ESA calls for interdisciplinary studies of GEOs

From corn to carp to the bacteria in yogurt, people have modified organisms for specific traits for centuries. Today, genetic engineering offers the potential to provide new benefits and new risks, as does any new technology. The Ecological Society of America (ESA)’s scientific position paper, “Genetically engineered organisms and the environment: Current status and recommendations,” authored by an ESA committee of experts, addresses the nature of genetically engineered organisms (GEOs) and their possible impacts on ecosystems (Viewable at: http://www.esa.org/pao/esaPositions/Papers/geo_position.htm).

Potential environmental benefits from certain GEOs include more sustainable agriculture and better environmental management. For example, some GE crops can be grown with fewer pesticides and less soil erosion, while future GE trees might provide cleaner methods of paper milling. Future applications of genetic engineering extend far beyond traditional breeding, encompassing transgenic viruses, bacteria, algae, fungi, grasses, trees, insects, fish, shellfish and many other non-domesticated species. Unintended effects of GEOs released into the environment remain a concern for ecologists, regulatory agencies and the public.

“Understanding how genetic engineering will affect organisms living and dispersing outdoors is a major challenge,” said ESA President William Schlesinger. “This position paper provides insight into the ecological questions that should be considered before genetically engineered organisms are released, as well as important recommendations for monitoring and evaluating GEOs once they are in the field.”

Major recommendations of the ESA position paper include:

  • GEOs should be designed to reduce environmental risks by incorporating specific genetic features, such as traits that limit unwanted gene flow between GE organisms and non-GE organisms.
  • Rigorous, interdisciplinary scientific studies are needed to evaluate environmental benefits and risks posed by GEOs.
  • Possible risks is inadequate or suggests the potential for serious negative effects on ecosystems.
  • Well-designed monitoring will be crucial to identify, manage, and mitigate environmental risks when there are reasons to suspect possible problems.
  • Science-based regulation should subject all transgenic organisms to a similar risk-assessment framework, recognize that many environmental risks are specific to the GEO and location, and incorporate a cautious approach to environmental risk analysis.
  • Ecologists, agricultural scientists, molecular biologists and others need broader training and integrated communication to better address these issues.

While the ESA position paper recognizes the possible benefits GEOs may offer, it addresses several areas of concern. One worry involves the unintended escape of transgenic salmon into wild populations. Current findings show contradictory results of transgenic salmon’s faster development and eating habits: these fish might out-compete the natural populations, or their traits “could increase their susceptibility to predation and stressful environments,” according to the paper.

“Another concern is that GEOs will interbreed with native populations once released,” said Allison Snow, lead author of the position paper and a professor at Ohio State University. “It is important to understand how an influx of transgenes can affect local populations, such as weedy relatives of crop plants. Also, new types of engineered microbes, insects, fish and horticultural plants are likely to require more ecological study than most domesticated food crops.”

“Several environmental risks associated with gene flow, the evolution of resistance, and certain non-target effects could be irreversible,” Snow said. “Additional research is needed to evaluate circumstances under which this could happen.”

These conclusions and recommendations echo earlier sentiments expressed by the Society’s 1989 position paper, “The planned introduction of genetically engineered organisms: Ecological considerations and recommendations.” In addition to incorporating the new knowledge gained in the past 15 years, this latest ESA paper also discusses options for monitoring the long-term environmental effects of GEOs that have been released widely into the environment.

Co-authors of the report are Allison Snow, David Andow (University of Minnesota), Paul Gepts (University of California, Davis), Eric Hallerman (Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University), Alison Power (Cornell University), James Tiedje (Michigan State University), and LaReesa Wolfenbarger (University of Nebraska at Omaha).

The Ecological Society of America (ESA) is a scientific, non-profit, 8,000-member organization founded in 1915. Through ESA reports, journals, membership research, and expert testimony to Congress, ESA seeks to promote the responsible application of ecological data and principles to the solution of environmental problems. ESA publishes four scientific, peer-reviewed journals: Ecology, Ecological Applications, Ecological Monographs, and Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment.

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Annie Drinkard EurekAlert!

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