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EC-sponsored Research on Safety of Genetically Modified Organisms - A Review of Results
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image Reliable, standardised, specific, quantitative detection of genetically modified food

Background and objectives

Available methods for the detection of genetically modified (GM) materials can only be used to screen for the presence of potential GM material, or to detect and identify known GM material. Consequently, a potential danger arises from the failure to detect non-approved GM organisms (GMOs). GMO approval covers a specific genetic modification (product of a transformation). Because this can be used in more than one GMO, such elements are not reliable identifiers of specific transformations. Clearly, there is a regulatory need for detection methods which can distinguish between approved and non-approved GMOs and quantify GMO content. Thus detection methods specific for each transformation event (using the junction between the modified DNA and the part of the host genome where the modified DNA is integrated) are necessary. Very few plant, species-specific genes which can be used as a reference for quantification of GMO content, have been identified. A qualitative analysis that can detect and identify more than a single GMO in a single reaction, has clear cost-efficiency potential. Furthermore, molecular methods which can influence the sensitivity and reliability of polymerase chain reaction (PCR)-based detection assays must be optimised. Finally, validation of these methods is critical to assess their reliability. There is also an urgent and growing need for European and international standards for GMO detection.

The major aims of this project were, firstly, to develop reliable and transformation event specific tests for qualitative and quantitative detection of genetic modifications in food, for at least 12 GMOs. Secondly, to develop reliable and transformation event specific multiplex tests for determination of the diversity of genetic modifications in food. Finally, to investigate how improved methods for detection of genetically modified foods will influence consumer confidence in food security, science and risk regulators.

Approach and methodology

This project comprises six work packages. The first of these involves the identification of both the application and the limitations of a standard DNA extraction protocol. This will be done by examining the effects of various modifications of the extraction protocol on a variety of matrixes. PCR quantification is usually relative to a single-copy gene specific for the GM host species. The second work package will identify and characterise suitable species-specific reference genes, and develop reference gene-specific, primer/probe sets for qualitative and quantitative PCR amplification and detection. This work will involve screening the literature and DNA sequence databases, sequencing uncharacterised candidate genes, and also empirically testing putatively suitable primers and probes. Copy number per cell will be examined by standard DNA hybridisation techniques. The third work package involves sequence characterisation of transformation events. Sequence data will be requested from biotechnology companies or other sources on a collaborative basis. If necessary, appropriate pure DNA fragments containing the junction regions, will be isolated and sequenced. In the fourth work package, transformation event specific, primer/probe sets will be developed and tested. Specific PCR primers and detection probes will be developed, and as primers and probes may perform differently in different systems and assays, several alternative primers and probes targeted for the detection of each GMO are needed. Thus, techniques will be developed for the qualitative detection of GMOs in single primer-probe assays, in multiplex primer-probe assays, as well as quantitative detection assays for GMOs. In the fifth work package, techniques used in ring-trials will be validated. The final work package examines the socio-economic impact of GMO regulation and detection. A questionnaire survey in the United Kingdom, Norway and Italy will provide information about the impact of tests which improve traceability of genetically modified foods on consumer confidence.

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Main findings and outcome

DNA molecular techniques are being established and will be tested on beer, sweet and salted biscuits, glucose syrups, lecithins, starches, oils, and proteins. Candidate reference genes for maize and soya, including the well known soya lectin, maize invertase, zein and high-mobility-group (MHMG) genes are being examined and characterised. The junction between the host genome and inserted DNA is being characterised for RoundupReadyTM soya, Bt176, Bt11, Mon810 and T25 maize. Available published primers and probes as well as new and unpublished primers and probes are being tested and evaluated, to prepare the development of multiplex detection systems and examine the effect of various parameters on the accuracy of quantifications. Validation of detection methods in ring trials will be performed with pure DNA samples, and a questionnaire survey will be carried out.


This project should provide information and methods essential for the detection of GMOs, and to identify the impact of this improved detection on consumer confidence.


Background publications

Lipp M., Anklam E., Brodmann P., Pietsch K., Pauwels J., "Results of an interlaboratory assessment of a screening method of genetically modified organisms in soybeans and maize".
Food Control, 10, 1999, pp. 379-384.

Vaitilingom M., Pijnenburg H., Gendre F., Brignon P., "Real-time quantitative PCR detection of genetically modified maximizer maize and RoundupReadyWTM soybean in some representative foods".
Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry, 47, 1999, pp. 5261-5266.

Wurz A., Bluth A., Zeltz P., Pfeifer C., Willmund R., "Quantitative analysis of genetically modified organisms (GMO) in processed food by PCR-based methods".
Food Control, 10, 1999, pp. 385-390.
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Contract number

February 2000 - January 2003

A. Holst-Jensen
National Veterinary Institute
Oslo (NO)

Project website address



A. Holck
Norwegian Food Research Institute
Aas (NO)

Y. Bertheau
Versailles (FR)

M. De Loose
Agricultural Research Centre
Melle (BE)

N. Harris
Teddington (UK)

M. Riemer
Gene-Scan GmbH
Freiburg (DE)

G. van den Eede
Joint Research Center
Ispra (IT)

L. Didierjean
Strasbourg (FR)

M. Lipp
Unilever research laboratory
Vlaardingen (NL)

P. Philipp
DG de la concurrence, de la consommation et de la répression des fraudes
Illkirch-Graffenstaden (FR)

D. Zhang
Surgeres (FR)

L. Frewer
Institute of Food Research
Norwich (UK)

S. Prat
Instituto de Biología Molecular de Barcelona (ES)

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