agrobacterium and a fungus on the plant surface may lead to gene flow in a previously overlooked way, potentially leaking GM genes into the natural world," said Bristol's professor Gary Foster, in a statement.

To be clear, the genes used in this specific study were not modified. The study merely demonstrated transgenesis in a new way, showing the potential for foreign genes to work their way into new organisms.

The researchers concluded that this new gene route should be included in the GM risk assessment. At this point, it's unclear how this new gene flow might impact the environment.

What the Bristol researchers found in the lab was an interesting possibility, but how often this interaction takes place in nature is not known. And it begs the question, what would happen if a herbicide resistant gene made its way into a fungus?

As companies introduce their latest GM food to the world, it might be wise to develop techniques to prevent the genes from escaping into nature in the first place.

GM foods entered our food chain two decades ago. Today, the list of GM foods and organisms keeps growing: GM salmon, engineering malaria-resistant mosquitoes and rice with human genes.

Photo: Kirsty Foster

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