COLUMBUS, Ohio - Algae are high on the genetic engineering agenda as a potential source for biofuel, and they should be subjected to independent studies of any environmental risks that could be linked to cultivating algae for this purpose, two prominent researchers say.
Writing in the August 2012 issue of the journal BioScience, the researchers argue that ecology experts should be among scientists given independent authority and adequate funding to explore any potential unintended consequences of this technological pursuit.
A critical baseline concern is whether genetically engineered algae would be able to survive in the wild, said Allison Snow, professor of evolution, ecology and organismal biology at Ohio State University and lead author of the paper.
"If they're grown in big, open ponds, which is mainly what were talking about, could the newer types of microalgae get out into nature and mingle? We need to know if they can survive and whether they can hybridize or evolve to become more prolific when they get out of a controlled environment," Snow said.
"If they can survive, we also need to know whether some types of genetically engineered blue-green algae, for example, could produce toxins or harmful algal blooms - or both," Snow noted.
And because algae are so small and could be dispersed by rough weather or wildlife activity, biologists worry that any transgenes they contain to enhance their growth and strength could be transferred to other species in a way that could upset a fragile ecosystem.
"The applications are new and the organisms are less well-known. They range from being very tame 'lab rats' that won't survive in nature to wild organisms that can presumably cross with each other unless some measures are taken to prevent crossing. It's a very new situation," Snow said.
Snow co-authored the article with aquatic ecologist Val Smith, a professor in the Department of Ecology and Ev
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Ohio State University