UNIVERSITY of Minnesota researchers have developed a new approach for identifying the potential environmental effects of deliberate releases of genetically engineered (GE) insects.
The researchers outlined their approach in a paper in a recent edition of the journal Ecology & Evolution. The authors include University of Minnesota entomology professor David Andow and doctoral students Aaron David in the department of ecology, evolution and behavior, Joe Kaser and Amy Morey in the department of entomology and Alex Roth in the department of forest resources.
GE insects hold great promise for significantly changing pest management and fighting insect-borne human diseases throughout the world, the university explained. Before releasing GE insects, scientists, governments and industry must examine the possible ecological effects GE insects could have by doing ecological risk assessments. The researchers' new approach provides improved guidance for such assessments, the announcement said.
"When new technology is developed, you want to make sure it's safe," Morey said. "You want to know what could happen when you release these novel organisms into the environment."
Because GE insects are such a new technology, there really isn't a standard way of evaluating that yet, Morey said, adding, "Our project is trying to get it a little bit further into a standardization — a framework for how you go about systematically evaluating a new technology so you're looking at all the sorts of different interactions that could possibly happen."
In the paper, the researchers focused on all potential ecological effects, whether an effect is adverse or beneficial, Kaser explained.
The researchers applied their own approach to the Anopheles gambiae mosquito — a malaria vector being engineered to suppress the wild mosquito population, David said. They explored possible ecological effects during the transitory phase in the short term and steady state phases of the GE mosquito in the long term, he added.
"The population isn't the same the whole time. You do have these transitory phases where the potential effects could be quite different than the effects during the steady-state phase," Kaser said.
Many risk assessments look only at the end result, Kaser said, but "our framework really tries to evaluate the entire range of potential effects."
That more comprehensive look is what sets their approach apart from others.
"We think this is a novel and important contribution because many past risk assessments that were just looking at the final population state were missing a lot of really important effects," Roth said. "That's where we think our framework can really add to identifying effects that could be important throughout this whole process."
As they worked, the researchers not only developed an approach for identifying the potential ecological effects of GE insects but also found significant knowledge gaps in mosquito ecology.
"While there's an amazing and impressive amount of research that's been done on mosquitoes, there wasn't a whole lot of information about how they might be important ecologically," Kaser said.
In the paper, they had to broaden their scope of ecological research to infer what could happen.
"The idea is that there isn't much info on what happens when you release a GE organism, so we drew upon other literature to get at the answer of what happens when you perturb populations," David said.
As GE insects become more common, the researchers said they hope their framework provides guidance that will improve future risk assessments and ensure the safety of these technologies.