While promising the possibility of hardier crops and a larger, more robust food supply for the world, worries continue over the effect genetically engineered plants might have on the environment. One fear is over the movement of altered genes from domesticated populations to the wild and the effect of these "escaped" genes on ecosystems. In a study published in the December issue of Ecological Applications, Charity Cummings (University of Kansas), Helen Alexander (University of Kansas), Allison Snow (Ohio State University), Loren Riesenberg (University of Indiana) and colleagues tracked the movement of three specific alleles, or genes, in wild and domesticated sunflowers to determine how often and to what extent these plant populations will hybridize and pass specific genes on to the next generation.
Domesticated sunflowers are commonly grown in the plains states of the US and California, and the wild sunflower is a native, annual weed that occurs throughout most of the US. Sunflower and other crops are currently under development for a variety of traits to make them more resistant to fungi and pests. Currently wild sunflowers pose a problem for farmers as a weed in domesticated sunflower crops. These already weedy plants could cause even more damage if a gene for insect resistance crossed into the wild population from the cultivated sunflowers.
Many undergraduate biology students conduct an experiment using daphnia, crickets or other small invertebrates, measuring the number of offspring produced, how many survive and several other factors to understand survivorship and other population concepts. The scientists used a similar approach to predict the likelihood of genes from hybrid crops entering wild populations and staying in the wild sunflowers. Starting with a hundred wild plants and a hundred crop-wild hybrids, the scientists set up three plots and observed the sunflowers for two growing seasons, collecting the seeds to analyze the protein and gene flow between generations of plants.
Annie Drinkard | EurekAlert!
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