Antony Barnett, public affairs editor
A leading zoologist has found evidence that genes used to modify crops can jump the species barrier and cause bacteria to mutate, prompting fears that GM technology could pose serious health risks.
A four-year study by Professor Hans-Hinrich Kaatz, a respected German zoologist, found that the alien gene used to modify oilseed rape had transferred to bacteria living inside the guts of honey bees.
The research - which has yet to be published and has not been reviewed by fellow scientists - is highly significant because it suggests that all types of bacteria could become contaminated by genes used in genetically modified technology, including those that live inside the human digestive system.
If this happened, it could have an impact on the bacteria's vital role in helping the human body fight disease, aid digestion and facilitate blood clotting.Agriculture Minister Nick Brown, who was yesterday advising farmers who have accidentally grown contaminated GM oilseed rape in Britain to rip up their crops, confirmed the potential significance of Kaatz's research. He said: 'If this is true, then it would be very serious.'
The 47-year-old Kaatz has been reluctant to talk about his research until it has been published in a scientific journal, because he fears a backlash from the scientific community similar to that faced by Dr Arpad Pustzai, who claimed that genetically modified potatoes damaged the stomach lining of rats. Pustzai was sacked and had his work discredited.
But in his first newspaper interview, Kaatz told The Observer: 'It is true, I have found the herbicide-resistant genes in the rapeseed transferred across to the bacteria and yeast inside the intestines of young bees. This happened rarely, but it did happen.'
Although Kaatz realised the potential 'significance' of his findings, he said he 'was not surprised' at the results. Asked if this had implications for the bacteria inside the human gut, he said: 'Maybe, but I am not an expert on this.'
Dr Mae-Wan Ho, geneticist at Open University and a critic of GM technology, has no doubts about the dangers. She said: 'These findings are very worrying and provide the first real evidence of what many have feared. Everybody is keen to exploit GM technology, but nobody is looking at the risk of horizontal gene transfer.
'We are playing about with genetic structures that existed for millions of years and the experiment is running out of control.'
One of the biggest concerns is if the anti-biotic resistant gene used in some GM crops crossed over to bacteria. 'If this happened it would leave us unable to treat major illnesses like meningitis and E coli .'
Kaatz, who works at the respected Institute for Bee Research at the University of Jena in Germany, built nets in a field planted with genetically modified rapeseed produced by AgrEvo. He let the bees fly freely within the net. At the beehives, he installed pollen traps in order to sample the pollen from the bees' hindlegs when entering the hive.
This pollen was fed to young honey bees in the laboratory. Pollen is the natural diet of young bees, which need a high protein diet. Kaatz then extracted the intestine of the young bees and discovered that the gene from the GM rape-seed had been transferred in the bee gut to the microbes.
Professor Robert Pickard, director-general of the Institute of the British Nutrition Foundation, is a bee expert as well as being a biologist and has visited the institute where Kaatz works. He said: 'There is no doubt that, if Kaatz's research is substantiated, then it poses very interesting questions and will need to be looked at very closely.
'But it must be remembered that the human body has been coping perfectly well with strange DNA for millions of years. And we also know many people have been eating GM products for years without showing any signs of ill health.'
GM genes 'can spread to people and animals'
By Geoffrey Lean, Volker Angres and Louise Jury
Genes from genetically modified crops can spread from plants into other forms of wildlife, new research shows. The research, which is the result of a three-year study at the University of Jena in Germany, supports environmentalists' warnings and raises the possibility that people who eat GM foods may also be affected.
Beatrix Tappesser from the Ecology Institute in Freiburg said: "This is very alarming because it shows that the cross-over of genes takes place on a greater scale than we had previously assumed.
"The results indicate that we must assume that changes take place in the intestinal tubes of people and animals. The crossover of microorganisms takes place and people's make up in terms of micro-organisms in their intestinal tract is changed. This can therefore have health consequences."
The research which has found that bees take up engineered genes from oilseed rape à will dramatically increase pressure on farmers and ministers to destroy the crop accidentally sown over thousands of acres of Britain. Yesterday, Nick Brown, the Agriculture Minister, in an emergency announcement, advised farmers to plough in the crop at a cost estimated by the National Farmers' Union at £3m.
While this represented a sharp U-turn from his previous denials that such action would be necessary, he admitted he had no legal authority to order them to do so. Mr Brown said they had the alternative option of harvesting the crop and trying to sell it outside Europe, although it was unclear whether the law allows them to do that.
He ruled out any government compensation for the farmers, although the food industry has now made it clear that they will not buy any of the crop. He said that farmers should instead seek redress from Advanta, the company who sold them the GM contaminated seed.
The new research about GM genes infecting other forms of life seriously undermines assertions by the biotech industry and GM supporters that the genes cannot spread and is being taken "very seriously" by the German health ministry.
Professor Hans-Heinrich Kaatz of Jena's authoritative Bee Institute released the insects onto a crop of genetically modified rape and removed the pollen they gathered when they returned to the hive. He fed the pollen to young bees, and when he analysed the bacteria in their guts found that they had taken up the same modified genes.
He told the German television station ZDF: "They had obviously taken up these genes. They were in the bacteria in the intestinal tract of the bees and seemed to have come from the genes of the original plant and to have been taken up into their own genetic make-up."
Ulrike Riedel of the German Health Ministry said that the experiment should be taken "very seriously". She added: "This kind of study is a good reason why we should not assume that everything is OK."
Brian Johnson, English Nature's top GM expert, said that the main question was whether the bacteria had incorporated the modified genes temporarily or permanently. He thought that the risk of permanent alteration was "very small" but added: "We can't rule it out."
Adrian Bebb of Friends of the Earth said: "This study shows once again how little we know about the science and adds strength to call for a freeze on growing all GM crops."
Nick Brown said yesterday that the accidental GM contamination of the oilseed rape highlighted the need for European standards on seed purity. While the crops posed "no danger" to the environment or to public health, the consumer had the right to know what was in the food supply.
At an informal meeting with European colleagues tomorrow, he will press his European colleagues to establish standards and tougher checks.
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