Background: The introduction of transgenes into plants may cause unintended phenotypic effects which could have an impact on the plant itself and the environment. Little is published in the scientific literature about the interrelation of environmental factors and possible unintended effects in genetically modified (GM) plants.
Methods and findings: We studied transgenic bread wheat Triticum aestivum lines expressing the wheat Pm3b gene against the fungus powdery mildew Blumeria graminis f.sp. tritici. Four independent offspring pairs, each consisting of a GM line and its corresponding non-GM control line, were grown under different soil nutrient conditions and with and without fungicide treatment in the glasshouse. Furthermore, we performed a field experiment with a similar design to validate our glasshouse results. The transgene increased the resistance to powdery mildew in all environments. However, GM plants reacted sensitive to fungicide spraying in the glasshouse. Without fungicide treatment, in the glasshouse GM lines had increased vegetative biomass and seed number and a twofold yield compared with control lines. In the field these results were reversed. Fertilization generally increased GM/control differences in the glasshouse but not in the field. Two of four GM lines showed up to 56% yield reduction and a 40-fold increase of infection with ergot disease Claviceps purpurea compared with their control lines in the field experiment; one GM line was very similar to its control.
Conclusions: Our results demonstrate that, depending on the insertion event, a particular transgene can have large effects on the entire phenotype of a plant and that these effects can sometimes be reversed when plants are moved from the glasshouse to the field. However, it remains unclear which mechanisms underlie these effects and how they may affect concepts in molecular plant breeding and plant evolutionary ecology.