Genome British Columbia - Genome Genomics

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Terminator Technology

Terminator Technology for GM crops

May 2007
Written by Vijayakumar Somalinga

Tags: agriculture, techniques, GM

Genetic use restriction technology: Terminator technology
You’ve probably heard of genetically modified organisms – called GMOs. In agriculture, GMOs are plants that have been altered genetically so they have a ‘trait’ that farmers or industry desire.

For example, in Canada the most common trait is herbicide resistance. This means that if you plant a field of genetically modified canola that is herbicide resistant you can spray the field with herbicide that will kill all the weeds and leave your canola standing. Farmers find this a very easy way to get rid of all the weeds in their fields without killing their crop.

What is Terminator technology?
In 1998, scientists in the U.S. developed a new type of technique to develop GMO’s called the ‘Genetic use restriction technology (GURT)’. Basically, scientists engineered plants to produce seeds that are sterile so they could not reproduce. GURT is most commonly referred to as “terminator technology” because the plant’s ability to reproduce has been ‘terminated’ at the genetic level (i.e. the plant produces a crop but the seeds of the crop will fail to germinate in the subsequent generation).

Possible Advantages of Terminator technology
Terminator technology was initially engineered to protect “intellectual property rights” of the big companies like Monsanto, so that no one else could hijack the technology. In other words, if farmers decided to save some of the seed from a harvest, they would not be able to plant it the next year in their fields because the seed would be sterile. They would have to go back to Monsanto and buy more seed.

Terminator technology can also be used to limit the spread of genes from GMOs to other plants in the natural environment. This will ensure that genes from the GMOs will not get mixed with the plants in the wild.

Possible Disadvantages of Terminator technology

Design limitations of terminator technology
One of the major limitations of terminator technology, as in engineering any living systems, is in its inability to withstand undesired changes. Terminator technology uses genes from bacteria, viruses and plants. These genes are incorporated in the “terminator seeds” for several reasons. One of the reasons is to tightly control the genes that make seeds sterile upon specific external “triggers”. Sometimes, this tight control of the gene is lost, leading to the gene product that causes sterility to be produced. This can cause the seeds to loose its ability to germinate rendering the seeds completely useless.

Another problem with engineered systems is an inability of the engineered organisms to fully express a specific trait (encoded by genes). All the terminator seeds should receive a given amount of inducing agent (chemicals that are applied externally to the terminator seeds to make them express a given trait) to activate the terminator genes. Insufficient inducing agent may not trigger the genes, thereby resulting in seeds that germinate in subsequent generation.

Socio-economic impact of terminator technology
The agricultural systems of the world are very different. In developed countries, like Canada, farms tend to big business-like operations, known as intensive farming operations.

In developing countries, the farming systems tend to be much smaller and include a lot of subsistence farmers – these are people who farm to feed their families and survive rather than making money.

Terminator technology can be good for the intensive farming operations in the developed world. These farms produce high-value produce (crops that fetch more money in the market such as seedless fruits, unblemished vegetables etc) and rarely save seeds for replanting making it less vulnerable to terminator technology. But, medium, low and subsistence farming practices dominate the agricultural systems of the developing world. There are nearly 1.4 billion farmers around the world engaged in these farming systems. These farming practices rely heavily on saved seeds and use it for replanting. If “terminator seeds” are introduced in these systems it will replace the existing seeds and force the farmers to buy seeds every season, which poor farmers from developing countries cannot afford.

Impact to terminator technology on agro-biodiversity
Agro-biodiversity refers to the variety of plants and animals that are used in the agricultural systems worldwide. The world’s agro-biodiversity depends heavily on seed saving, selecting and re-planting. This practice has resulted in crop varieties that are adapted to the local environment, soil and local pests. This technique has also resulted in creating new crop varieties that fetch more money in the market, for example, Basmati rice of India and Pakistan. Introducing “terminator seeds” will replace the age-old practice of seed saving and can lead to the loss of traditional seed varieties.

Terminator technology may have both positive and negative impacts on the world’s agricultural system. In developed countries like Canada, terminator technology will not have much impact on farmers and the way they farm. But in developing and low-income countries, terminator technology might be harmful to the farmers.

Moreover, technical aspects of terminator technology design still need to be fine-tuned. These aspects need to be perfected before introducing terminator technology in the farms worldwide. Apart from this, as with any other GMO, the impact of introducing terminator technology on the world’s biodiversity is not yet known.