Brussels, 19 June 2002
The introduction of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) into wild animal populations has a greater theoretical risk of extinction of natural species than previously thought, according to two scientists working at a US university.
The warning from William Muir and Richard Howard, both professors at the USA's Purdue University, will add to the current debate in Europe about genetic modification technology.
They used computer modelling and statistical analysis to research the hypothetical risk of mixing GMOs with wild populations. Their work, which identifies three new scenarios in which the introduction of GMOs could lead to the death of a natural species, shows the risk is higher than was previously thought.
Mr Muir, a professor of animal sciences, said: 'In the broadest sense, this research tells one how to do risk assessment and what GMOs need further containment.'
In one scenario, researchers found that a release of larger fish, which had a higher mating success but shorter life-spans, could drive a wild population to extinction in less than 40 generations.
Another scenario examined genetic modification which increases the size of male fish, with the result that they find more mates and live longer, but also become less fertile. The predicted result of this is that the wild population would become extinct in less than 20 generations.
The researchers also found scenarios in which the introduced gene could spread through the population but not reduce the overall population size. Mr Howard, who is professor of biology, said: 'This invasion risk is an unknown in assessing the overall risk. Given the biology, all we can say is that the gene would increase in the population. We don't know if that would cause a problem or not.'
The Purdue University research is part of an ongoing effort by the university and the US department of agriculture's Biotechnology Risk Assessment programme to assess the risks of biotechnology.
'Consumer confidence in the use of transgenic technology will only happen if there is a thorough, unbiased examination of the risks,' said Professor Muir.