'Engineered' Plants Are Put to Field Tests British Researchers Try to Determine If Transgenic Crop Strains Present Risks When Released in a Natural Environment

By Christopher Andreae, Monitor | The Christian Science Monitor, September 4, 1991 | Go to article overview

'Engineered' Plants Are Put to Field Tests British Researchers Try to Determine If Transgenic Crop Strains Present Risks When Released in a Natural Environment


Christopher Andreae, Monitor, The Christian Science Monitor


'PROSAMO" may sound like some sort of Japanese martial art or a pasta dish, but it's far from any such thing. It is a large-scale scientific program set up in Britain to assess certain risks that may - or may not - attend the release of genetically engineered organisms, such as crop plants like potatoes, maize, or oil-seed rape (canola).

PROSAMO, which stands for Planned Release of Selected and Manipulated Organisms, is a four-year study, half funded by the British government and half by a consortium of interested companies, including Dupont and Imperial Chemical Industries (ICI).

Some 60,000 seeds of canola, engineered to include a marker gene to render them resistant to Basta, a herbicide, and kanomycin, an antibiotic, have been sown by hand in four different British locations with a wide variety of conditions. The attention to detail is remarkable: In 25 meter-square sites, nine seeds are sown in each 25-centimeter square, each of which has two metal tags.

"What's different about this experiment," says Jonathan Thomas, project coordinator, "is that it is released into a natural environment, as opposed to released onto a farm field." Other field studies of transgenic crop plants - and there have been many in the United States and Europe - are designed "to check that products worked - that they were disease-resistant for instance. Our study ignores that," Mr. Thomas says.

The PROSAMO sites where the plants are being grown are woodland, marsh, downs grassland, and so on, sometimes cultivated, sometimes fenced, but not farm fields. At each site, four kinds of habitat are used - wet, dry, shady, and sunny. Some of the plants have received fungicide treatment, some insecticide.

"The experiment is to check that the transgenic plants don't become persistent" in the wild, Thomas says. There has to date been no similar assessment experiment, certainly not on such a scale.

Halfway through the experiment (though the plots will continue to be watched for a total of seven years), results so far, says Michael Crawley, "have given us no cause for concern." Dr. Crawley, who is in charge of the assessment, is a plant ecologist of London's Imperial College.

Results at the end of the first year showed that "the transgenic rape plants behaved exactly the same as the nontransgenic ones.... In no case did the transgenics produce, for example, more seed or survive better or germinate more freely. There has been no trend in a direction of them being more of a nuisance."

Interviewed at Imperial College's outpost at Ascot, Berkshire (where one of the sites is - the other two are in Cornwall and Scotland), Crawley discussed his PROSAMO project at length. The risks being examined, he points out, are "conjectural." He names three: that transgenic plants might be a nuisance - more unruly - as crops. That they might become invasive of natural habitats in a way that nontransgenics do not. That they might transfer, through pollen, their transgenic attributes, to a related species that might then become more of a nuisance than it currently is (this is being assessed in another part of the PROSAMO program).

Crawley is certain that only experiments outdoors can tell you what the relative size of such risks might be. "To do the work in the field is the only serious way to test these ecological questions," he says. "Not to do it in one place in one year, but to do it in many places over many years."

What is being followed is a "step-by-step approach." The next question will be "to what extent you can generalize ... from a limited number of study sites to a wider geographic realm." Once such transgenic seeds have been let out on the commercial market, they are, according to Crawley, "going to get into far more places than they have ever got, even in the most thorough, comprehensive risk-assessment experiments. …

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