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Horizontal Gene Transfer

Note: DuPont scientists conducted a review of current scientific literature related to horizontal gene transfer and biotech crops. This information will be updated from time-to-time. We welcome new scientific information and, of course, your perspective.

Genes can move among different species in nature. Sometimes gene transfer occurs between two closely related species via typical routes of reproduction, such as cross pollination of plants and interbreeding of animals. Other times genes move between different species, such as bacteria and plants, through a process unrelated to reproduction that is known as horizontal gene transfer (HGT). HGT also can occur between two closely related species.

Regarding genes incorporated into plants through biotechnology, the important question is not whether these genes can move to other organisms, but whether they provide sufficient advantage to the new organism to make maintaining them worthwhile. Concerns about environmental impacts of HGT involving these genes are germane only in those rare instances where a gene would spread through a population.

There are two related factors that indicate HGT involving genes from biotech-derived plants is virtually non-existent: the barely detectable rate of plant gene transfer to soil bacteria, intestinal bacteria or intestinal cells, and the comparatively trivial number of genes from biotech-derived plants in decaying or ingested plant material. Extensive field studies have revealed no HGT from biotech crops to soil microorganisms, and laboratory studies on HGT of genes from biotech-derived plants to intestinal bacteria and intestinal cells. The most likely, but difficult, mode of HGT from biotech crops to other organisms is through the mechanism called transformation. Even under optimal laboratory conditions, the rate of successful transformation of bacterial cells and intestinal cells with genes from plants approaches zero. In conclusion, although HGT from biotech crops is possible, the probability of such an event is extremely rare, and unlikely even in highly-controlled laboratory conditions.

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