In the world of genetic engineering one often talks about ‘transgenic organisms’. These are organisms that have been modified by the insertion of an alien gene into their genome. Now it turns out that there are naturally occurring transgenic plants. One such instance was found by Dr Lena Ghatnekar from the research team for evolutionary genetics at Lund University in Sweden. Her findings have just been published in the prestigious Proceedings of the Royal Society in London.
Sheep’s fescue (Festuca ovina) is a common grass that the research team at Lund University in Sweden has studied for a long time. One of its genes codes for an enzyme called PGIC. Lena Ghatnekar discovered that the enzyme did not look the same in all sheep’s fescue plants. It turned out that certain plants had extra genes for the production of PGIC and that these genes existed at a different site in the genome than the normal PGIC genes. At first the scientists believed that it was a matter of copied genes – gene duplications – but it soon proved to be a question of fugitive genes. Lena Ghatnekar explains:
”There are always minor differences from one plant to another when it comes to complex proteins like the enzyme PGIC. Maybe a difference of up to a few percent. But in this case the difference was six percent, and that is too much for an ordinary gene duplication.”
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