Background: The future of genetic transformation as a tool for the improvement of fruit trees depends on the development of proper systems for the assessment of unintended effects in field-grown GM lines. In this study, we used eight transgenic lines of two different citrus types (sweet orange and citrange) transformed with the marker genes β-glucuronidase (uidA) and neomycin phosphotransferase II (nptII) as model systems to study for the first time in citrus the long-term stability of transgene expression and whether transgene-derived pleiotropic effects occur with regard to the morphology, development and fruit quality of orchard-grown GM citrus trees.
Results: The stability of the integration and expression of the transgenes was confirmed in 7-year-old, orchard-grown transgenic lines by Southern blot analysis and enzymatic assays (GUS and ELISA NPTII), respectively. Little seasonal variation was detected in the expression levels between plants of the same transgenic line in different organs and over the 3 years of analysis, confirming the absence of rearrangements and/or silencing of the transgenes after transferring the plants to field conditions. Comparisons between the GM citrus lines with their non-GM counterparts across the study years showed that the expression of these transgenes did not cause alterations of the main phenotypic and agronomic plant and fruit characteristics. However, when comparisons were performed between diploid and tetraploid transgenic citrange trees and/or between juvenile and mature transgenic sweet orange trees, significant and consistent differences were detected, indicating that factors other than their transgenic nature induced a much higher phenotypic variability.
Conclusions: Our results indicate that transgene expression in GM citrus remains stable during long-term agricultural cultivation, without causing unexpected effects on crop characteristics. This study also shows that the transgenic citrus trees expressing the selectable marker genes that are most commonly used in citrus transformation were substantially equivalent to the non-transformed controls with regard to their overall agronomic performance, as based on the use of robust and powerful assessment techniques. Therefore, future studies of the possible pleiotropic effects induced by the integration and expression of transgenes in field-grown GM citrus may focus on the newly inserted trait(s) of biotechnological interest.