During 2007, researchers from the University of Cape Town (UCT), particularly Professor Jennifer Thompson, in collaboration with Pannar seed South Africa, announced that they had developed transgene-derived resistance to the pathogen Maize-Streak-Virus (MSV).

They also claimed to have developed the first maize with transgenic MSV resistance, heralding the first all-African produced genetically modified crop plant.[i] The African Centre for Biosafety (ACB) investigated these claims and in a briefing paper titled, “The UCT/Pannar genetically engineered maize resistant to maize streak virus”[ii] we raised a number of serious biosafety concerns and exposed the project as one still in its extreme infancy.

Correspondence at the time between the ACB and Dionne Shepherd, the lead researcher from the department of molecular biology UCT, revealed that her research team were still at a stage of attempting to obtain a single copy of the transgene event in order to proceed to field trials.[iii] Two years have passed since these highly premature announcements, and yet the researchers continue to be light years away from the field trial-let alone commercial stage.

Recent ACB correspondence with Dionne Shepherd reveals that the research team are currently still testing some 200 odd genes exhibiting resistance, in search of the elusive gene conferring the resistance they are seeking. Dion has conceded that an application for field trials ‘may still be some time away’.[iv] See below for a record of this correspondence.

The office of the Registrar: GMO Act has also confirmed that to date, no application for field trials had been submitted to it in relation to MSV resistant maize.[v] Pannar Seed continue to be involved in the project, and early discussions are underway with PlantBio, a biotech research agency in South Africa, about possible research funding.[vi] When contacted, PlantBio would only confirm that discussions were underway and refused to divulge any further information.[vii]

One wonders why the UCT and Pannar jumped the gun already in 2007, when clearly, their research is still in its infancy. Same old, same old: pure pro-biotech propaganda.

Annexure 1

Correspondence between the ACB and Dionne Shepherd, department of molecular and cell biology, University of Cape Town. (All responses by Dionne Shepherd in Bold). 17/09/2009. My name is Gareth Jones. I am contacting you on behalf of the Africa Centre for Biosafety. I believe you were in correspondence with our director, Mariam Mayet, a couple of years ago regarding the status of your research into MVR resistant maize. We are still very keen to know if you plan to submit an application to the registrar. GMO Act to conduct field trials with MSV resistant maize. 7/09/2009

We are currently still testing transgenic lines in the greenhouse. When we have a line that we want to develop further we will apply to conduct field trials; however that may still be quite some time away. Sorry, I can’t be more specific but at this stage I really don’t have an answer when that will be.

5/11/2009 a) How long have you been testing in the Greenhouse? b) Is Pannar Seed pty still involved in the project, or have any new actors become involved? c) Have any scientific breakthroughs been made since the inception of the project that has influenced its direction in any way? d) Have you made any progress moving from multiple to single copy events? e) Have you been able to ascertain the concentration levels of the novel protein in various tissues? f) Have your plans/goals for any potential trial release changed in the last two years? 12/11/2009

The answer to your first question is quite involved, but it probably answers most of your questions! We first developed “experimental” MSV-resistant maize in the laboratory, using a plasmid construct that contained an antibiotic resistance gene. This was for proof of concept only, NOT for field trial release. When we had data showing that it worked (this was published in 2007), we set about generating transgenic lines that would satisfy all biosafety requirements for field release (this includes no antibiotic resistance genes). We generated about 200 lines in 2008 and this year we have been testing them (in UCT’s contained plant growth rooms) for resistance. We have shortlisted some lines that show good resistance and these have been pollinated in order to get F1 seed. We have just obtained the first batch of F1 seed and are busy testing it again for resistance.

Obviously the first criteria before we do anything else is that the resistance is inherited in the offspring and transgene expression is stable (determined by RT-PCR). We will then begin the molecular work on these lines (Southerns, northerns, westerns etc) to determine copy number and level of protein expression. We did it this way round because there was no point in doing Southerns, northerns and westerns on all 200 lines, only to go no further with some of them because the resistance was not good enough, or they didn’t produce enough seed, etc. So we have rather narrowed down the number of lines to those that show good resistance and that have produced good F1 seedsets. This is where we are at now.

Yes Pannar is still involved; no there are no new actors involved (although PlantBio is talking about funding the biosafety work – no formal agreement has yet taken place).

References [i] Shepherd et al (2007). Maize streak virus-resistant maize A first for Africa.” Plant Biotechnology Journal, 5, pp. 759 767 [ii] African Centre for Biosafety (2007). Briefing paper: The UCT/Pannar genetically engineered maize resistant to maize streak virus. (http://www.biosafetyafrica.net/index.html/images/stories/dmdocuments/briefing-paperuct-msv-project.pdf) [iii] Ibid. [iv] Personal communication, Dr Dionne Shepherd, department of molecular and cell biology, University of Cape Town. 17/09/2009. [v]Personal communication. Marion Van Rooyen, senior Administrative officer, office of the director-general. Department of Agriculture, forestry and fisheries. 21/10/2009 [vi] Personal communication, Dr Dionne Shepherd, department of molecular and cell biology, University of Cape Town. 12/11/2009 [vii] Personal communication, Dr. Hennie Groenewald, executive manager, Biosafety South Africa.