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Promise of Improved GMO Testing

Does this food contain genetically modified organisms?

That’s what many consumers, including overseas trading partners, want to know about the food they’re buying.

A prime example of that is the recent initiative in California, dubbed the “Right to Know” campaign, which calls for food manufacturers in the Golden State to identify genetically engineered ingredients on the labels of food products sold in that state.

With almost as many as 1 million signatures gathered on the petition in time for the April 22 deadline, organizers predict that the measure will appear on the Nov. 6 ballot. (The state requires just over a half million valid signatures for an initiative to qualify to be on the ballot.)

On a global level, 40 countries, including all of Europe, Japan and China, require labeling of foods, or of certain foods, containing GMOs. The U.S. has resisted labeling, and in 1992 the Food and Drug Administration established a policy declaring there is no substantial or material difference between genetically engineered foods and foods that haven’t been genetically engineered.

Sleuthing for GMOs

The question arises: How in the world do scientists determine if foods contain GMOs?

There are technologies that can do that, of course. But the conventional method, referred to as a PCR system (polymerase chain reaction), has some distinct disadvantages. It requires complex DNA extraction procedures, relatively expensive equipment, and assays that need to be carried out in a laboratory. It has also proven difficult to design cost-effective portable devices for PCR.

In what has been called “a major breakthrough” in GMO detection and monitoring, scientists at Lumora Ltd. in the United Kingdom have developed a method they say is far more practical because it’s simpler, quicker, more precise and less expensive than PCR.

An article about this breakthrough, which uses a combination of two technologies — bioluminescence and isothermal DNA amplification — was recently published in BioMed Central’s open access journal, BMC Biotechnology.

Lumora’s bioluminescence technology, known as BART, uses luciferase, the same enzyme that lights up fireflies As part of the detection procedure, the luciferase is coupled to DNA detection so as to light up when it detects specific DNA and RNA sequences. By using DNA signals that are specific to genetically modified crops, the system can detect even low levels of contamination.

Lumora CEO Laurence Tisi told Food Safety News that compared to a lab-based PCR system, “Lumora’s hardware is probably a lot less than 1/10 the cost.”

He also said that Lumora’s new system can detect even very low levels of GMO ingredients.

Another advantage of this technology is that GMO detection can be done out in the field as well as in a food processing center.

As such, it may offer the advantage of being a “field-ready” solution for monitoring genetically modified crops and their interaction with wild plants or non-GM crops, as well as in food processing facilities.

Tisi said that the technology detects DNA and because all plants have DNA, it can detect GMO from any plants.

This comes as good news for those who want, or require, labeling for genetically engineered crops or for processed foods that contain genetically engineered crops. While genetically modified foods may be relatively safe by science-based approaches to risk assessment, the issue of labeling GMO foods is about public confidence and also about market protection.

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