University of Florida researchers supported by Monsanto Co.have reported what they believe to be the first genetictransformation of wheat.

Scientists led by Indra K. Vasil used a particle gun to insertgenes for herbicide tolerance into wheat cells. The gene waschosen as a model system to show quickly that gene transferhad occurred, said Monsanto spokesman James Altemus. Thecompany has no plans to develop the gene for commercial use.

Monsanto has provided $1 million to the university over thepast 10 years. The company intends to develop the technology,but hasn't yet decided what traits to focus on, Altemus said.The next step is to enlarge the group at Monsanto working onwheat, he added.

"We have some ideas in disease resistance, and improvedstarch yield and quality," said Michael Fromm, a Monsantoscientist who consulted with the Florida team. "It's stillprobably got another year or two of technical development tobe a useful workhorse of a system."

In 1990, a Japanese group said it had successfully inserted thegene for beta-glucuronidase, a marker, into wheat. Fromm saidhe hasn't seen a subsequent confirmation of that work througha publication or presentation at a scientific meeting. "This is thefirst full disclosure describing the transformation of wheat," hesaid.

Scientists have been gradually breaking down the barriers togenetically engineering monocots such as wheat and corn,which have proven much harder to transform than dicots suchas tomatoes and tobacco. Monocots are grasses, while dicots arebroad-leafed plants.

Wheat is the last of the major crops to be engineered. Oneimpediment has been commercial: Wheat is self-pollinating,and there haven't been any hybrids, which has discouragedcompanies from doing development work that they wouldn't beable to protect.

That now may be changing. "We have a chemical hybridizingagent developed and will be asking for an expanded use permitto do expanded field trials," Altemus said. -- Karen Bernstein

(c) 1997 American Health Consultants. All rights reserved.