Unleashing GMO's into the environment

ON THE eve of a major conference on the safety of genetically modified food and crops, two research teams have put forward their vision of how scientists can ensure that transgenic plants and animals don't run riot when released into the environment.

"At the moment, the environment is being used as an open air laboratory," says Adrian Bebb of Friends of the Earth in Britain. There is no agreed way to evaluate the dangers of GMOs before field trials are carried out. Once an organism has been released, it could be too late.

Now William Muir and his colleague Richard Howard at Purdue University in Indiana have developed a way to spot rogue GM organisms long before they are released into the environment.

The technique could do for GMOs what clinical trials do for drugs. "Pharmaceuticals companies have to ensure that their drugs are safe for human consumption," says Muir. "Agricultural companies should have to ensure that their organisms are safe for the environment."

His plea comes as delegates from OECD countries, the UN Food and Agriculture Organization and the World Health Organization prepare to meet in Bangkok on 10 July to thrash out a consensus on the science behind GMOs and the public's concerns. Muir and Howard hope their method will win enough support from scientists and regulators to be adopted worldwide.

It is based on taking the results of extensive lab tests and feeding them into a computer model. This, they say, can predict whether a foreign gene would spread if a GM organism escaped or was released into the wild. So far Muir and Howard have only tried their model on fish, but in a paper published this week in The American Naturalist (vol 158, p 1), they say the same principle would work for any animal or plant species.

The model would give scientists common ground-something they can agree on, says Muir. "Once scientists are able to agree, that makes something much more acceptable to the public

Contact: Claire Bowles
New Scientist

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