The Biology and Ecology of Sugarcane (Saccharum spp hybrids) in Australia December 2004

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Section 4.3 Gene transfer to other genera in Saccharum complex

As indicated above, sugarcane is closely related to the genera Erianthus, Narenga, Miscanthus and Sclerostachya. These five genera (including Saccharum) are collectively known as the Saccharum complex and are expected to be sexually compatible at some levels (Bull & Glasziou 1979; Grassl 1980; Daniels & Roach 1987).

Although many attempts to cross between these species may have been attempted in sugarcane research stations, limited publications are available. Of 96 crosses made at BSES in Queensland between Erianthus arundinaceus and S. officinarum or hybrid Saccharum spp., 26 were fertile producing over 1000 seedlings. Only 19 putative hybrids have survived, all were derived from S. officinarum as a female parent and E. arundinaceus as a male parent (Piperidis et al. 2000). Genuine hybrids were produced at a frequency of 2.8% however all of these hybrids had poor vigour and were sterile (Piperidis et al. 2000). Chromosome elimination has been observed in all putative hybrids. Molecular studies have demonstrated that E. arundinaceus is genetically quite distant from Saccharum (Nair 1999; Alix et al. 1998).

In conclusion, evidence indicated that even if the commercial hybrid sugarcanes were allowed to flower, the likelihood of gene transfer to other closely related species within the Saccharum complex or their hybrids is very low, because of genetic incompatibility.

Section 4.4 gene transfer to other genera in tribe andropogoneae

Hybridisation with Saccharum has also been attempted with some distantly related genera belonging to tribe Andropogoneae such as Imperata (blady grass), Sorghum (sorghum) and Bambusa (bamboo) (Nair 1999; Rao et al. 1967; Janakiammal 1938; Thomas & Venkatraman 1930). These claims for intergeneric hybrids are based on anatomical morphological and cytological studies but have never been verified by molecular analysis. A few of these putative intergeneric hybrids could not be accepted as true hybrids (Grassl 1980; Nair 1999; Rao et al. 1967).

Histological analysis of crosses between S. officinarum, S. robustum, S  spontaneum plus seven Saccharum hybrids and Bambusa indicated that abortion of hybrid embryos occurred during the early embryogenic stage (Rao et al. 1967). Four mature seeds were obtained from 960 crosses using Bambusa as a female parent, all putative hybrid seeds were either from S. spontaneum or S. robustum as male parents. These putative hybrids either failed to germinate from seed or died at seedling stage (Rao et al. 1967).

Sorghum species have been artificially crossed with Saccharum hybrids (Grassl 1980) and S. officinarum (Nair 1999). Wild Sorghum species are among the weeds of Australian sugarcane crops (McMahon et al. 2000) and are widespread in Australia (Hnatiuk 1990). Generally, the offspring have been of low vigour and fertility, but back crossing to both parents have been achieved (Grassl 1980; Sreenivasan et al. 1987). However, Grassel (1980) recorded that after the 4th to 5th generation of backcrossing to sorghum, the sugarcane chromosomes had been eliminated from the intergeneric hybrids.

Imperata (blady grass) is capable of crossing with Saccharum (Sreenivasan et al. 1987). Imperata cylindrica is reported in Australia (Clifford & Ludlow 1978; Hartley 1979; Hnatiuk 1990; Clifford & Ludlow 1978; Hartley 1979). I. cylindrica is a perennial species that commonly grows on degraded or burnt-off land in most Australian sugarcane-growing districts. It is a common weed in Queensland (Kleinschidmidt & Johnson 1977), and although it occurs in all Australian states (Auld & Medd 1987; Australia's Virtual Herbarium 2004) it is not listed as a noxious weed in any jurisdiction (National Weeds Strategy Executive Committee 2002).

There is one report of experimental cross between I. cylindrica and a Saccharum hybrid, producing triploid progeny resembling sugarcane, which could apparently self-fertilise to produce F2 progeny (Daniels & Roach 1987; Sreenivasan et al. 1987). Thus, intergeneric gene transfer involving existing commercial sugarcane hybrids may be possible by hand-pollination under experimental conditions designed to overcome natural barriers to cross-pollination but such artificial hybrids have not been observed in the wild.

Section 4.5 Gene Transfer to other Organisms

The only way by which genes could be transferred from sugarcane to other than plants is by horizontal gene transfer. Such transfers have not been demonstrated under natural conditions (Nielsen et al. 1997; Nielsen et al. 1998; Syvanen 1999) and deliberate attempts to induce them have so far failed (Coghlan 2000; Schlüter et al. 1995).

Transfer of plant DNA to bacteria has been demonstrated under highly artificial laboratory conditions (Gebhard & Smalla 1998; Mercer et al. 1999; Nielsen et al. 1998), but even then only at a very low frequency. Phylogenetic comparison of the sequences of plant and bacterial genes suggests that horizontal gene transfer from plants to bacteria during evolutionary history has been extremely rare, if occurring at all (Doolittle 1999; Nielsen et al. 1998).

Recombination between viral genomes and plant DNA has only been observed at very low levels, and only between homologous sequences under conditions of selective pressure, eg. regeneration of infectious virus by complementation of a defective virus by viral sequences introduced into a genetically modified plant genome (Greene & Allison 1994; Teycheney & Tepfer 1999).

Thus, gene transfer from sugarcane to organisms other than plants is extremely unlikely. A more detailed review of horizontal gene transfer from plants to other organisms is provided in the risk assessment and risk management plans that were prepared in relation to application DIR 051/2004 for the release of GM sugarcane into the Australian environment.

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