The "terminator technology" is the biggest--and the most controversial--news in seed research this year. In March, the US Patent Office granted the US Department of Agriculture and Delta and Pine Land Company (DPL) a patent for genetic engineering processes that kill seeds. Described as a "technology protection system" by DPL and as the "terminator technology" by the Rural Advancement Foundation International, the patented processes will be used by seed companies to prevent farmers from saving seeds to plant the following year. The strategy behind the patent is to kill only the embryos--leaving other important seed components such as oils and proteins intact.
How does the terminator technology work?
The technology's success depends on an cleverly controlled sequence of interactions among the spliced-in genes. The last engineered gene comes into play very late in seed development when a special switch under the control of the inducer turns on the gene causing it to produce toxin. The toxin kills the embryo which is part of a mature seed.
The Terminator Technology
The terminator technology consists of three genes with their on/off switches. Before selling to farmers, the seed company treats the seeds with a chemical inducer--probably the inducer--to initiate the terminator gene interactions.
Although the patent covers a number of ways the genes might interact, below is a description of one way the technology might work.
Sources: M.J. Oliver et al., "Control of plant gene expression," US Patent Number 5,723,765, March 3, 1998; M.L. Crouch, "How the Terminator terminates: an explanation for the non-scientist of a remarkable patent for killing second generation seeds of crop plants," The Edmonds Institute, Edmonds, Wash., 1998.
Terminator Technology and the Developing World
In India, for example, concern about the terminator technology and other applications of genetic engineering led farmers to uproot and burn genetically engineered Bt cotton. The intensity of the reaction is based partially on the misconception that the terminator is already in commercial crops. Although its implementation is still some years away, the reaction is an indication of the likely response to the terminator when it is ready.
Concerns about the impact the terminator will have on poor farmers have also led the United Nations-funded Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research to recommend that its sixteen member institutes ban the technology in their crop improvement research programs.
For more information about the impacts of terminator technology on global food security and developing-country agriculture, see the Rural Advancement Foundation International website: www.rafi.ca.
Sources: Times of London, November 4, 1998; Times of India, December 4, 1998.