Transgenics under the microscope

Company masters technique and sets up a laboratory for the detection of genetically modified products

EDUARDO CESARAnalysis using the PCR technique detects if there is a new gene in the cornEDUARDO CESAR

Companies exporting soya to Europe, China and Japan are the main clients of the first private national laboratory capable of carrying out tests to detect genetically modified food. It is Tecam – Tecnologia Ambiental, a company from the state of São Paulo specializing in chemical and biological laboratory analyses. Before it, few foreign laboratories and public research institutions mastered this technology. The Molecular Biology laboratory was implemented though FAPESP’s support of the Small Business Innovation Research (PIPE) program. In total around R$ 350,000 was invested in its creation. The major part of the resources were used in the importation of equipment and specialized laboratory chemicals and material.

The search for detection testing for transgenic food tends to increase when this market is regulated here in Brazil. For the time being, the demand is limited, since the current legislation does not allow the commercialization of genetically modified food. When this is liberated the tests will gain importance because the country is the second highest producer of soya in the world, having exported 15 million tons of grain last year. The European and Asian nations wish to differentiate between genetically modified and conventional food and, shortly, will be demanding certificates that prove that the grain and other imported products have or have not suffered genetic modifications. Meanwhile, the test will serve as a conventional Brazilian certificate for food destined for exporting.

“We know that the shipments of Brazilian soya that arrive in Europe are being tested”, tells the biologist Janete Walter Moura, one of Tecam’s directors. “For this reason the national companies prefer to do their testing here to get to know the soya they’re working with, thus avoiding future surprises”, she says. This is happening in spite of prohibition, because there are strong indications that a significant part of the soya from the southern region of the country contains genetically modified organisms (GMOs). This information is present in a study recently carried out by the Chamber of Deputies. There are also indications that Brazilian farmers are buying Argentinean grain, a country in which the planting of transgenic Soya is permitted.

Imported seed
For the director from Tecam, besides soya, other potential markets for the tests are corn and its derived products. Over the last few years, the Northeast region of Brazil has become a great importer of the produce. Only last year 634,000 tons of corn were purchased, more than half from the Argentine and the United States, countries where there are no restrictions to the planting of GM seed. The only way of guaranteeing that the corn imported to Brazil has not been genetically modified is to carry out molecular testing on the grain.

The analysis for the detection of transgenic foodstuffs is done by way of the identification of a new gene that has been introduced into the plant. The search for this element, which differentiates the genetically modified plant from the corresponding conventional plant, is carried out through a technique called Polymerase Chain Reaction or simply PCR. Due to the high sensitivity of the technique, the results are very precise. “Other techniques for the detection of transgenics exist, but this one, which carries out the reading of the genetic DNA material, is the most efficient of all of them”, Janete explains. “The PCR makes the new gene or the new sequence of DNA that we are looking to identify visible, since billions of copies of this organism that was introduced into the plant are produced”, says the pharmacist Daniela Contri, from Tecam. The examination results take between four to five days for completion.

In order to carry out the transgenic food detection test, Tecam needed to obtain a bio-security certificate that was emitted by the National Technical Commission on Bio-security (CTNBio), an organ of the Ministry of Science and Technology (MCT). This document, a type of license, is obligatory for all of the companies and institutions that work with OGMs. This does not means, however, that the results of the examinations must be communicated to the CTNBio. “Our work is confidential and is only relevant with respect to Tecam and our clients”, Janete says.

The company’s next step is to set up the apparatus that will carry out the test that quantifies the percentage of OGMs found in the samples, since the PCR is originally a qualitative technique and only permits one to say if the product is or is not transgenic, without specifying the amount of OGMs in it. This quantification is important because some countries are setting limits to define if a product should or should not be labeled as genetically modified.

For example, in Europe this limit is set at 1%. This signifies that if a sample has more than 1% of the material as OGMs it is considered transgenic. In Japan this rate rises to 5%. “Normally, limits related to food are linked to health issues, but, in the case of transgenics, the limit is arbitrary since studies have not yet been carried out relating the OGM consumption to human health risks”, explains Tecam’s director. In order to carry out the quantification tests, the company plans to purchase an imported device, capable of carrying out the PCR in real time, which will cost between US$ 50,000 and US$ 100,000, depending on its degree of sophistication.

Toxicological tests
The Molecular Biology Laboratory is a new step in the innovation capability of Tecam, which began working in 1992, carrying out toxicological tests for the agricultural insecticides industry. Afterwards it went on to carry out experiments on industrial effluent and tests on water potability. In 1996, the company entered the food market, offering micro-biological, physical-chemical and microscopic analyses. Today it has forty employees, of which 60% are graduates, an rate that testifies to the technological vocation of the company.

The establishment of the laboratory and the standardization of the methodology had the collaboration of the researcher José Eduardo Levi, from the Virology Laboratory of the Tropical Medicine Institute of the University of São Paulo (USP). A good beginning that should spur the company to tread on the controversial path of transgenics better prepared.

The Project
Implementation of the PCR Technique for the detection of genetically Modified Foodstuffs (nº 99/11559-0); Modality Small Business Innovation Research (PIPE) program; Coordinator Janete Walter Maura – Tecam; Investment R$ 73,100.00 and US$ 105,000.00