BioTip pilot study: Genetic innovations as a trigger for phase transitions in the population dynamics of animals and plants (GeneTip)
GeneTip project publishes initial results: First German-led prospective technology assessment of gene drives
The GeneTip research project was a joint enterprise carried out from 2017 until 2019 by the Universities of Bremen and Vechta, the University of Natural Resources and Life Sciences, Vienna and Testbiotech, Munich. The researchers focused mainly on risks associated with the uncontrolled spread of newly designed genetically engineered organisms into the environment. In particular, the project examined plants and animals with a so-called gene-drive applying methods of prospective technology assessment and environmental risk analysis coupled with a regulatory system based on the precautionary principle. The researchers included two detailed case studies, one with genetically engineered olive flies and one with oilseed rape, to substantiate the issues. The project was funded by the German Federal Ministry of Education and Research (BMBF) and coordinated by the University of Bremen. A presentation of the results has now been published in German, giving a detailed overview of the technical characteristics of gene drives as well as associated risks. → read more [PDF]
The institutions involved are the Department of Technological Design and Development, University of Bremen, Germany; Chair of Landscape Ecology, University of Vechta, Germany and Center for Environmental Research and Sustainable Technology (UFT), General and Theoretical Ecology, University of Bremen, Germany; the Institute of Safety/Security and Risk Sciences (ISR), University of Natural Resources and Life Sciences, Vienna (BOKU), Austria; Testbiotech, Munich, Germany. The results give an in-depth overview of current technological developments of so-called gene drives and discuss hazard and exposure potentials and the vulnerability of the potentially targeted agroecosystems.
Gene drives are designed to spread genetically engineered organisms rapidly through natural populations. In populations with sexual reproduction, genetic characteristics are normally distributed with a 50% probability to the offspring. The gene drive mechanism, however, interferes with the process of natural inheritance, aiming to pass the new genetic information to almost 100% of the following generations. There are ongoing debates about using gene drives to combat insects such as mosquitoes (vector-borne diseases) and fruit flies (agricultural pests), or rodents such as mice and rats (invasive species). The aim is to suppress or eradicate the target species within a region or to replace it with genetically engineered populations.
Until now, in most cases the aim has been to prevent as far as possible the spread of genetically engineered organisms. Now, however, gene drive organisms can resp. are designed to persist and propagate in the environment within natural populations over longer periods of time. This leads to unprecedented risks: new unintended characteristics can emerge in following generations. The extremely extended degree of exposure leads to unmanageable interactions within ecosystems. Therefore, comprehensive prospective technology characterisation and assessment of associated risks are vital. Special emphasis was placed on criteria of technology assessment, including depth of intervention, reliability and possibilities of intervention resp. correction wherever threats of harm to people or the environment emerge. Also included was a vulnerability analysis with special emphasis on weak spots and tipping points in the systems concerned.
As the results of GeneTip show, the technical and biological characteristics of the organisms, including their ability to persist and become invasive, are decisive for the dynamics of the targeted populations as well as their potential for gene flow to other species. In addition, there may be distinct interactions with the environment and the ecosystems in which the organisms propagate and spread.
The GeneTip project results show that serious scientific concerns could be identified even at an early stage of the technical developments. These comprehensible reasons for concern should be taken very seriously, and should, in the face of far-reaching uncertainties and the extent of non-knowledge of possible consequences, constitute the starting point for measures according to the precautionary principle.