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Scientists Urge Caution When Releasing Engineered Organisms Into Environment

[Embargoed for release until noon Tuesday, March 2, 2004, to coincide with the release of report from the Ecological Society of America.]

COLUMBUS, Ohio – A panel of scientists has recommended a more cautious approach towards releasing genetically engineered organisms (GEOs) into the environment. The panel, representing the Ecological Society of America, released its report today in Washington.

Allison Snow

Their recommendations include rigorously analyzing the risks and benefits associated with GEOs as well as conducting the research necessary to fill in the gaps in current regulations that governing GEOs.

The new report, "Genetically engineered organisms and the environment: Current status and recommendations," was compiled by a seven-member panel that included experts in plant and microbial biology, ecology, entomology, agronomy and fisheries. The group spent the past two years evaluating the ecological effects of current and future uses of GEOs.

In spite of nearly a decade of heated public debate and worry over the safety of GEOs, and the huge growth in funding for developing GEOs, not much attention has been paid to the ecological studies analyzing the potential risks these organisms may create once they're released.

"Genetically engineered organisms can play a very positive role in environmental management globally," said Allison Snow, the lead author of the report and a professor of evolution, ecology and organismal Biology at Ohio State University. "But the deliberate or inadvertent release of GEOs could also spell ecological trouble under some circumstances."

Snow and her colleagues gathered current scientific data on the state of GEOs, from viruses and other microorganisms to plants to animals.

A "genetically engineered organism" is a living thing that has deliberately been given a characteristic it wouldn't have gotten through the process of normal breeding. For example, about 10 years ago researchers in Hawaii found that inserting genetic material from a virus that nearly decimated the state's papaya plantations into the plant's genome provided papaya trees with resistance to that very same virus.

Genetic engineering is a powerful alternative to classic breeding – the ages-old method used to give organisms new, desirable traits – because specific genes from any source, be it microbe, plant, animal or even synthetic, can be artificially integrated directly into an organism's genome.

"Transgenes make it possible to create organisms with traits that cannot be obtained through normal sexual reproduction," Snow said. "There's great debate even within the scientific community about how transgenic organisms should be developed, regulated and deployed.”

"We wanted to provide ecological insight for consideration prior to releasing a GEO along with recommendations on how to evaluate the organism once it has established itself in the field," Snow said.

She and her colleagues made a number of recommendations for addressing the risks and helping to prevent unwanted side effects when developing and ultimately releasing GEOs. The recommendations are described in detail below.

There is a need for rigorous, well-designed studies of the risks and benefits associated with GEOs that incorporate the inherent complexity of ecological systems. The panel members call for more support from government and commercial sectors for environmental risk assessment and risk management research.

On that note, the panel also calls for developing regulations based more heavily on scientific findings of risks and benefits. In the United States, GEOs are currently regulated by a handful of agencies, including the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the Food and Drug Administration and the Environmental Protection Agency, along with several federal statutes.

"But regulators often have to make decisions before scientific findings are available," Snow said. "That's just not good enough, especially since what happens in some cases could be irreversible – once a transgene is out there in the environment, we can never get it back."

The report also recommends designing GEOs that reduce unwanted environmental risks by incorporating specific genetic features, such as methods to keep certain engineered organisms from interbreeding with their natural relatives.

Another key recommendation is preventing the release of GEOs with unwanted or potentially dangerous traits that could spread to natural populations, as strict confinement of these organisms is often impossible following their large-scale release.

"We're looking toward a future with far more genetically engineered plants, fish, insects, viruses, etc., than there are now," Snow said. "All sorts of things are possible, and we need to have a plan for how to avoid creating environmental problems."

The panel also calls for the well-designed monitoring of GEOs for identifying, managing and mitigating environmental risks when there are reasons to suspect potential problems.

"Because these novel genes are inherited in the same way as naturally occurring genes, they have the potential to persist indefinitely in both cultivated and natural populations," Snow said.

Finally, the panel calls for giving broader training to ecologists, agricultural scientists, molecular biologists, etc., to adequately address the report's recommendations. Collaborative, multidisciplinary research is important for understanding the environmental risks and benefits of GEOs.

"There is a need for better-quality science to look at the risks as well as the benefits of GEOs," Snow said. "We realize the future will likely be full of these organisms, and we want to be cautious and to have good science behind the decisions we make."

Snow worked with researchers from the universities of Minnesota, California-Davis and Nebraska; Cornell and Michigan State universities; and Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University.


Contact: Allison Snow, (614) 292-3445; Snow.1@osu.edu Written by Holly Wagner, (614) 292-8310; Wagner.235@osu.edu