Unleashing GMO's into the environment

ulation if released into the wild-so this should never be done. "There's an assumption that if juvenile viability is lower, then the gene won't spread," says Muir. "That's the common misconception that everybody's been working with. But we've shown that there are several other factors that can offset this."

"It is a sensible approach," says James Bullock of the Centre for Ecology and Hydrology in Dorset. "Modelling and lab-based stuff only give a limited picture, but it gives you an idea of what may happen."

If anything, the model should overestimate the risks of GMOs in the wild, says Muir. "We consider the lab to be more benign and hospitable than nature," he says. "So if in the lab, transgenic organisms are not found to be a risk when they are given a beneficial environment, we feel confident that in nature there will be even less of a risk."

But John Beringer, former head of Britain's Advisory Committee on Releases to the Environment, disagrees. "I don't believe that we know enough about fitness for that to be valid," he says. "We don't know which characteristics are important because environments change so much."

While Muir is working out the risks of foreign genes spreading in the wild, Bullock is trying to estimate the consequences of such contamination. He's using a technique called matrix modelling to combine data obtained from natural plants in the wild and from related GM crop species in the lab. This model predicts whether wild plants that gain foreign genes from their GM relatives would be likely to invade habitats at the expense of native strains. "We're saying: what if gene flow has already happened, what would be the consequences of that?"

He is measuring life-cycle traits such as seed germination, seed production and the survival rate of native plants in different habitats in the wild. His model uses these to calculate how fast their populations are increasing. He then does the same for GM plants grown

Contact: Claire Bowles
New Scientist

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