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An engineered gene found in genetically modified (GM) sunflowers can spread to wild sunflowers but has little or no effect on their survival and is unlikely to impact the environment, according to new research.

The study, published in Science, addresses a common concern about GM crops: that new, advantageous genes will spread through wild populations as crops mingle and reproduce with their wild cousins.

"We have found that a certain transgene that gives crop sunflowers resistance to white mould is unlikely to spread rapidly to the wild because [it] doesn't affect the seed-producing abilities of wild sunflowers in nature," says one of the researchers, Loren Rieseberg of Indiana University, United States.

But the researchers warn against drawing generalisations from the results, which were collected within a single season and on a single crop.

"We need to examine each transgene and crop on a case-by-case basis," says Rieseberg. "Some transgenes will have major ecological impacts and others probably won't".

In a related article in this week's Science, John Heritage of the University of Leeds, United Kingdom explains the value of looking at how a plant's ability to reproduce could be altered when engineered genes enter wild populations.

"When considering the persistence of transgenic material in the environment, it is important to ask the right questions," he writes. "Only when we ask the correct questions will we reach an informed judgment on the risks, and benefits, of genetically modified plants."

Link to perpectives article in Science

Link to research paper in Science