GM potatoes could 'strengthen competitiveness'

By Anthony Fletcher

- Last updated on GMT

Related tags: Starch

Amflora, the GM starch potato at the centre of recent controversy,
could help strengthen the competitiveness of the potato starch
industry, according to EuropaBio.

Furthermore the European Association for BioIndustries said that the innovation, developed by researchers from BASF Plant Science, was only made possible through genetic modification (GM).

But environmentalists have argued that the development of GM potatoes increases the risk of contamination of the food chain.

Europe is already a significant producer of potato starch. Normal potato starch is valued for its high molecular weight (giving excellent thickening properties) and low levels of fat and protein compared to wheat and cornstarch.

Nearly all starches have two components - a high molecular weight, highly branched molecule with excellent thickening properties, called amylopectin, and a smaller, linear molecule which gels, called amylose.

The 20 per cent amylose in normal potato starch limits its usefulness for many industrial applications. Separation of the two components is not economic, so most industrial starch is first chemically modified to reduce the gelling tendency.

But through genetic modification, BASF Plant Science has developed a nearly 100 per cent amylopectin starch.

This was achieved by tweaking the pathway by which it is made in the plant cells. Both amylopectin and amylose are built from the same simple sugar dextrose and the different physical properties come about because of the way the monomers are joined.

The linear chains of amylose are constructed using a single enzyme called GBSS (Granule Bound Starch Synthase). Scientists have used biotechnology to make a back-to-front copy of the gene (called an anti-sense gene) and then inserted this into the DNA of a conventional potato using a bacterium (Agrobacterium tumefaciens).

The anti-sense gene interferes with the operation of the normal gene, and no GBSS is produced. In the absence of this enzyme, the polymerisation of dextrose all goes in one direction, to produce amylopectin.

EuropaBio says that this innovative potato is nearing the end of its approval procedure. The application, filed under the conditions of Directive 2001/18 (for deliberate release of GMOs) via the Swedish Competent Authority, is to be recommended for approval by the Commission early in December. The body considering this recommendation will be the Standing Committee on GMOs.

GM potatoes have been in the headlines of late. Defra, the UK's department of environment, food and rural affairs, recently gave the green light to BASF to carry out GM potato trials in England, starting in 2007. These potatoes are designed to be resistant to late potato blight. The purpose of the research trials is to test the effectiveness of the potato's resistance against UK strains of the disease.

Defra said that it was satisfied that the trials will not result in any adverse effect on human health or the environment. Furthermore, EuropaBio has said that potatoes are the perfect crop when it comes to keeping varieties separate.

"Since they are propagated via tubers (seed potatoes) cross-pollination is not an issue,"​ said the association. "There are also no native European species with which they are compatible."

But some environmentalists disagree. "These GM trials pose a significant contamination threat to future potato crops,"​ said Friends of the Earth GM campaigner Clare Oxborrow.

"We don't need GM potatoes and there is no consumer demand for them. The government should promote safe and sustainable agriculture, not this half-baked GM potato plan."

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