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Mendel's Children

By Judith Scholter

Young plant researchers often find themselves dealing with genetic engineering, but only a few build transgenic plants.

Mendel's children© schnerpf - Photocase.comGenetic engineering is highly contentious in Germany
The path to his protégés leads Tilo Guse through a heavy door. It looks a little like the entrance to a bunker. Guse, 29, cardigan and trainers, pulls the handle and the door swings open. His babies are enveloped in dazzling light. "Their day should just have begun", he says. The lights in the phyto chamber of the Institute of Plant Genetics and Crop Plant Research (Institut für Pflanzengenetik und Kulturpflanzenkunde, IPK) in Gatersleben in Saxony-Anhalt came on at 3 p.m. The doctoral candidate's protégés are wheat plants, the temperature in their chamber is only 14 degrees. On a piece of paper on the door, a green curve indicates when it is day for them and when it is night. It's not just any old wheat that grows here, but two varieties that the IPK has previously succeeded in genetically modifying. That's relatively difficult to do with wheat. Why other varieties - and why particularly the economically interesting ones, the ones with especially high yields - are so intractable when it comes to modifying their DNA is not precisely known. Tilo Guse doesn't know either. But it's a situation he intends to change. Guse is searching for a method that will someday allow ideally any type of wheat to be genetically modified.

Climate change, a growing world population while the amount of arable land is unlikely to increase, the demand for greater sustainability in agriculture and energy supply in general, and the protection of crop plants - there are many reasons why plant research is important. For example in order to better adapt plants to drought, to make them more stress resistant. From this wide field, Tilo Guse has chosen a discipline of which the majority of Germans take a rather critical view. According to a Forsa survey conducted for the Slow Food organisation in 2009, 78% of the population would oppose genetically modified food. Greenpeace carried out a survey this year according to which 79% of respondents are in favour of retaining the ban on cultivating genetically modified maize in Germany. "Things are much easier in this respect if you go abroad", says Joachim Rinder of the Max Planck Institute of Molecular Plant Physiology in Potsdam-Golm. "If you have to expect the results of your work to end up being destroyed in the test field, an academic career in green genetic engineering may seem risky and therefore not very appealing", says Andreas Graner, Director of the IPK.

In close proximity to the IPK in Gatersleben is another research institute, the Federal Research Centre for Cultivated Plants (Bundesforschungsinstitut für Kulturpflanzen) in Quedlinburg, where doctoral candidate Thomas Lüpken is working on charting two genes that are responsible for virus resistance in barley. For this purpose he is, among other things, currently analysing several hundred little barley plants in order to identify those in which the location of the resistance genes can be determined. "I would like to achieve results that enhance breeding - better plant material", says Lüpken. He works with the plants' genetic material - but what he does has nothing to do with genetic engineering, where foreign genes are inserted into plants. During his agriculture degree Lüpken chose to specialise in plant breeding; one reason for this decision was that he considers it unproblematic, contrary to working with animals. For example, the growth of poultry can be ascertained by determining its bodyweight after slaughter. But that was not something he wanted to do. "With plants I can work without the scruples that I might have if I were working with animals", he says. "I could imagine using genetic engineering methods too."

Tiny differences determine why some researchers must fear that the results of their work will end up destroyed in the fields while others do not. The majority of work at IPK uses genetic engineering methods, for example to investigate the structure and function of individual genes. Two groups work on creating transgenic agricultural plants, i.e. introducing foreign DNA into their genome. Tilo Guse has always been fascinated by the combination of biology and engineering. But plants as systems barely featured in his biological engineering degree course. Many biotechnologists work in pharmaceutical engineering, producing artificial cartilage, skin or insulin. Guse already came to Gatersleben for his Diplom thesis. "I use plants as bio reactors - I specifically chose this, it was what I wanted to work with", he says. He doesn't quite recall whether he received his first microscope at five or not until he was six years old; he only remembers that the natural sciences already fascinated him as a child. "Because the laws of nature apply everywhere."

They apply in China, they apply in Sweden, they apply in Germany. But green genetic engineering is a contentious issue in Europe. Negotiations to authorise the genetically modified starch potato Amflora, created by the BASF Corporation, lasted 13 years before the EU Commission finally permitted it to be cultivated for industrial purposes. Genetically modified maize has not been cultivated in Germany since Consumer Protection Minister Ilse Aigner banned the Mon810 maize developed by American seed giant Monsanto last year. Susanne Benner speaks for BASF Plant Science, the company now permitted to cultivate the Amflora starch potato. She says that without this positive decision the outlook for a subsidiary in Gatersleben would probably not have been good. "As a business we need markets in which we are actually able to sell."

Tilo Guse expects that he will someday work abroad. He walks past the institute's safe-like minus-80-degree refrigerators where DNA, among other things, is stored; Guse keeps his bacteria here. In the laboratory opposite the greenhouse, Petrie dishes hold tissue samples of his wheat that have never before been used for genetic modification. Sometimes it takes him eight or nine hours to isolate them, a laborious task. But then comes the part he finds exciting: attempting to introduce a gene into them by microinjection that codes green fluorescent proteins and occurs naturally in jellyfish. First he tries the two varieties of wheat of which it is already known that they can be modified. If it turns out that his new method is effective, he will test it on other varieties. He's pretty sure it is. If it works, this will also be interesting for the industry; a seed company is financially involved in Guse's project.

Next door, at the Federal Research Centre for Cultivated Plants in Quedlinburg, Anja Hühnlein is also completing her doctorate. The 26-year-old became interested in viruses during her Master's degree in horticultural science; to her they were fascinating entities "because they need plants in order to multiply". Because they are not proper life forms. She wrote her Master's thesis on the transmissibility of the plum pox virus through a parasitic plant. And then her post at the Federal Research Centre for Cultivated Plants, more precisely at the Institute for Biosafety of Genetically Modified Plants, was advertised. It involved, among other things, determining whether genetically modified potatoes respond differently to viruses than their unmodified siblings. "The word 'virus' immediately electrified me", says Hühnlein, her eyes shining. She is examining what else genetic engineering changes in plants in addition to what was initially intended. Her post is funded by the Federal Ministry of Education and Research. That she is now dealing with genetic engineering is a coincidence. "Of course public opinion has an influence", she says. "If only because there are obstacles for free-range experiments that are very difficult to overcome."

Tilo Guse says that people in his wider circle of friends sometimes ask him whether he thinks genetic engineering is dangerous or not. "I don't try to convince people of my point of view when that happens", he says. "That would seem dishonest, precisely because I work in the industry." He wants to keep out of unobjective discussions anyway. He expects there will be a similar effect to that seen with regard to genetically manufactured insulin: "If the substance becomes better and cheaper, at some point people will be in favour of it." He believes it is a matter of weighing up benefits and risks. "Criticism is good", objective discussions are necessary both in science and in society, he says. He hopes to someday be a go-to name for wheat transformation. "I look forward to seeing my plants grow."

From DIE ZEIT :: 22.04.2010