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Transforming Pollen for Better Plants for the “Pharm”

By Don Comis
June 29, 1999

Alfalfa has long been sold in health food stores but it’s now on its way to becoming a manufacturer of mainstream medicines, thanks to a technique patented by the Agricultural Research Service for altering future plants through pollen. The technique, pollen electro-transformation, was first developed about seven years ago by ARS biochemists James A. Saunders and Benjamin F. Matthews in Beltsville, Md. ARS is the USDA's chief scientific arm.

BTG International, Inc., in Gulph Mills, Pa., licensed the ARS technique in 1993. Now, BTG has granted a sub-license to Medicago Inc., Québec City, Québec, Canada, to create “pharmable” varieties of perennial forage legumes such as alfalfa and clover. In pharming, gene-engineered plants make medicinal ingredients that pharmaceutical firms can harvest or extract directly from plants. This may be less expensive than having microbes make the pharmaceuticals in fermentation vats.

In electro-transformation, pollen receives an extremely brief electrical shock that moves the desired new genes into the pollen cells' genetic material. After this pollen is used to pollinate new flowers, the plants bear seeds coded for the new genes. This eliminates the tedium of nourishing gene-engineered cells into tiny plantlets in lab dishes and, ultimately, into seed-bearing plants. It also saves time and money. ARS and BTG scientists worked together to put the technology into practice for tobacco, corn and alfalfa.

Medicago, Inc.--named for the alfalfa plant genus--plans on using the technique to create alfalfa varieties that produce enzymes, proteins and other compounds for human and animal medicines, vitamins, skin care products, food additives and other products. This is the latest sub-license from research agreements between ARS and BTG since 1993. Research agreements with BTG resulted in the ARS patent.

BTG and ARS also have sub-licensing or option agreements with American Cyanamid Co., Princeton, N.J., for soybeans and sugarbeets; Sanford Scientific, Inc., Waterloo, N.Y., for ornamentals; and Okanagan Biotechnology, Inc., Summerland, B.C., Canada, for cherry, peach and other stone fruits. BTG officials are evaluating potential sub- licenses for other crops and uses.

Scientific contacts: James A. Saunders, ARS Climate Stress Laboratory, Beltsville, Md., phone (301) 504-7477, fax (301) 504-6626,; Benjamin F. Matthews, ARS Soybean and Alfalfa Research Laboratory, Beltsville, Md., phone (301) 504-5730, fax (301) 504-5320,