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Ecology of Transgenic Crops

Genetically engineered plants might generate weed problems and affect nontarget organisms, but measuring the risk is difficult

Michelle Marvier

Creating New Weeds

The release of organisms with novel phenotypes bears similarities to the introduction of non-native species. Many well-documented examples reveal non-native plants, including kudzu and purple loosestrife, becoming aggressive weeds with devastating environmental and economic consequences. Sometimes, introduced plants invade successfully because no insect herbivores attack them. Consequently, insect-resistant transgenic plants might be more likely to become invasive weeds than would the parental variety.

Moreover, hybridization between a transgenic crop and a related noncrop plant can spread novel traits to additional species, which further complicates the analysis of the risk of creating new weeds. For example, Norman Ellstrand and his colleagues at the University of California at Riverside found that 12 of the world's 13 most important food crops hybridize with wild relatives in some part of their distributions. If a transgenic crop can hybridize with nearby wild relatives, the transfer of genes will be virtually inevitable once farmers plant the crop on a commercial scale. As a result, insect-resistance traits could create aggressive weeds from either the crop or, more likely, from related noncrop species. Still, some scientists argue that the escape of insect-resistance genes into wild populations would not substantially increase the population growth rate of wild plants.

Without direct field results indicating how herbivore-resistant crops could generate weeds, some insight can be gained from ecological experiments on herbivory in natural plant populations. To quantify the impact of herbivores, scientists often manipulate the number of herbivores attacking plants and then measure changes in plant growth or reproduction. To speculate on the future impacts of transgenic crops, an investigator must summarize a large collection of such studies across many species and situations, which can be done with a statistical approach called meta-analysis. Peter Kareiva of the Marine Fisheries Service and I applied this method to results reported in 18 different publications that involved 52 different plant-herbivore combinations. We found an extraordinarily large average effect of herbivory: Plants protected against invertebrate—primarily insect—herbivores produced more reproductive structures than did 81 percent of unprotected plants. Thus any herbivore-resistance trait is likely to confer a substantial advantage, which could easily increase the occurrence of weeds. Although increases in seed production do not always translate into enhanced weediness, limitations on seed production do constrain many natural plant populations, at least in some years. Consequently, insect-resistance genes could cause nondomesticated relatives of transgenic crops to become weeds.

The analogy between the commercial-scale planting of transgenic crops and the introduction of non-native plant species suggests several additional factors to consider when assessing the risks associated with transgenic crops. First, the vast majority of introduced plant species cause no serious environmental problems. Accordingly, most transgenic crops will probably pose little threat to the environment. As in plant introductions, though, a small percentage of transgenic varieties might become serious pests that cause vast economic and environmental damage. Second, even introduced plants that become aggressive weeds often remain relatively uncommon for long periods before becoming problematic. For example, Mimosa pigra, or catclaw mimosa, was a minor weed in Australia for about a century before it expanded dramatically and excluded other plants over large areas. In addition, my colleagues and I searched historical reconstructions of plant invasions and found many examples of remarkably long lags between the time of a plant's introduction and the detection of weed spread. Although there would be enormous pressure to discontinue monitoring efforts of transgenic crops if weeds have not been detected after many years, we must remember that detection lags can be quite long and that effective monitoring might require 30 or more years of sampling.

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