Tracking Papaya Pollen Movement with the GUS Transgene Marker

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  • 1 1University of Hawaii at Manoa, Tropical Plant & Soil Sciences, Honolulu, Hawaii, 96822
  • | 2 2McKinley High School, Hawaii State Science Fair Student, Honolulu, Hawaii, 96814

Genetically engineered (GE), virus-resistant papaya cultivars in Hawaii are easily identified by a colorimetric assay for the β-glucuronidase (GUS) marker transgene. We used GUS to track pollen movement from a central 1-acre plot of gynodioecious GE `Rainbow' plants into seeds on surrounding border rows of non-GE `Sunrise' papaya. GUS evidence of cross-pollination occurred in 70% of female plants (43% of assayed seeds), compared with only 13% of the predominantly self-pollinating hermaphrodite plants (7% of seeds) segregating in the gynodioecious `Sunrise' border rows. The percentage of GUS+ seeds in border row plants showed a weak negative correlation (r = –0.32) with distance from the nearest GE tree (30 m maximum). In a non-GE papaya field located less than a mile downwind from the `Rainbow' source, no evidence of GUS was found in 1000 assayed seeds. In a separate study, the origin of GUS+ seed discovered in papaya fruits from an organic farm was investigated. Leaf GUS assays revealed that 70% of trees were GE, indicating that the grower had planted GE seed. The impact of pollen drift from GE trees in the same field was determined by screening seed samples from 20 non-GE hermaphrodites for GUS expression. Only three hermaphrodites (15%) showed GUS+ seeds, at low levels ranging from 3% to 6% of contaminated samples. These data indicate that the major source of GE contamination in organic fields is seeds of unverified origin, rather than pollen drift from neighboring GE fields. Organic growers are advised to: 1) plant only seed that is known to be non-GE, preferably obtained by manual self-pollination of selected non-GE hermaphrodites; 2) avoid open-pollinated seed; and 3) grow only hermaphrodite (self-pollinating) trees, removing any female or male plants from production fields.

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