Gene Drive Organisms: method with uncertain implications for the environment and nature conservation

New report from European environmental protection and nature conservation agencies

© Joerg Voss

(Vienna, April 9, 2020) New methods in biotechnology aim to genetically modify wild animal populations to curb disease transmission and stop the spread of invasive species. The genetic change takes place in the animals themselves and not only in the laboratory (as was previously the case). Genetically modified or newly introduced traits can spread independently in wild populations by inheritance. Because GDOs (gene drive organisms) can spread indefinitely in space and time, the effects on the environment and ecosystems are difficult to predict and potentially irreversible. A new report prepared by the European environmental protection and nature conservation agencies, including the Umweltbundesamt –  Environment Agency Austria, summarises the status of the applications discussed in the literature. It outlines possible effects on the environment and nature conservation and shows the challenges GDOs pose to risk assessment and monitoring.

In contrast to the classic GMOs (genetically modified organisms), GDOs (gene drive organisms) are used to spread particular genetic alterations in the environment through the modification of wild animals instead of cultivated plants. They are intended for use against pathogens, pests and invasive species and also for use in nature conservation. With gene drives, mosquitoes modified to prevent the spread of malaria or gene drive mice can be used to control invasive species. “Due to the complexity of gene drive organisms and their interactions with the environment, methods for risk assessment, monitoring and risk management have to be developed and tested. At the same time, social and ethical issues must be clarified before GDOs are released into the environment,” summarises Helmut Gaugitsch, head of biodiversity at the Environment Agency Austria.

 

It is currently difficult to assess the specific effects of gene drive organisms on the environment and nature conservation. The authors of the report address possible negative effects such as the extinction of populations or species, long-term and irreversible changes to food chains and ecosystems, and losses of biodiversity.

 

The report “Gene Drive Organisms – Implicatons for the environment and nature conservation” was initiated and prepared by the interest group of the European environmental protection and nature conservation agencies on genetically modified organisms (IG GMOs). The interest group promotes information exchange on environmental risk assessment and the monitoring of genetically modified organisms. The aim of IG GMOs is to prepare a common and consolidated position of the European environmental protection and nature conservation agencies so that environmental aspects, as well as risk assessment and monitoring, are given more attention in the approval process of GMOs. The report is supported by eight European environmental protection agencies, which include the Environment Agency Austria, the Swiss Federal Office for the Environment (FOEN), the German Federal Agency for Nature Conservation (BfN), the Italian agencies ISPRA and SNPA, the Finnish Environment Institute SYKE, the Lithuanian Research Centre for Agriculture and Forestry LAMMC and ERA, and the Environment Authority of Malta.

 

Further information

Sabine Enzinger, Press Officer, Tel +43 1 31304-5488, E-Mail sabine.enzinger@umweltbundesamt.at