Genetic Engineering and Cell Fusion CMS


cell fusionThis weekend I listened to the webinar broadcast of the Organic Seed Growers Conference 2014. One of the sessions was titled: 'Unpacking the Cell Fusion Debate'. I touched on this topic in a previous blog on landrace gardening, and promised to return to it at a later time. Seems like now would be appropriate.

What is Cell Fusion?

Cell fusion is a genetic engineering process in which the nucleus is removed from a plant cell and replaced by a nucleus from a different plant that might be from a different species or genera. This creates a new plant with mixed genetics. It contains the mitochondrial and chloroplast DNA from one cell and the nuclear DNA from a different one. This is typically done for the purpose of creating cytoplasmic male sterility (CMS), which allows hybrids to be created reliably and inexpensively, and prevents anyone other than the seed company from recreating the variety. This process is also called somatic fusion or protoplast fusion. The plants created by using this technology are sometimes called transgenic cybrids.

Is Cell Fusion Compatible With Organic Standards?

The discussion at the conference centered around whether it is appropriate to use this sort of genetic engineering in Certified Organic production of fruits and vegetables, and how the industry might adapt if the standards are changed. Cell fusion technology is currently being used extensively in the production of both organic and conventional foods. I have been writing about this topic since 2011. Now that it has gained national attention at a major conference attended by many of the prominent players in the organic seed movement we can expect to see it become a common topic of conversation. It is likely that the USDA's National Organic Program will be asking for public comment on the issue.

Who is Affected?

As things currently stand, buyers of organic food, and of hybrid organic seed may not be able to determine whether or not the plants are derived from genetically engineered ancestors. Growing non-hybrid seed is currently the most reliable way to avoid growing plants created via cell fusion genetic engineering.

Seed companies that have signed the Safe Seed Pledge may want to re-evaluate their hybrid seed offerings to make sure that they are honoring their promises in light of the new understanding of this topic. I would like to see signers of the safe seed pledge providing details about how their hybrids were created: Especially regarding the brassicas, alliums, chenopods, and umbifers. Some of these types of hybrids may also be made using self-incompatibility. It would be nice to know which are which. I would like to see the release of a Safe Seed Pledge 2.0 which generally bans the use of cytoplasmic male sterility and specifically bans cell fusion genetic engineering.

There may be disruptions in the availability of seed if the industry consensus determines that cell fusion technology does not belong in organic agriculture. Large-scale growers might want to start planning now in order to avoid uncertainty later on. Small-scale growers can avoid transgenic cybrids by not planting hybrids.

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