This is the stuff of my nightmares: Genetically-modified (GM) plants escaping the confines of agriculture and invading the wild. We thought regular invasive species were bad? They seem tame compared to genetic contamination of the wild. Even more alarming: Some of the plants had a mix of modified genes, indicating that they are reproducing on their own.
Although GM plant populations in the wild have been found in Canada, this is the first time they have been found in the United Sates.
Meredith G. Schafer, from the University of Arkansas, and colleagues established transects of land over 3000 miles long including interstate, state and county roads in North Dakota from which they collected, photographed and tested 406 canola plants.
The results show that transgenic plants have clearly established populations in the wild. Of the 406 plants collected, 347 tested positive for CP4 EPSPS protein (resistant to glyphosate herbicide, aka Roundup) or PAT protein (resistant to glufosinate herbicide, aka LibertyLink). The finding shows that genetically modified canola plants can survive and thrive in the wild perhaps for decades–the study was presented today at the annual meeting of the Ecological Society of America.
The team’s key finding was two plants that each carried both types of herbicide resistance — a combination that is not commercially available. The only way this can happen in the wild is if the plants are reproducing on their own. “There were two instances of multiple transgenes in single individuals,” said coauthor Cynthia Sagers, University of Arkansas. “Varieties with multiple transgenic traits have not yet been released commercially, so this finding suggests that feral populations are reproducing and have become established outside of cultivation. These observations have important implications for the ecology and management of native and weedy species, as well as for the management of biotech products in the U.S.”
Once a GM crop is released it cannot be unreleased, and there are no systems in place to prevent genetic contamination through pollen flow, spills or human error. Although the GM plants found by the roadside are assumed to be the result of escaped seeds during transportation, the GM plants found away from roads suggest that the plants are taking on a life of their own.