OVERLAND PARK, Kan. -- BioTechnica International Inc. saidThursday that it applied to the U.S. Department of Agriculture(USDA) to conduct field tests of corn genetically engineered tocontain a gene for improved nutritional quality.

The gene to be tested is one of three amino acids thatBioTechnica (NASDAQ:BIOT) is developing for enhancednutritional value in commodity corn used for swine and poultryfeed. Roger Kleese, president of Plant Science Research Inc. ofMinnetonka, Minn., a BioTechnica subsidiary, said the aminoacids are lysine, methionine and tryptophan.

The field tests are planned to start in early spring in Iowa,Illinois, Minnesota and Nebraska. BioTechnica anticipates noproblems gaining approval from USDA and state regulatoryagencies, Kleese said.

Each of the four field tests will be occur on less than one acre ofland. The corn will be harvested in October. BioTechnica hasrequested permission to allow the corn to pollinate normally,although the test plots would be isolated from non-engineeredcorn to prevent the unintended transfer of the modified geneto other plants.

The company last June conducted a field test in Iowa ofgenetically engineered corn containing a marker gene. That testwas designed to study the growth of transformed corn underfield conditions. Growth was normal, Kleese said.

BioTechnica has declined to disclose the method it used totransform corn while its application for a U.S. patent is pendingreview.

Two other companies planning field tests of transformed cornare DeKalb Plant Genetics of DeKalb, Ill., a subsidiary of DeKalbGenetics Corp. (NASDAQ:SEEDB), and Monsanto Co. (NYSE:MTC)of St. Louis. Both have applied to the USDA for field testapproval.

DeKalb aims to conduct small-scale field tests in Hawaii andIllinois of corn containing a gene for resistance to the herbicidebialaphos. Hoechst AG markets bialaphos under the nameBasta.

DeKalb plans to test the corn for resistance and will cross itwith non-engineered lines to see if the trait is passed on, saidDoug Fisher, DeKalb Genetics' deputy general counsel.

Monsanto wants to conduct a small-scale test in Illinois ofinsect-resistant corn containing a Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt)gene. Bt is a natural microbe that contains a toxin lethal toinsects. Monsanto is targeting the European corn borer, a majorcorn pest. Monsanto has yet to decide in consultation with theUSDA if it will de-tassle the corn, rendering it infertile , saidJim Altemis, a Monsanto spokesman.

BioTechnica last January became the first company to announcea successful transformation of corn. Scientists at DeKalb and aUSDA-Monsanto team reported similar success last spring.DeKalb and Monsanto transformed corn using a biolistic gun,which shoots pellets coated with DNA into cells.

Corn represents the world's largest seed market, accounting for24 percent of total commercial worldwide seed sales. AnnualU.S. sales are $1.5 billion.

-- Karen Bernstein BioWorld Staff

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