Introducing GENERA

Some of you may have noticed a little restructuring on Biofortified lately, others may have gone browsing around and found an interesting unexplained page, or might have recalled discussions about a new and fantastic database being planned for Biofortified and what we were thinking about calling it. Well now the wait is over and all will be explained. I am pleased to introduce regulars and newcomers to the GENetic Engineering Risk Atlas, aka GENERA.

This is intended to be an atlas of any and all peer-reviewed research related to the relative risks of plant genetic engineering in the context of plant breeding. David Tribe has maintained a list of 300 papers related to this topic on GMO Pundit, and earlier this year we decided that all this information needed to be more visible and accessible to everyone. After searching deep within the bowels of WordPress plugins and php code, I figured out how to use the WordPress platform to host and manage a separate set of custom pages that will store and organize details about each study in a way that people can easily browse and search to find what they want.

Check it out, play with the links and look at the example entries and you’ll see why I hardly posted anything on the blog in June or July! The Atlas currently only tells you how many studies have been entered, but when we have more to work with, I envision a page that will summarize the whole database with charts and graphs.

Anastasia has written a step by step guide on how to put together a GENERA entry. We have a list of about 300 studies to use as fodder for GENERA to begin with, and there are bound to be many more we don’t know about. You could perhaps start with our list of just the independent studies. Contributors can enter new studies by filling out a form on the inside end of the blog and submit it for the editors to review. Once approved, it will appear in the Atlas for everyone to see, and it will be crossed off the list as completed.

Eventually, we will add a guide on how to effectively use the Atlas, but first we need to populate it. And that’s where you come in. We really need the contributions of other scientists to help enter these many studies thoroughly and accurately, so that this resource can blossom forth and become an essential tool for everyone who wants to know what the sum total of the peer-reviewed scientific literature is.

Please help us spread the word and that we are looking for help from other scientists to summarize and enter studies into GENERA. We might also offer gifts to contributors, although we haven’t figured out how exactly that will work yet. We have prepared a press release, the full text of which is below, but you can view it as a PDF here. GENERA press release_final.pdf Pass it around!

Everyone I talk to about GENERA thinks it will be a really good resource. The world needs it, so let’s get to it!

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE

GENERA: Students Launch a New Public Resource on Genetic Engineering and Need your Help

One of the biggest challenges of accurately communicating scientific information about a controversial topic is making that information easily available and accessible to the public. In the area of genetic engineering in agriculture, the public perception is that it lacks independent research on the risks, yet the scientific literature is replete with studies addressing those very questions. A small group of blogging scientists hopes to change that with a new web resource, but they need some help.

The plant genetics group blog, Biofortified, founded in 2008 by two graduate students, Karl Haro von Mogel and Anastasia Bodnar, hopes to bridge the gap. They have just launched a database called the GENetic Engineering Risk Atlas, or GENERA for short. Each entry in the atlas will include meta-information such as funding type, crop studied, where it was conducted, and the source of funding as well as an expert summary of the study itself. The database will be useful for consumers who wish to learn more, for NGOs and government regulatory organizations, and for scientists.

So far, Biofortified has a list of three hundred studies that need to be entered into the database. While more studies continue to be published on a regular basis, the first task is to get the current literature entered into GENERA. “With so many studies, it would take far too long for two people to catalogue them all,” said Bodnar. “We’ll need some help.”

“I programmed the background of GENERA to make it really easy to use,” said Haro von Mogel. “All it takes is filling out a simple form with the abstract, citation, crop, etc, and the atlas does the rest.” The scientist bloggers are counting on the success of community annotation projects and wiki-based resources to help populate the database.

Interested scientists can register for the blog at www.biofortified.org and contact its editors to be given access to create entries in the atlas. Anyone can make a simple entry, and scientists familiar with the language in the studies can also help out by writing a summary of the study. Several examples have already been entered into the atlas, with and without the optional summary.

In the future, GENERA will be useful for a variety of purposes. Studies can be searched on the basis of crop and study type, location, findings, funding, and publication status. Non-peer-reviewed studies will also eventually be included, and the site can be used to summarize all of the studies in the atlas. Scientists may find it useful in their own research. “We’re thinking about using it to write a review article someday,” said Bodnar.

“Getting this information more accessible to the public will be really beneficial for the public discussion of GE crops,” said Haro von Mogel. “People have this perception that there is no independent research done on these new traits, while about a third of the three hundred studies on our list are independently funded. People need to know about them.”

Haro von Mogel and Bodnar founded Biofortified in 2008 when they recognized the lack of science-based information about genetic engineering on the web and the have worked to create a place where scientists and non-scientists can discuss and learn from each other. The blog currently features posts written by other graduate students and professors in the field.

Biofortified is independently run on a volunteer basis, and is not supported by any funding from any companies or government entities. While site hosting costs were initially footed by the founding members, these costs are now covered by a Changemakers grant awarded to Biofortified for winning the Ashoka Changemakers GMO Risk or Rescue contest. (http://www.biofortified.org/2009/11/we-won/)

Links:

The GENERA homepage:

http://www.biofortified.org/genera/

GENERA Tutorial:

http://www.biofortified.org/genera/genera-tutorial/

An example entry with a summary of the study:

http://www.biofortified.org/genera/entries/long-term-cow-feeding-study-with-bt-corn/

An example entry without a summary:

http://www.biofortified.org/genera/entries/maize-gene-expression-and-nitrogen-fertilization/

For more information about Biofortified:

http://www.biofortified.org/about/

Contact:

Email contact (AT) biofortified [DOT] org

Follow Karl Haro von Mogel:

Karl earned his Ph.D. in Plant Breeding and Plant Genetics at UW-Madison, with a minor in Life Science Communication. His dissertation was on both the genetics of sweet corn and plant genetics outreach. He recently moved back to his home state of California. His favorite produce might just be squash.