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Genome archaeology illuminates the genetic engineering debate

Genome Research's cover story for Oct. 2 tells a tale of "genome archaeology" by genetic researchers who dug deeply into the long history of maize and rice. Their resulting insights into plant genomic evolution may well fuel the fires of the genetically modified organism (GMO) controversy.

"Our findings elucidate an active evolutionary process in which nature inserts genes much like modern biotechnologists do. Now we must reassess the allegations that biotechnologists perform 'unnatural acts,' thereby creating 'Frankenfoods,'" said Professor Joachim Messing, project leader and director of the Waksman Institute of Microbiology at Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey.

By comparing corresponding segments of two maize (corn) chromosomes with each other, and then to a corresponding segment of rice, project scientists reconstructed a genetic history replete with "reconfiguration and reshuffling, reminiscent of working with Lego blocks," Messing said.

Public awareness groups have argued that genetic engineering of crops deviates from "natural processes" when biotechnologists insert genes at seemingly random places, altering the normal order of genes in the genome. The view of genes being fixed in their position in the genome is largely based on studies in animal genomes. In contrast to those studies, however, the authors show that plant genomes evolved from a far more dynamic structure than previously believed.

Maize dominates domestic agriculture, where approximately 9 billion bushels are produced annually at a value of $30 billion. Corn is an important dietary staple in much of the third world and a bio-fuel source; rice is the primary dietary staple for more than half the world's population.

Scientists have long known that the number of chromosomes among some plant species has changed over time, with some evolutionary phases showing four, six, eight or more sets. "Maize, for example, began with four sets of chromosomes
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Source:Rutgers, the State University of New Jersey


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