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Molecular farming expected to explode in next decade

by Colleen Munro

Western Producer Newsfeature Service

(Alta.) If canola prices sound good at $8.50 a bushel, how does canola worth $100,000 an acre sound?

Molecular farming with crops that have been genetically manipulated to produce pharmaceuticals will likely happen in the next 10 years, said University of Alberta professor and canola breeder Gary Stringam.

He told the annual meeting of the Alberta Conservation Tillage Society that Maurice Maloney at the University of Calgary has successfully isolated and transferred the gene which produces hirudin into Argentine canola. Hirudin is a blood anti-coagulant, usually isolated from the lowly leech, used to treat people who have suffered from heart attacks and strokes. It costs $1,000 a gram.

Stringam said the hirudin-producing gene has been transferred to oil bodies in the canola plant called oleosins. The beauty of the transfer is the hirudin does not become active until it is chemically cleaved away from the oleosin during processing, he said.

“That’s one of the advantages of using a very specific protein targeted to a very specific part of the plant,” he said.

While the crop would have to be grown under strict isolation, he said the inactive state of the pharmaceutical while the crop is growing makes it safer for the environment. “If a bird were to eat a seed of this canola, it would suffer no ill effects.”

Stringam predicted there could be 200,000 acres of this crop grown in Canada in a decade. And while the pharmaceutical value of the crop is about $100,000 an acre, farmers would get less money than that for growing it, he said.

The potential for molecular farming isn’t limited to plants. The gene for human haemoglobin has been transplanted into tissue of swine and cattle. “Blood could be extracted from these animals and harvested for its haemoglobin,” he said.

There is still the unresolved question of whether slaughtering these animals and harvesting them for their blood alone is ethical, he said. But scientists are addressing the ethical questions by trying to target production of these genes to the protein in milk.

Because the udder is “essentially an external organ”, there would be no detrimental effect to the animal. The high protein content of milk means a high proportion of pharmaceuticals could be produced, since the average cow produces about 10,000 litres of milk a year.

Scientists are also experimenting with fish. Growth hormones have been successfully transferred into various species of fish, boosting their size. And the gene for cold tolerance in Arctic flounder has been inserted into Pacific salmon, with the aim of extending their habitat and rejuvenating stocks. He said work is being done transferring that same gene into canola, with the idea of producing cold tolerance that would allow the crop to withstand late spring and early fall frosts.



Copyright 1994 REAP Canada

Reprinted with permission. All rights reserved.

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