Navigation Links
Ecologist: Genetically engineered algae for biofuel pose potential risks that should be studied

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 Evolutionary Biology at the University of Kansas.

Snow has a history in this area of research. She led a study in 2002 that was the first to show that a gene artificially inserted into crop plants to fend off pests could migrate to weeds in a natural environment and make the weeds stronger. She also has served on national panels that monitor and make recommendations about the release of genetically engineered species into the environment.

There are a lot of unknowns about this area of research and development in microalgae, and that's largely because algae don't have the breeding history that, say, corn and soybeans have, Snow said. In addition, few details are publicly available because much of this information remains confidential as businesses compete to be the first to commercialize their genetically altered algae.

"We're hoping to reach several audiences - including ecologists, molecular biologists and biotech business owners - and bring them together. There's a community of people like me who study genetically engineered crops and how they interact with the environment, and we need to get this started with algae.

"There's a lot of hype and speculation about algae as a biofuel source, and it's hard to gauge exactly what's going on. We see many indications, especially funding, that private companies and the government have decided this is important and worth pursuing," Snow said. "So much will depend on the economics of it. Whether you can get a lot of energy out of algae depends on these breakthroughs with biology, technology, or both."

In the same way that certain crop plants are bred with genes to help them repel pests and tolerate harsh conditions, different species of algae are likely being genetically engineered to grow rapidly because mass quantities of these tiny species will be needed to produce adequate fuel supplies.

The authors recommend, for starters, a comparative examination of genetically engineered algae strains intended for large-scale cultivation with their natural counterparts to determine the basic differences between the two. They also acknowledged that genetically engineered algae might be equipped with so-called "suicide genes" that would make it impossible for the algae to survive a release into the wild.

"If such precautions are taken in lieu of thorough environmental assessments, more information should be required to ensure their long-term success and to prevent (genetically engineered) algae from evolving to silence or overcome biological traits that are designed to kill them," the authors wrote.

Snow also noted that before genetically engineered crop plants can be commercialized, they are grown in various outdoor environments to test their endurance under different conditions. The permitting process for these plots helps inform the government and the public about these agricultural efforts. Even if the exact genes used to engineer these crops are protected as proprietary information, the species and new traits they carry are made public.

"With algae, this can all happen in a greenhouse because they're so small. That means they're not really accessible for scientists to find out what companies are working with, and it's going to be like that until very late in the process," Snow said.

And to be clear, Snow said she and Smith are not looking to hinder these efforts.

"We're trying to be constructive and get the word out, to get the conversation going," she said.

Contact: Allison Snow
Ohio State University

Related biology news :

1. New genetically engineered mice aid understanding of incurable neuromuscular disease
2. Genetically modified corn affects its symbiotic relationship with non-target soil organisms
3. New research reveals challenges in genetically engineered crop regulatory process
4. Recapitulation of the entire hepatitis C virus life in engineered mouse cell lines
5. Ultrasound idea: Prototype NIST/CU bioreactor evaluates engineered tissue while creating it
6. Engineered microvessels provide a 3-D test bed for human diseases
7. Engineered robot interacts with live fish
8. Lab-engineered kidney project reaches early milestone
9. Success of engineered tissue depends on where its grown
10. A project to research biological and chemical aspects of microalgae to fuel approach
11. Algae biofuels: the wave of the future
Post Your Comments:
(Date:10/13/2015)... MATEO, Calif. , Oct. 13, 2015 ... real-time, machine-based learning to analyze big data and minimize ... today with Emailage , an innovative fraud prevention ... leverage transactional risk based on a user,s email address. ... a machine learning solution that combines email risk assessment ...
(Date:10/13/2015)... 13, 2015 Dragon Capital Group Corp. ... China , announced today that its wholly ... received a contract for Multi-Format Naked Eye 3D System for ... $450,000 for the project that is expected to be completed ... 35% in gross profits. --> ...
(Date:10/13/2015)... , Oct. 7, 2015 Research and ... the "India Biometrics Authentication & Identification Market - ... --> --> ... $823.46 million in 2014 to $2.06 billion in 2020 ... 2020. India . Growing ...
Breaking Biology News(10 mins):
(Date:10/13/2015)... ... , ... The shortlist of finalists for the Pistoia Alliance President’s Startup Challenge ... from across Europe and the USA. , The Startup Challenge 2015 has seen startup ... in life sciences R&D, with over 30 entries submitted. A panel of expert judges ...
(Date:10/13/2015)... , ... October 13, 2015 , ... ... Universal SuperHeat Controller/Sensor (USHX) product, launches today on the Android smartphone platform. Southern ... system with DMQ’s remote control and monitoring capability for the first time to ...
(Date:10/13/2015)... , Oct. 13, 2015  Amgen (NASDAQ: ... and Cocoon Biotech, Inc. are Amgen,s 2015 selection for ... space at LabCentral. LabCentral is an innovative, shared laboratory ... startups. Cambridge, Mass. ... ways to deliver potential life-changing therapies. --> ...
(Date:10/13/2015)... SUNNYVALE, Calif. , Oct. 13, 2015  Cepheid ... the quarter ending September 30, 2015. ... financial results, total revenue for the third quarter of ... net loss per share is expected to be approximately ... financial results, non-GAAP net loss per share for the ...
Breaking Biology Technology: