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Q&A: Plant scientists answer your questions

Dr Wendy Harwood and Professor Huw Jones answering your questions below between 12.00 and 1.00 pm Friday 4th May 2012

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Wendy Harwood is a Senior Scientist responsible for the Crop Transformation Group at the John Innes Centre, Norwich. Her group provides a range of crop transformation resources to the research community, works on improving the methodology for producing GM crops, particularly cereals, and on the safety assessment of GM crops.

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Huw Jones is research leader of the Cereal Transformation Group at Rothamsted Research, Harpenden, studying ways to develop genetic techniques to solve problems growing wheat and other cereals.

Síle Lane: Welcome to this questions and answer session on cross fertilisation, which has also been called contamination, with Wendy harwood and Huw Jones. Huw and Wendy will be here until 1.00 pm and will answer as many questions as possible from the ones you have already sent, some that have come from previous discussions and questions you email now.

Email your questions to enquiries@senseaboutscience.org and join us on Twitter with hashtag #dontdestroyresearch

Síle Lane 1. The first question is what’s the problem with doing this research in a green house?

HJ: We have done tests in a glasshouse and the results were spectacular; aphids were repelled and natural enemies attracted to our GM plants. However, people would be right to say this is does not reflect real life agriculture.

WH: A greenhouse can never replicate the range of environmental conditions found in the field. This means that field experiments are essential to really test how the wheat performs.

  1. Why do you say insects can't carry off the GM wheat pollen?

WH: Insects do not pollinate wheat so wheat pollen will not be carried off by pollinating insects. If pollen was ‘carried off’ it is only viable for a very short time (a few minutes) so would not be a problem.

HJ: Wheat is not insect-pollinated. Wheat flowers fertilise themselves before they open. Excess pollen, which is heavy and lives for only a few hours, then falls to the ground around the plant.

  1. How does a small fence stop animals and birds spreading dangerous GM pollen and seeds?

HJ: Pollen is not a problem, however, there is a potential hazard of birds or animals picking up seeds, either at time of sowing or around harvest time. Small mammals are excluded for the whole trial period by the fence which has small mesh (around 1cm). Birds are actively excluded for a month after sowing and at harvest time by management practices including bird kites, gas guns and tape.

WH: The trial has a variety of measures in place to deter birds and animals.

@orchid_b 4. Genes jump, what’s to stop them jumping again?

WH: There are no wild relatives of wheat that it could cross with out in the field so genes could not ‘jump’ to other plants in this way. The risk assessment carried out will have considered whether the introduced gene could cause any harm in the environment if it spread. The trial would not have been allowed if there was a risk.

HJ: Nothing. The movement of genes from one type of organism to another via non-sexual means (so-called ‘horizontal gene transfer’) is extremely rare but it does occur naturally and is nothing specifically to do with GMOs.

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