Genetically Modified Organisms for Biofuels: Boom or Bust?
February 16, 2009
By Benjamin Pavlik
Ben is a master student at Keck Graduate Institute in Claremont, CA – www.kgi.edu
Genetically modified organisms (GMOs) have been developed and used by both pharmaceutical and agricultural biotechnology industries to change the characteristics of an organism for the benefit its manipulators – i.e. increase product yields or to produce novel products with respect to the host organism. These techniques are so revolutionary that they have bolstered the success of biotech firms such as Genentech and Amgen. However, agricultural recombinant DNA (DNA recombined from different sources which would never occur in nature) technology is not currently accepted in practice by many countries, including the entire European Union (EU), because of the issue of “gene flow.” This issue may produce a real barrier to the biofuels industry, and in particular for GM algae and synthetic biological systems. Unless contained, GMOs will hurt the environments in which they arecreated to benefit.
Past experiences in agricultural biotechnology have shown us that because the principles of population genetics and EU perspectives such as the “precautionary principle” that without a physical barrier around the GMO, we are not able to control the passing of genetically modified traits into the natural populations. The impacts of these transmissions not only effect wild populations of similar species, but can also affect the ecology of the environment in which the transmission occurred, and therefore produce unpredictable catastrophic effects. Even though these concepts created barriers for recombinant agriculture during the late 20th century, GMOs are now being developed for industrial use in renewable energy production.
Metabolic engineering of bacteria and algae for the purpose of producing recombinant products has been conducted by many biofuel startups. Many of these products have not yet gone into full-scale production, but plans are being laid. Closed bioreactors are intended to be used to grow these cell types and contain the gene flow to the external environment. However, these are not fool-proof scenarios.
Due to the high transmission of water as a vector, GM marine algae entering the watershed can travel to the ocean and out-compete natural algae for resources. Imagine a sea of algae which consumes all available nutrients to produce a thick layer of oil-rich cells on the surface of the ocean. Because these algae may be able to genetically recombine (have sex) with natural strains, invasive traits may spread to all populations before reaching the ocean. These are scenarios which are detrimental to riparian ecologies and the life of our oceans. GMOs could damage the environments they seek to save.
Further investigation is necessary to assess the effects of releasing GM algae into the environment, and the probability of this occurrence. There are currently many organization devoted to the remediation of non-recombinant ecological takeovers by “weed” organisms (invasive species). The Center for Invasive Plant Management (http://www.weedcenter.org/index.html ) is one such organization working to restore the ecological effects of natural plant populations. In the future, if GM biofuel strains are accidentally released, it may be too late to form such organizations and conduct remediation.
Future bioreactors intended to collect the energy of the sun will need improvement so as to prevent the release of genetically modified algae. Synthetic organisms will, without question, need to be strictly contained. We are fortunate enough to be able to prevent future ecological catastrophes due to the transmission of genetically modified organisms at this point in time. Research is needed to assess the transmission of GM cells in the production of biofuels before full-scale implementation. Without this, we may be shooting ourselves in the environmentally-friendly foot.