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JUNE 17, 2002
12:42 PM
CONTACT:  Friends of the Earth
Mark Helm, 202-783-7400
Adrian Bebb (UK), 44-771-284-3211
Genetically Engineered Crop Gene Found for First Time in Bacteria in Human Digestive System
Concerns About Antibiotic Resistance Raised
WASHINGTON - July 17 - New evidence from British scientists raises serious questions about the safety of genetically engineered foods. A study published by the British Food Safety Standards Agency (FAS) showed for the first time that a gene inserted in a genetically engineered crop has found its way into bacteria in the human gut. Many engineered crops have antibiotic resistance marker genes inserted in them, and there are fears that if material from these marker genes passes into humans, people's ability to fight infections may be reduced.

Researchers fed a single meal of a hamburger and a milk shake that both contained genetically engineered soy to study participants. According to the FSA gene uptake study, entitled "Evaluating the Risks Associated with Using GMOs in Human Foods" (pp. 22-27,, an herbicide resistance gene from a Roundup Ready variety of engineered soy was found by researchers in bacteria from the small intestines of three out of seven study participants (pg. 24).

Adrian Bebb, GM food campaigner for Friends of the Earth UK said, "This research should set alarm bells ringing. Industry scientists and government advisors have always played down the risk of this ever happening, but the first time they looked for it they found it."

The biotech industry has long maintained that DNA is destroyed during digestion and that there are barriers to incorporation of genetically engineered crop genes by bacteria. According to a March 4, 2001 news release by the multi-million dollar biotech lobbying initiative called the Council for Biotechnology Information, "the DNA contained in food -- including the antibiotic-resistance gene -- is broken down in the human gut during the digestive process." ( However, these assertions crumbled under the FSA findings, which showed that engineered crop genes can survive digestion long enough to be incorporated by bacteria.

The new evidence raises safety concerns for people eating genetically engineered foods. In particular, if antibiotic resistance genes used in some varieties of engineered crops are being picked up by bacteria in the intestines of people eating engineered foods, this could increase bacterial resistance to life-saving antibiotics.

According to Michael Antoniou, a senior lecturer in molecular genetics at King's College Medical School in London, the study "suggests that you can get antibiotic marker genes spreading amongst the bacterial population within the intestine which could compromise future antibiotic use. They have shown that this can happen even at very low levels after just one meal."

Given the research results, Friends of the Earth is calling for the immediate withdrawal of genetically engineered crops containing antibiotic resistance markers from the market. The organization also calls for further research into the effects of gene transfer to bacteria.

In May 1999, the British Medical Association also called for a ban of crops with antibiotic resistance marker genes stating, "There should be a ban on the use of antibiotic resistance marker genes in GM food, as the risk to human health from antibiotic resistance developing in micro-organisms is one of the major public health threats that will be faced in the 21st Century."

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