A Weblog monitoring coverage of environmental issues and science in the UK media. By Professor Emeritus Philip Stott. The aim is to assess whether a subject is being fairly covered by press, radio, and television. Above all, the Weblog will focus on science, but not just on poor science. It will also bring to public notice good science that is being ignored because it may be politically inconvenient.

Thursday, January 22, 2004

Bioconfinement or Terminator II - now a good Green idea.....

The National Academies have just issued a fascinating 'News Release' (January 20) about an important forthcoming publication entitled: Biological Confinement of Genetically Engineered Organisms (2004).

This 'Report' will be available in hard-copy form later this winter from the National Academies Press: tel. (US) 202-334-3313, or 1-800-624-6242, or via the Internet at The National Academies Press.

However, in the meantime, you may read this valuable report free online here (in separate Chapters).

The study was sponsored by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The National Research Council is the principal operating arm of the National Academy of Sciences and the National Academy of Engineering. It is a private, non-profit institution that provides science and technology advice under a congressional charter.

Here is the main body of the 'News Release' (dated January 20):

Integrated, Redundant Approach Best Way to Biologically Confine Genetically Engineered Organisms

'Developers of genetically engineered organisms need to consider how biological techniques such as induced sterility can prevent transgenic animals and plants from escaping into natural ecosystems and breeding or competing with their wild relatives, or passing engineered traits to other species, says a new report from the National Academies' National Research Council. The committee that wrote the report used the term "bioconfinement" to describe such techniques.

"Deciding whether and how to confine a genetically engineered organism cannot be an afterthought," said Committee Chair T. Kent Kirk, Professor Emeritus, Department of Bacteriology, University of Wisconsin, Madison, and a former microbiologist with the U.S. Department of Agriculture. "Confinement won't be warranted in most cases, but when it is, worst-case scenarios and their probabilities should be considered. Also, progress in research aimed at developing new biological confinement methods will further minimize risks and boost the public's confidence in biotechnology."

Because no single bioconfinement method is likely to be 100 percent effective, the committee recommended that developers of genetically engineered organisms use more than one method to lower the chance of a failure. It was also clear to the committee that scientists need to do more research to understand how well specific methods work, and that planned combinations of confinement methods will need to be tested in organisms with representative genetic profiles and in a wide variety of field environments.

The report was requested by USDA, which is considering how to regulate a number of genetically engineered organisms that had not yet been developed when the federal government's original 1986 "Coordinated Framework" for regulation of biotechnology products was enacted. Ensuring confinement for some of these new organisms may become one of the requirements for regulatory approval, the committee noted.

Ecological studies have shown that some genetically engineered organisms are viable in natural ecosystems and can breed with wild relatives. The most publicized environmental danger is that invasive weeds could be created if transgenic crops engineered to tolerate herbicides or to resist diseases and pests pass these resistant genes to weedy relatives. Plants also can be engineered with traits that allow them to grow faster, reproduce more, and live in new types of habitats. An additional risk is that transgenic fish or shellfish could escape and mate with their wild counterparts or out-compete them for food. Another concern is that plants and animals engineered to produce pharmaceuticals could harm humans or other species who may accidentally consume them.

The efficacy of bioconfinement methods will vary depending on the organism and the environment in which it will be released. Other factors include how long confinement needs to last, and the size of the area affected. Confinement is expected to work best over short time scales and small geographic areas, the committee said, emphasizing that no one method can achieve complete confinement. Where confinement is deemed desirable, techniques are needed to monitor any escape of genetically engineered organisms or the flow of transgenes; mitigating a confinement failure will be far easier if it is discovered quickly.

The committee paid particular attention to transgenic fish, shellfish, trees, grasses, and microbes, because many of these organisms have been engineered successfully and currently are undergoing regulatory evaluation. Genetically engineered aquatic species can be confined by physical barriers, by disrupting sexual reproduction, or by methods that prevent their survival in the wild. For example, a technique called triploidization can sterilize some fish and shellfish by adding an extra set of chromosomes to the animal's cellular makeup, although the technique cannot guarantee 100 percent sterility. Fish also can be engineered to rely on a man-made substance for survival, so that they would die if they escaped into the wild. For plants, bioconfinement methods include inserting genes that induce sterility, or engineering plants not to produce pollen, which can help close this avenue of gene flow.

There are two major bioconfinement methods for microbes, the report says. One method involves engineering bacteria or fungi to use so much energy or nutrients that they do not compete well with native bacteria and fungi. Because of the rapid adaptability of microbes, the effectiveness of this bioconfinement method remains unclear, the committee cautioned. The second method is to use a chemical to trigger "suicide" genes in bacteria or fungi if they escape confinement and pose a risk, though this method has never been field tested. Little research has been done on bioconfinement of genetically engineered insects, the committee noted. Confining genetically engineered insects can be particularly challenging because the typically large number of insects in any population makes even a small confinement failure problematic.

The committee also said that when bioconfinement methods are needed, an "Integrated Confinement System," or ICS, should be used. ICS is a systematic approach that includes a commitment to confinement by senior decision-makers within the institutions developing genetically engineered organisms, written plans for confinement and for mitigation of failures, employee training, periodic outside review, and reporting to an appropriate regulatory body. The committee was not asked to evaluate current government practices or policy, but it said that "for ICS to work, it must be supported by a rigorous and comprehensive regulatory regime empowered with inspection and enforcement." Government regulators also need to consider the effects that a confinement failure could have on other nations.'

+ This all seems a sensible balance between GM development and precaution. As the Committee Chair, T. Kent Kirk, Professor Emeritus, Department of Bacteriology, University of Wisconsin, Madison, says: "Confinement won't be warranted in most cases, but when it is, worst-case scenarios and their probabilities should be considered. Also, progress in research aimed at developing new biological confinement methods will further minimize risks and boost the public's confidence in biotechnology."


Philip, bringing you all the latest in good, positive science (just in case the UK media miss it!). Morning coffee for an even bigger confidence boost.

[New counter, June 19, 2006, with loss of some data]

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