A research group in Germany has successfully inserted genetic material into the chloroplasts of a tomato plant, increasing the potential for edible medicines and reducing the risk of cross-pollination.
Chloroplasts are plastids - packages outside the cell nucleus that contain pigments, in this case the green pigment chlorophyll. It is the first time that foreign genes have been introduced into the plastids of a fertile food crop and transferred to the next generation.
Plants have DNA in three places in their cells: most is concentrated in the nucleus, with a smaller amount in mitochondria and chloroplasts. Traditionally, geneticists place genes into nuclear DNA, but the DNA in chloroplasts, unlike nuclear DNA, is not transmitted in pollen.This could alleviate a major concern about genetically modified crops - the risk of cross-pollination of neighbouring plants.
The German team used a marker gene to show how the technique works. But if the method proves viable in production, another benefit could be the potential for 'medicinally enhanced' foods - containing vaccines, antibodies, and pharmaceuticals.
"What is important about the German research is the chloroplast method has a high level of protein production," said Professor James Dale, head of the Biotechnology Group at the Queensland University of Technology.