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expert reaction to new study on ‘naturally occurring GM butterflies’

A group of researchers have published their work into the transfer of genes between species in nature, and report in the journal PLOS Genetics that the genomes of some species of butterfly have acquired genes from a virus associated with parasitic wasps, some of which they report protect the caterpillar species from infection by a separate virus.


Dr Louise Johnson, evolutionary biologist  at the University of Reading, said:

“This is a really interesting study. We’ve known for a while that viruses can move genes around between species – we use viruses to do just this in some GM technologies – and we also know that animals can occasionally pick up DNA from their parasites, but this three-way gene shuffle is a particularly clear and clever example: wasps use viruses to attack butterflies, but those viruses have also allowed the butterflies to steal genes from the wasps. It’s clear that the stolen genes are useful to the butterflies, so naturally occurring genetic engineering helps them to survive.  From my perspective as an evolutionary biologist, it’s also a perfect illustration of how evolution uses every trick in the book, and the book is bigger than we think.”


Prof. Tim Benton, UK Champion for Global Food Security and Professor of Population Ecology at the University of Leeds, said:

“This adds to a growing body of knowledge that shows gene transfer between species occurs with some frequency in nature. It was recently discovered, for example, that every strain of cassava (an important food crop in the tropics) contain genes from the same bacteria used in labs to transfer genes in order to make GMOs.

“As the butterfly example shows, during evolutionary history, if a transferred gene conveys a beneficial effect to the animal or plant, it is often kept for good. As more and more “high-throughput analysis” is unearthing examples like this, it does indicate that “natural” GMOs occur, or, in other words, that organisms carrying genes from other species may not be so unnatural after all.

“Opponents of GM sometimes argue that transferring genes between organisms is not natural and therefore violates ethical principles. This new research undermines that argument by showing that GMOs already occur in nature.”


‘Recurrent Domestication by Lepidoptera of Genes from Their Parasites Mediated by Bracoviruses’ by Laila Gasmi et al. published in PLOS Genetics on Thursday 17 September 2015. 


Declared interests

None declared

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