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Fitness and beyond: Preparing for the arrival of GM crops with ecologically important novel characters

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  07 May 2009

Mike Wilkinson
Institute of Biological Environmental and Rural Sciences, Edward Llwyd Building, Wales University, Aberystwyth, Ceredigion SY23 3DA, UK
Mark Tepfer
Plant Virology Group, ICGEB Biosafety Outstation, Via Piovega 23, 31056 Ca' Tron di Roncade, Italy


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The seemingly inexorable expansion of global human population size, significant increases in the use of biofuel crops and the growing pressures of multifunctional land-use have intensified the need to improve crop productivity. The widespread cultivation of high-yielding genetically modified (GM) crops could help to address these problems, although in doing so, steps must also be taken to ensure that any gene flow from these crops to wild or weedy recipients does not cause significant ecological harm. It is partly for this reason that new GM cultivars are invariably subjected to strict regulatory evaluation in order to assess the risks that each may pose to the environment. Regulatory bodies vary in their approach to decision-making, although all require access to large quantities of detailed information. Such an exhaustive case-by-case approach has been made tractable by the comparative simplicity of the portfolio of GM crops currently on the market, with four crops and two classes of traits accounting for almost all of the area under cultivation of GM crops. This simplified situation will change shortly, and will seriously complicate and potentially slow the evaluation process. Nowhere will the increased diversity of GM crops cause more difficulty to regulators than in those cases where there is a need to assess whether the transgene(s) will enhance fitness in a non-transgenic relative and thereafter cause ecological harm. Current practice to test this risk hypothesis focuses on attempting to detect increased fitness in the recipient. In this paper we explore the merits and shortcomings of this strategy, and investigate the scope for developing new approaches to streamline decision-making processes for transgenes that could cause unwanted ecological change.

Research Article
© ISBR, EDP Sciences, 2009


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