Published on Sunday, May 28, 2000 in the London Observer
New Research Shows Genetically Modified Genes Are Jumping Species Barrier
by Antony Barnett
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.'
© Guardian Newspapers Limited 2000