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Genetically Engineered Organisms, Wildlife, and Habitat: A Workshop Summary 4 Concluding Thoughts Workshop organizing committee members Norman Ellstrand (University of California, Riverside), Bruce Tabashnik (University of Arizona), and Anne Kapuscinski (University of Minnesota) made closing remarks. Ellstrand reminded the group that many things have changed since Paul Berg organized the Asilomar Conference in 1975 to discuss the safety of the then still-nascent field of biotechnology. After the introduction of the first genetically engineered crop in 1994 (the “Flavr Savr” tomato), he said, polarization increased between, at the extremes, those who said biotechnology research should not be pursued and those who felt it should be pursued whole-heartedly. Ellstrand emphasized that genetically engineered crops are now here to stay, with many other products on the horizon; at the same time, scientific-based concerns about transgenes, and particularly their impacts, are recognized as important to examine. Tabashnik showed snapshots he had taken during the course of the workshop and encouraged participants to foster their new acquaintances into friendships and research collaborations, a theme echoed by Kapuscinski. She emphasized the long-term benefits of the collegial and collaborative atmosphere of the workshop, as scientists from different fields worked together in the breakout groups to develop research proposals. In the final discussion session, participants were asked to identify take-away messages in addition to the priority research areas and proposals to study the effects of GE crops, trees, microbes, insects, and fish on
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Genetically Engineered Organisms, Wildlife, and Habitat: A Workshop Summary ecosystems. Thoughts from the final session, and other issues related to considerations for ecological research on GEOs raised earlier in the meeting, are summarized below. These do not represent the consensus of the group, but reflect the diversity of issues that arose during the workshop. Scale Scale is an issue in looking at the environmental effects of GEOs, and for that reason, experiments and experimental protocols at a larger scale, from mesocosms up to landscapes, are likely to be needed, depending on the taxa and containment constraints. Many participants identified large-scale, organized collaborative projects that support different research objectives, including those on GEOs, as perhaps the only way to design and fund the scale of analysis needed. Studies on a large ecological scale can take advantage of emerging remote sensing technologies that improve traditional methods of observation. Context The context in which GEOs are used or introduced has important implications for evaluating the relative impact of GEOs on the environment. The size and magnitude of the effects of GEOs may be determined by the system in which they are used, and that system (for example, row-crop agriculture) may itself have much larger impacts on the environment than the isolated effects of GEOs. Comparisons, Contrasts, Baselines In evaluating the effects of GEOs on natural habitats and wildflife, selecting the appropriate comparator is critically important to the study design. It will be easier to detect subtle ecological effects if the contrast between comparative systems is sharp. The establishment of baseline states (e.g. before introduction of GEOs) can help to create the contrast needed to make appropriate evaluations of effects. Sensitive Indicators Identifying indicator species or processes that are sensitive to specific environmental changes could assist in the detection of the effects of GEOs, especially secondary, indirect effects. Models Models are a useful tool for studying processes that cannot be directly observed and the development of models is a research objective in and of itself. Models have limitations, of course, and need to be modified as experimental data becomes available. Nevertheless, models can identify where the most critical data needs exist, where effects are most likely to be observed, and the appropriate end points for studies looking for meaningful effects. Models can be used to envision scenarios such as the effects of multiple introductions on the ability of a species to estab-
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Genetically Engineered Organisms, Wildlife, and Habitat: A Workshop Summary lish, the circumstances that most enable gene flow, or the effects of small perturbations on sensitive populations and food webs. Proxy Learning Given regulatory restrictions on field trials of GEOs, there may be little choice but to find non-transgenic surrogates to study ecological effects of GEOs. However, giving significant thought about which traits, species, and ecological sites to study will make a difference in utility and relevance of the research for evaluating GEOs. Organisms with neutral traits may be easier to release but whether the research will be applicable to a GEO may not be clear. Another way of learning by proxy is to use escapes and degregulated (approved) introductions of GEOs as a focal point for research. That research would be enabled by better mapping of the locations of releases of GEOs and the collection of baseline data before planned introductions. The latter two issues could be facilitated by federal agencies involved in regulating GEOs. Large Facilities and Containment For some research, such as studies of aquatic organisms, the use of large, contained facilities that simulate natural habitats and ecosystems may be the best way to answer critical questions about the range of possible effects of GEOs. For all organisms, improving methods of biological containment is an area of research that could eventually enable field releases if there were sufficient confidence that containment (no reproduction or gene flow) is complete. Genetic Background Because gene flow and ecological effects of GEOs are a function of the interactions of genes, organisms, and environment, there are significant research opportunities at each of these interfaces. A rich area for study across all taxa is the effect of different genetic backgrounds (for example, a wildtype or cultivated species) on the expression of phenotypes (traits) resulting from a transgene. Understanding the biological basis of differences in phenotypic expression is fundamental information that could reduce uncertainty about the likely behavior of GEOs in the environment. Several workshop participants observed that the U.S. Geological Survey and other agencies can take advantage of the momentum of ongoing efforts, including those on an international level. Similarly, synergy can come from ongoing efforts in non-GEO research, such as in the areas of monitoring and mapping. For the experiments proposed that will require regulatory oversight and permits, it was suggested by one participant that researchers should work with regulatory agencies in the planning stages. On the other hand, other experiments based on GEOs that have
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Genetically Engineered Organisms, Wildlife, and Habitat: A Workshop Summary already been approved and are in the environment, can begin outside of the regulatory arena. Although the need for research on the effects of GEO organisms is long term with many issues still to be worked out, many participants agreed that the need for such research is urgent. As Ellstrand reminded the group, GEOs are here to stay. As occurred so successfully in this workshop, scientists with biotechnology expertise working with those who study wildlife and habitats can have a profound impact on answering questions about GEO effects that are critical to ecosystems in the United States and around the world. Anne Kapuscinksi closed the meeting by saying that in the next five years, she hoped that new projects—be they field studies, mapping, or stronger networks of existing facilities—will have already begun, through allocation of new resources, better leveraging of existing resources, and cooperation on institutional and investigator levels. Ten or twenty years from now, many of the analyses suggested in the workshop may have been completed, so that society has a fuller understanding of the risks of genetically engineered organisms (GEOs). With that knowledge, she hopes actions can be pursued to mitigate against the real risks, steer away from traits that may cause problems, and pursue the use of GEOs in areas in which risk issues have been laid to rest.