Want to study relative risks of GE?

Last Thursday, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA) posted a new grant – one that readers of Biofortified might be interested to read about. Called the Biotechnology Risk Assessment Grants Program, (PDF) this grant for up to $1 million for each project is for scientists who want to study the environmental risks of genetic engineering in agriculture.

What kinds of environmental risks? Things like basic genetics research, comparing breeding to biotechnology, and downstream effects of environmental release. There is even a section for it you want to submit a research proposal to study co-existence between GE and non-GE crops. You could even study pyramided, or “stacked” GE crops and compare them to single-transgene varieties. So many possibilities.

This call for grant applications is important for several reasons. Research coming out of this program would build upon, and compliment existing research, much of which is listed on this page on our blog. When published, it would also go on this list. (Out of curiosity I called up NIFA to inquire if a project like our GENERA project could be funded under a grant such as this. Sadly, no – the focus is on experiments and not catalogs of them, unless we were to take other people’s raw data and reanalyze under a new algorithm.) Sanely investigating and evaluating the kinds of environmental risks involved in genetic engineering is of utmost importance, and the research must put it in the context of plant breeding and agriculture in general. It is also my fond hope that for whatever projects are funded by this grant program, that the investigators keep in mind how their research would be conveyed to the public.

This is the first time I’ve promoted a grant for scientists to apply for on the blog, and it may not be the last. I thought that we could get some discussion going about what kinds of research we think would be worthy of pursuing? I have two main ideas.

The first is that we have had and heard a lot of discussion about using genetic engineering techniques to move and modify genes between plants of the same species, known as Cisgenics, and more recently, Intragenics. While it seems to be the case that consumers find this to be more appealing than cross-species genetic engineering, I find from discussions with scientists that there is considerable debate about the ups and downs of this distinction. Some see it as little different and merely a way to make an end run around regulations, others see it as a potentially less-disruptive way to alter the genomes of plants. This blog post by Kevin Folta was picked up for one of my department’s journal club discussions, and there were some interesting comments about it, including, how long must a gene be in a species for it to be worthy of being picked up and moved and have you still call it Cisgenics? Can you take Bt out of corn and stick it into another corn?

Correct me if I am wrong, but it seems to me that we have limited data to really answer the question about whether or not moving genes within or between species are inherently different in their risks, versus the same. Some argue that taking a gene from another species is riskier because if opens up new possibilities for interactions between genes because the proteins didn’t co-evolve. On the other hand, some take the co-evolution argument to the other side to point out that interactions also co-evolve and that two genes that have worked together in the same species may be more likely to interact, and there is still the null hypothesis that there is no significant difference at all.

There is some evidence and theory behind each position, but what we would need, then, is an experiment designed specifically to address the question of whether there is a difference, and what kind of difference. I suggest that one way you could go about this is with an experiment that goes something like this. There are genes in many species which serve similar functions due to common ancestry, which are called homologous genes. But, they may have evolved slightly differently in each species, so you could test whether the closeness of the species source matters by simply generating many GE plants with each of these homologous genes, and then comparing the result. You could look at gene expression to see if there are any significant differences between them, for example.

Scientists in the audience might point out that the place in the genome where you engineer the new genes will matter, so you would probably have to generate several transformations in different sites and compare the distributions of effects. You could also look at phenotypes to see if anything odd comes out consistently with one and not the other, or investigate what proteins might interact with the different transgenes. Do this for several sets of homologous genes from progressively more distant organisms and you’ve got yourself a way to test this hypothesis! Add another plant species to insert them into and it will broaden applicability.

Alfalfa by TwoWings via Wikimedia Commons.

I would also like to see some research on coexistence come out of this. What would be some good management practices that will minimize gene flow and spillover effects between neighboring farms? How much time must there be between flowering, or what kinds of borders are necessary, and what would crops that won’t cross with other varieties due to cross-incompatibility genes mean for these practices? Moreover, there is some opportunity for an interdisciplinary research in this area.

As I have shown before, we don’t know a lot about exactly what are the thresholds for consumers when it comes to cross-pollination between GE crops. The Consumers Union did a biased poll with loaded terms, and yet, couldn’t get consumers to care very much about it. Organic groups and exporters are worried about consumer rejection (or rather, processor rejection) if there is cross-pollination, and it seems to me that coming up with thresholds for cross-pollination in a coexistence regime necessitates knowing what consumers think, in a robust and scientific manner. If consumers like the 1% rule, are fine with a 5% rule, or wouldn’t touch a 0.0001% transgenic-pollinated organic crop, those would lead to different situations entirely. Imagine a project where both the methods to achieve coexistence are studied alongside consumer attitudes toward the results of those methods, and you’ve got a nice interdisciplinary project.

What would you like to see get worked on? Any thoughts about what I described above? There’s $4 million of research to be funded – wouldn’t it be grand if an idea started here and made it into a selected proposal?

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.