Ecological biosafety and gene flow

Image of Laying out field experiment in the Carse of GowrieThe agroecology group at SCRI continues to make major contributions through research and extension to questions on GM crops. We examine their potential roles in cropping systems, their positive and negative environmental effects, the movement of genetic material through pollen and seed and the  means by which GM and other crops might coexist in European agriculture. We combine knowledge of biology, modelling and molecular science to answer some of the most important topical questions in ecological biosafety. All our findings are made public. Members of the group are regularly invited to advise national and international commissions in biosafety and to develop training methods for environmental risk assessment.

Research projects

Knowledge and expertise is applied here in pollen and seed biology, GM diagnostics, trophic interactions,  population modelling and farmland ecology. The group and its collaborators pioneered landcape-scale approaches to geneflow and impacts. The group was part of the consortium that carried out the largest GM crop trials - the Farm Scale Evaluations of GM Herbicide Tolerant (GMHT) crops. It gained further international standing through a series of projects on geneflow among crops, volunteer weeds, ferals and wild relatives.  Major international collaborations followed on a pan-European synthesis of geneflow and persistence in maize, oilseed rape and beet (EU SIGMEA project); on an ecological and economic study of insect resistant maize grown in France and Denmark (EU ECOGEN); and on the development and teaching of GM risk assessment for insect resistant maize or cotton in Brazil, Kenya and Vietnam (GMO ERA project). Work is presented in the following projects:

Map showing experimental sites in the SIGMEA projectExamples of major findings and recommendations include - the largely neutral effects of insect-resistant (Bt) maize on soil ecology (ECOGEN); the negative effects of GM herbicide tolerant winter oilseed rape cropping through its encouragement of economically damaging grass weeds and suppression of biodiversity-rich broadleaf weeds (FSEs); the positive effects of GMHT maize cropping compared to the existing conventional weed management (FSEs); the prediction from modelling, since validated elsewhere, that seed persistence in oilseed rape would sometimes lead to unacceptable impurity in oilseed rape crops grown many years later in the same field; and that spatial coexistence between crops of different type (for example, GM and non-GM, high and low erucic acid rapeseed) was generally feasible. 

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Latest papers and reports

Messean, A., Squire, G., Perry, J., Angevin, F., Gomez, M., Townend, P., Sausse, C., Breckling, B., Langrell, S., Dzeroski, S., Sweet, J. 2009. Sustainable introduction of GM crops into european agriculture: a summary report of the FP6 SIGMEA research project. OCL 16(1), 37-51. (doi:10.1684/ocl.2009.0241.) PDF file of this article (1089kb).

Squire, G.R., Hawes, C., Begg, G.S., Young, M.W. 2009. Cumulative impacts of GM herbicide-tolerant cropping on arable plants assessed through species-based and functional taxonomies. Environmental Science and Pollution Research 16, 85-94. DOI: 10.1007/s11356-008-0072-6.

Cullen, D.W., Squire, G.R., McNicol, J.W, Jacobs, H.H., Osborne, J.L., Ford, L., Ramsay, G., Scrimgeour, C., Young, M.W. 2008. Development and validation of gas chromatography and real-time quantitative PCR for the quantification of landscape-scale gene flow from varieties of high erucic (HEAR) oilseed rape. Journal of the Science of Food and Agriculture 88 (13), 2253-2264. Published online: Sep 8 2008 11:30 am. DOI: 10.1002/jsfa.3340.

Hawes, C., Haughton, A.J., Bohan, D.A.,  Squire, G.R. 2009. Functional approaches for assessing plant and invertebrate abundance patterns in arable systems. Basic and Applied Ecology 10, 34-42. Published online 8 January 2008. DOI: 10.1016/j.baae.2007.11.007.

Begg, G.S., Elliott, M.J., Cullen, D.W., Iannetta, P.M.M., Squire, G.R. 2008. Heterogeneity in the distribution of genetically modified and conventional oilseed rape within fields and seed lots. Transgenic Research (doi:10.1007/s11248-008-9166-7).

Begg, G.S., Cullen, D.W., Iannetta, P.P.M., Squire, G.R. 2007. Sources of uncertainty in the quantification of genetically modified oilseed rape contamination in seed lots. Transgenic Research 16, 51-63.

Birch, A.N.E., Griffiths, B.S., Caul, S., Thompson, J., Heckmann, L.H., Krogh, P.H., Cortet, J. 2007. The role of laboratory, glasshouse and field scale experiments in understanding the interactions between genetically modified crops and soil ecosystems: A review of the ECOGEN project. Pedobiologia 51, 251-60 (doi:10.1016/j.pedobi.2007.04.008).

ECOGEN - Soil ecological and economic evaluation of genetically modified crops. Pedobiologia 51. 2007. Edited by Bryan Griffiths. Special Issue of the journal containing a range articles jointly authored by staff in the Agroecology and Plant Soil Interactions group in the EPI Programme at SCRI with their collaborators in Europe.

See project areas for a full list of scientific papers, reports and proceedings.

Selection of Annual Report Articles

Squire, G.R., Augustin, N., Bown, J., Crawford, J.W., Dunlop, G., Graham, J., Hillman, J.R., Marshall, B., Marshall, D., Ramsay, G., Robinson, D.J., Russell, J., Thompson, C., Wright, G. Gene flow in the environment - genetic pollution? (358 KB) 2000. SCRI Annual Report 1998/99, 45-54.

Robinson, D.J., Davies, H.V., Birch, A.N.E., Wilson, T.M.A., Kerby, N.W., Squire, G.R., Hillman, J.R. Development, release and regulation of GM crops (630 KB) 1998. SCRI Annual Report 1997/98, 44-53.

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International commissions  Agroecology group members have given evidence, presentations and advice to the World Trade Organisation dispute on GM crops in Europe, European biosafety commissions, EC directorates and working groups, the International Organisation for Biological Control, European GM regulatory authorities, working groups of EU member states and a range of other bodies. 

Advice to UK government departments and committees  Research findings are considered and used to inform policy on GM crops and coexistence by the Department of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra), the Advisory Committee on Releases to the Environment (ACRE), Scottish Government, Scottish Parliament, Scottish Agricultural Science Agency (SASA) and related bodies.

Teaching and training The GMO ERA project is an international collaborative venture aimed at providing tools for environmental risk assessment and ecological biosafety.  The risk assessment for a combination of locality and GM crop is drawn up by local scientists and agronomists (so far in Brazil, Kenya and Vietnam), interacting with overseas specialists.

Public awareness of biotechnology  The findings and recommendations of all our research in ecological biosafety are made public through government reports, most available free of charge, and scientific papers in journals that include Nature, Philisophical Transactions of the Royal Society B, Transgenic Research and Journal of the Science of Food and Agriculture. Members of the group give presentations on GM issues to public and scientific meetings and to visiting parties from schools and universities.

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