The GM field peas, developed by the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO) to protect Australia's $100 million field pea industry from the pea weevil Bruchus pisorum, which can cause yield losses of up to 30 per cent each year if left uncontrolled, proved almost 100 per cent effective against attacks.
However, research led by immunologists Dr Simon Hogan and Professor Paul Foster at the John Curtin School of Medical Research (JCSMR) showed that the GM peas caused an immune response in mice.
Following discussions with the scientists conducting the study, CSIRO decided not to progress development of these GM field peas.
"This work strongly supports the need for case-by-case examination of plants developed using genetic modification and the importance of decision-making based on good science," said deputy chief of CSIRO Plant Industry, Dr TJ Higgins.
"Even though this GM field pea research will not be progressed further, the technology is very valuable and we're considering applying it to other research."
Gm crops still divides opinion, nowhere more so than in Europe. The Commission has, to date, asked EU members over ten times to vote on authorising a GMO food or feed product, but in the large majority of cases, there was no agreement or simple deadlock.
Countries including the US and Australia on the other hand have historically been more receptive to the possibilities of genetically modified technology.
The CSIRO research team used a gene from beans to block the activity of alpha-amylase, an enzyme important for digestion of starch. Weevil larvae feeding on starch in the developing pea seed are unable to digest the starch and starve.
"We asked why there was a reaction to the GM peas and not beans, which also have the alpha-amylase inhibitor, and which humans have been eating for many years without evidence of an immune response," said Foster.
The answer lay in subtle changes that occurred in the chemical structure of the bean alpha-amylase inhibitor when it was made in the field pea.
"The change in structure is likely to be caused by a natural and commonly occurring process called glycosylation, which occurs when proteins are made via a particular pathway in cells," said Foster.
"CSIRO had informed us that unlike other GM insect resistant plants, to make the peas insect resistant the introduced bean protein had to go through a pathway in cells where it would undergo several processing steps including glycosylation.
"Because glycosylation is well documented and because it can differ from organism to organism and even in different cell types within an organism, we determined the structure of the pea protein, and assessed whether it was likely to cause an immune response."
The findings were published in last week's Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry . CSIRO is now finalising arrangements with the Office of the Gene Technology Regulator for the disposal of GM field peas produced during the project.