International Research Journal of Plant Science

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The importanceof horizontal gene transfer in plant evolution and its implications for our view of genetically modified plants


Yi Sun, Danqiong Sun

The ability to move genes between species by transformation methods is very useful for basic research to evaluate the role of a gene in explaining the phenotypic differences between species and for applied research to introduce a desirable gene into a crop plant. However, some people have expressed concern that transformation experiments are unnatural. By implication, the unnaturalness of transformation is often taken to suggest that it is hazardous to the environment and health of human and animals. We will show that horizontal gene transfer, a natural version of transformation, has been occurring throughout evolutionary history. It should be recognized that, at least in land plants, gene transfer between taxonomically different species by conventional sexual reproduction (introgression, hybridization, such as triticale – a cross between wheat and rye) is more common than the transfer of pieces of DNA by non-sexual means (e.g., viruses, bacterial plasmids, or uptake and integration of naked DNA). However, increasing evidence suggests that horizontal gene transfer certainly occurs when one species comes into an intimate contact with another. Numerous examples of horizontal gene transfer from bacteria or fungi to plants and between plants have been published, proving that plants have a natural biological ability to accept foreign DNA and integrate it into the genome. Thus, we conclude that although interspecific transformation experiments, like all other genetic manipulations, should be reviewed for possible adverse environmental or health impacts, there is no reason to assume that more risk arises from transformation experiments than other common genetic and breeding methods.

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