Into The Wild: Do Genetically-Engineered Plants “Leak” Into The Environment?

Anthers pollenEscape of the Transgenes?

Last week, I was a bit startled as I listened to a podcast of NPR’s Science Friday program.

In this episode (2/18/2011), host Ira Flatow was interviewing the new president of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) Dr. Nina Fedoroff (a distinguished plant molecular biologist, by the way).

She shocked me (and, apparently, Ira Flatow) by flatly denying that there were any cases of transgenes “leaking” into the environment from genetically-engineered (GE) crop plants.

To Ira’s credit, he challenged her on this somewhat preposterous statement. (See below why it was indeed such a surprising remark.)

Because this episode elicited a “storm” of letters and e-mails, Ira Flatow did a follow-up interview (which you can listen to here) with Fedoroff and plant ecologist Dr. Allison Snow.

Briefly, Dr. Snow provided several examples of transgenes being acquired by wild relatives of genetically engineered crop plants, particularly canola. Dr. Fedoroff seemed to dismiss these examples as merely “management” problems.

It’s Hard To Corral A Transgene In The Wild.

Contrary to Dr. Fedoroff’s statement on Science Friday, there is ample evidence that transgenes have “leaked” from GE crops to other plants.

Escape plantFor example, in a previous post regarding the herbicide Roundup® (glyphosate), I noted how a transgene conferring resistance to Roundup® had escaped from a test plot of genetically-engineered turfgrass to adjacent populations of a related native grass.

There certainly are other published examples (see ref. 1, e.g.) of gene flow from GE crops to other non-GE crops and to weedy or wild relatives. And, as genetically-engineered organisms (GEOs), such as crop plants, proliferate, there will likely be more.

It’s not hard to imagine the ecological and agricultural implications if so-called “weedy” plants acquire transgenes conferring herbicide tolerance and pest resistance, for example, from related GE crop species.

But, although gene flow from GE plants to wild relatives has been well documented, the ecological significance of these occurrences is much less well understood.

Overall, there are relatively few data available with which to evaluate the potential for increased weediness or invasiveness in a crop species with fitness-enhancing abiotic and biotic GM traits. A better understanding is needed of the factors that presently control population size and range limits of either the crop volunteers or wild recipient populations, and the degree that survival or reproduction in the field is presently affected by the relevant biotic or abiotic stress-tolerance trait.” – from Ref. 1 below.

In a sense, Dr. Fedoroff is correct in stating that this is a “management” issue. But perhaps such management of GE crops should be conducted primarily by plant ecologists, such as Dr. Snow (see ref. 2, e.g.), rather than by plant genetic engineers.

Update (5/30/2013): GMO wheat found in Oregon field. How did it get there?

Re. DIY Biotechnologists: This is certainly one of the serious drawbacks of GEOs that all of you DIY genetic engineers must seriously consider before releasing your creations into the wild.


1. Warwick, S.I., H.J. Beckie and L.M. Hall (2009) “Gene Flow, Invasiveness, and Ecological Impact of Genetically Modified Crops”, Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, Vol. 1168, pp. 72–99. (PDF)

2. Snow, Allison A. (2010) “Risks of Environmental Releases of Synthetic GEOs”, Invited Presentation for the Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues, July 8, 2010 (PDF) The agenda and video of this meeting are available here.

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One Comment

  1. I heard this interview and was shocked too. I didn’t catch the second interview, but when I heard her in the first, I couldn’t believe it. I thought, is she delusional or just lying. I figured she was in the second camp. I’ll have to listen to the second interview. It sounds like she’s been taught to tow the company line very well.

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