Algae, now high on the genetic-engineering agenda as a potential source for biofuel, including automotive applications, should undergo independent studies of any environmental risks that could result from its redesign and cultivation, two American researchers say.
Allison Snow, professor of evolution, ecology and organismal biology at The Ohio State University and aquatic ecologist Val Smith, a professor in the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at the University of Kansas, say ecology experts should be among scientists given independent authority and adequate funding to explore any potential unintended consequences of developing genetically engineered (GE) algae.
They say that, in the same way some crop plants are bred with genes to help them repel pests and tolerate harsh conditions, different species of algae likely are being genetically engineered to grow rapidly, because mass quantities of these tiny species would be needed to produce adequate fuel supplies.
“There's a lot of hype and speculation about algae as a biofuel source, and it's hard to gauge exactly what's going on,” Snow says in a statement. “We see many indications, especially funding, that private companies and the government have decided this is important and worth pursuing.
“So much will depend on the economics of it. Whether you can get a lot of energy out of algae depends on these breakthroughs with biology, technology or both.”
Writing in the journal BioScience, they say a fundamental concern is whether genetically engineered algae would be able to survive in the wild.
“If they're grown in big, open ponds, which is mainly what we’re talking about, could the newer types of microalgae get out into nature and mingle?” Snow asks. “We need to know if they can survive and whether they can hybridize or evolve to become more prolific when they get out of a controlled environment.
“If they can survive, we also need to know whether some types of genetically engineered blue-green algae, for example, could produce toxins or harmful algal blooms – or both.”
The researchers say because algae are so small and could be dispersed by rough weather or wildlife activity, they’re concerned that any transgenes they contain to enhance their growth and strength could be transferred to other species in a way that could upset a fragile ecosystem.
They recommend, for starters, a comparative examination of GE algae strains intended for large-scale cultivation with their natural counterparts to determine the basic differences between the two.
Snow and Smith suggest GE algae might be equipped with so-called suicide genes that would make it impossible for the algae to survive a release into the wild.
“If such precautions are taken in lieu of thorough environmental assessments, more information should be required to ensure their long-term success and to prevent (GE) algae from evolving to silence or overcome biological traits that are designed to kill them,” the researchers say.
Snow led research in 2002 that was the first to show a gene artificially inserted into crop plants to fend off pests could migrate to weeds in a natural environment and make the weeds stronger.
Before genetically engineered crop plants can be commercialized, they are grown in various outdoor environments to test their endurance under varying conditions.
The permitting process for these plots helps inform the government and the public about these efforts. Even if the exact genes used to engineer these crops are protected as proprietary information, the species and new traits they carry are made public.
“With algae, this can all happen in a greenhouse because they're so small,” Snow says. “That means they're not really accessible for scientists to find out what companies are working with, and it's going to be like that until very late in the process.”
Snow says there are many unknowns about this area of research and development in microalgae, and that's largely because algae don't have a breeding history like that of corn and soybeans.
In addition, few details are publicly available because much of the information is kept confidential by businesses competing to be the first to commercialize their genetically altered algae.
"We're hoping to reach several audiences, including ecologists, molecular biologists and biotech business owners, and bring them together,” says Snow, who has served on national panels that monitor and make recommendations about the release of genetically engineered species into the environment.
“There's a community of people like me who study genetically engineered crops and how they interact with the environment, and we need to get this started with algae.”