Lincoln scientists hope a revolutionary new way to genetically modify plants will allay public fears over so-called Frankenstein foods. Crop and Food Research scientist Dr Tony Conner has developed a technique for modifying plant genes, without using genetic material (DNA) from another species, in a method dubbed "precision breeding". "The real appeal of this technique is that while it uses the tools of genetic modification (GM), it does not introduce genetic material from unrelated species," Conner said. The technique was developed as a response to public concerns about GM. Broadly, the Crop and Food team has developed a plant-based vector to carry a new plant gene into a target plant. Established GM methods use bacterial vectors and through that technique, even when inserting a potato gene into a potato, the new plant would still be transgenic because it would carry pieces of bacterial DNA. Now Crop and Food scientists have sourced all the sequences they need for a vector from the same species as that being modified. "In hindsight, this seems like an obvious development for genetic modification," Conner said. "No-one thought you could find the necessary gene sequences in plants to do this – they usually come from bacteria – but we found them and this has opened up vast new possibilities." It took time to convince Conner's colleagues it could work and another two years of hard work to bring to fruition. The concept was now the subject of a patent application. Conner hoped to use the new technique to develop blight-resistant potatoes. "If we could transfer that gene into every modern-day cultivar, that would be a huge step forward." Modified plants will still be considered genetically engineered under New Zealand law, and opponents argue the new technique will carry some of the risks seen in other GM techniques. Conner has countered that precision breeding would challenge New Zealand's definition of GM and carried only the risks – accepted for decades – of irradiating plants to induce mutations. He has presented the technique at science conferences in Germany, the Netherlands and Australia and will present it to a Queenstown conference this month. He said it was received enthusiastically by the science community and regulators. "Plants produced using this technique are by definition not transgenic, and this means the compliance costs involved in gaining approval for commercial use are minimised." Conner first developed a vector in a weed, Arabidopsis thaliana, and work was under way on potato, petunia and onion vectors. Greenpeace spokesman Steve Abel said concern about GM was not solely about the movement of genes across species but also about the way genes were inserted. Canterbury geneticist Associate Professor Jack Heinemann, of the New Zealand Institute of Gene Ecology, said the movement of DNA across species was not "the only or even the predominant issue". While not knowing the details of Conner's technique, he said it could leave big issues about how to control the integration of new DNA.