New York Times
January 21, 2004

No Foolproof Way Is Seen to Contain Altered Genes

new report commissioned by the government suggests that it will be difficult to completely prevent genetically engineered plants and animals from having unintended environmental and public health effects.

The report, released yesterday by the National Research Council of the National Academy of Sciences, says that while there are many techniques being developed to prevent genetically engineered organisms or their genes from escaping into the wild, most techniques are still in early development and none appear to be completely effective.

"One of our big messages throughout the whole report is that there are very few bioconfinement methods that are well developed," Anne R. Kapuscinski, a professor of fisheries, wildlife and conservation biology at the University of Minnesota and a member of the committee that wrote the report, said at a news conference in Washington yesterday.

Companies and scientists are now developing a wide range of genetically modified organisms: salmon that grow superfast, mosquitoes engineered not to transmit malaria, corn that produces pharmaceuticals and industrial chemicals.

One concern about these transgenic products is that their genes or the organisms could spread. Fast-growing fish, if they were to escape into the wild, might beat out regular salmon for food or mates, disrupting the ecological balance. Genes giving crops resistance to herbicides or insects might spread to weeds, making the weeds harder to eradicate. Pollen flow from corn engineered to produce a drug could allow the drug to get into corn destined for the food supply.

Much of the efforts to prevent these effects have involved physical containment, like growing fish in tanks rather than the ocean or growing crops in greenhouses.

But the new report, commissioned by the Department of Agriculture, looks at biological methods of containment, which it calls bioconfinement. These include measures like inducing sterility by giving fish an extra set of chromosomes or exposing insects to radiation. Bacteria might be given "suicide genes" that would cause them to self-destruct if they escaped. Crop scientists are working on a variety of techniques, including putting the foreign genes into the chloroplasts rather than the nucleus because chloroplast genes usually do not get into the pollen.

In many cases, the report says, such bioconfinement will not be needed because the organisms will pose little risk. But it says that when it is needed, it might be useful to use more than one method at a time, since no single method is likely to be 100 percent effective. The report also says such bioconfinement methods are best considered early in the development of a genetically modified plant or animal rather than as an afterthought.

The panel's report could have some bearing on issues now before regulators. It recommends, for instance, that nonfood crops be sought for growing pharmaceuticals or chemicals that need to be kept out of the food supply.

This position is favored by many environmental and consumer groups and by food companies, which fear that a contamination incident would hurt sales and undermine public confidence in food safety. But the biotechnology industry has generally argued that it is most economical to use widely grown crops like corn and that these crops can be adequately isolated from crops grown for food.

The report also says there are weaknesses in the safeguards being taken by a company that is seeking Food and Drug Administration approval to sell salmon genetically engineered to grow faster.

The company, Aqua Bounty Technologies of Waltham, Mass., has said it would sell to fish farms only female fish that have been sterilized, thereby eliminating the possibility that the fish could reproduce should they escape into rivers or the ocean. But the report says those methods alone might not be sufficient, in part because sterilization does not always work. It says the fish should be grown only in special inland facilities, rather than in cages in the ocean from which they might escape.

Joseph B. McGonigle, vice president of Aqua Bounty, said there were errors in the report. "They clearly don't have a full grasp of both what we're proposing and how effective the technology is," Mr. McGonigle said.

Consumer groups and the biotechnology industry differed on their interpretation of the report.

Gregory Jaffe of the Center for Science in the Public Interest said the report's conclusion that there was no foolproof bioconfinement method suggested "there is a need to have a better regulatory system that assesses whether there are any risks to begin with."

But the Biotechnology Industry Organization said in a statement that the report concluded that "technology providers have a variety of methods available to ensure confinement of organisms modified through biotechnology when risk warrants it."

In another report issued yesterday, the National Research Council said urgent action was needed to preserve the Atlantic salmon in Maine, where the fish supply has been rapidly declining. The fish there constitute most of the Atlantic salmon population in the United States. A program of removing dams should start immediately, the report said.

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