Corps researchers identify five strategies for assessing genetically engineered organisms’ environmental impact

Published March 8, 2018
A child throws a rock into a body of water with her dog poised to jump in after it. Looming large in the foreground are genetically engineered microbes and a strand of DNA.

A child throws a rock into a body of water with her dog poised to jump in after it. Looming large in the foreground are genetically engineered microbes and a strand of DNA. (Army Research Laboratory)

VICKSBURG, Miss. (Feb. 23, 2018) -- Dr. Chris Warner, Dr. Richard Lance, Dr. Fiona Crocker and Dr. Edward Perkins at the U.S. Army Engineer Research and Development Center and four colleagues from other federal and private organizations recently identified five priority planning strategies that should be implemented before new genetically engineered organisms are developed for release into the environment. “These strategies will be important for assessing environmental impacts of these organisms,” Warner said.

The group will publish a technical report on the topic in the spring of 2018.

Warner, a research scientist with ERDC’s Environmental Laboratory, led the effort. “After attending an ERDC-sponsored case-study-based workshop in May 2017 on research needs for assessing environmental impacts of synthetic biology, a group of us analyzed all the ideas generated by workshop participants and others, developed the ideas further, and then honed them to a list of five high-priority strategies,” he said.

The multidisciplinary field of synthetic biology is advancing so quickly, researchers have difficulty agreeing upon a definition for what it is. “Synthetic biology usually refers to a range of advanced biotechnologies,” Warner said. “The definition also usually involves using engineering concepts to manipulate biology.”
“It’s essentially redesigning organisms so that they can perform new functions; one way is by taking the genetic code linked with desirable traits from one organism and transferring that code to another organism to give that second organism the desired traits.”

“Within the U.S., synthetic biology and its applications are currently estimated to be a multi-billion dollar industry and growing rapidly. While many of the next generation of products will be similar to existing biotechnology products, others are likely to be novel, and likely will be released into the environment.” 

“These technologies may challenge our current regulatory and environmental risk assessment frameworks,” Warner said.

“The first priority of every genetic engineer should be to develop an overarching model for environmental impacts. The model tells us how large a master plan we need to figure out how animals and weather will interact with the organism.” 

“If we genetically engineer a plant that the wind will pollinate, we need to know how wind, rain, and snow will affect that plant and make sure the plant does what it’s supposed to and not affect things it’s not supposed to.”

Warner said that fate and transport models that describe where the organism will go and what it will interact with in the environment are also important. “We need to predict whether the organism can get into groundwater — and if we think the organism can, we need to predict whether it will be carried to a place where it could interact with other elements in the environment.” Warner said.

Control and stability strategies are a third priority. “If we do think the organism is going to interact with other environments, we want to make sure it reacts where and how we want it to,” he said. 

“One common stability strategy we employ is to knock out nutrient pathways. For example, if a plant needs phosphorus to survive and we want to control that plant, we design it so that it has to be provided a supply of phosphorus in a laboratory setting, and the plant will be unlikely to absorb that element from the environment.” 

A fourth priority the team identified is assessing monitoring and surveillance capabilities to keep track of the genetically engineered organism. “We need to figure out ahead of time how often and where we check for the organism, and how long we check,” Warner said. 

“If the plant or microbes are going to degrade in the environment, do we check next week, three months from now, or ten years from now? Then there’s the geographical dimension: do we check a meter away or ten meters away?”

The fifth priority concerns consideration of regulatory and containment practices — which, Warner believes, are still in their infancy. “Genetically engineered organisms are regulated in complex ways, with some technologies potentially falling through cracks in the oversight. At this point in time, all containment protocols should be strictly followed, and if something is going to be released into the environment, all the affected communities should be informed about it,” he said.

“Having a concept of how genetically engineered organisms interact with the environment is vital, both for research institutions and for do-it-yourself genetic engineers.”  

The U.S. Army Engineer Research and Development Center is one of the most diverse research organizations in the world, with seven laboratories located in four states and more than 2,100 employees, more than $1 billion in world class facilities and an annual program exceeding $1 billion. The U.S. Army Engineer Research and Development Center supports the Department of Defense and other agencies in military and civilian projects. Principal research mission areas include Soldier support, military installations, environment, water resources and information technology.