Pharmaceutical companies are experimenting with pharming – genetically engineering plants to produce useful and valuable drugs. Currently undergoing field trials are tomato plants that produce a vaccine for Alzheimer’s disease and potatoes that immunise against hepatitis B. Many more plant-made-pharmaceuticals are being developed in laboratories around the world.
However, the techniques employed to insert genes into plants are within reach of the amateur…and the criminal. Policing Genes speculates that, like other technologies, genetic engineering will also find a use outside the law, with innocent-looking garden plants being modified to produce narcotics and unlicensed pharmaceuticals.
The genetics of the plants in your garden or allotment could become a police matter…
Commissioned by the Engineering & Physical Sciences Research Council as part of the IMPACT Project, with the UCL Centre for Security & Crime Science. Photo: Theo Cook.
Vicia faba (Broad bean – GM)
Modified by amateurs to produce the class A controlled drug, Benzoylmethylecgonine (‘Cocaine’). Pollen from the modified plants was traced to a large crop being cultivated within three miles of a commercial farm, thus posing a serious risk of cross-pollination with food crops. Six convictions were made.
Helianthus annuus (Sunflower – GM)
Highly toxic, genetically modified strain of the common sunflower, causing irritation of the skin upon contact, with seeds that can be fatal if swallowed.
Lycopersicon esculentum (Tomato – GM)
Genetically engineered to produce high levels of Ebixam®, a patented drug used in the treatment of Alzheimer’s disease. This sample was taken from a pirated clone plant, grown illegally on an allotment in East London. Its pollen was detected by a Metropolitan Police surveillance hive, leading to two prosecutions.