Eco-detector to Hunt GMOs in the Environment

Kelly MarshallGMO, Research, USDA

gmo-hunt While the agriculture community generally lauds the efforts of biotechnology in feeding the world, many doubt the technology’s safety.  That’s why Scott Egan with Rice University is leading an effort to detect GMOs in the environment.

Egan’s team is building a tool that will allow them to quantify and track the dispersal of genetically engineered crops and animals.  The developing technology lets researchers test water samples for DNA specific to modifications, like the Bt protein.

“Bt-corn is a good example,” Egan said. “This genetically modified corn has a gene from bacteria that kills some of the herbivorous insects that attack it. It’s a wonderful invention that lets us produce more corn per unit area.  But then that corn and the detritus — the leaves, stems and roots — get into the creek system. And lo and behold, a very close relative to the herbivores that attack the corn is the caddisfly, which lives within the aquatic system.”

Egan worries about the negative impacts damage to caddisflies would have on the ecosystem, and notes that a study has already found Bt proteins in the water systems of a county in Indiana.

“That’s the spirit behind the grant,” he said. “We have these wonderful (genetic) technologies but we should also have the tools to detect them if they get outside their intended ranges.”

The technology is being developed with consecutive grants totaling about $1 million from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture, funneled through its Biotechnology Risk Assessment Research Grants. The funding has made possible an ambitious plan to outline where and how genetically modified organisms could impact nature.

It’s an interesting new technology that might have implications for those involved in agriculture.  You can follow these developments on Eagn’s website.