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Genetically Modified Organisms

GMO crops can lead to ecological risks such as superweeds and pest resistance | Photo: Environment CanadaCanada is the third largest producer of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) in the world. As the cultivation of GMO crops intensifies and expands, ecological risks are emerging, such as superweeds, pest resistance, and adverse effects on non-target organisms. GMO animals such as fish are also being developed, raising additional concerns about potential environmental risks. As yet, there is little information available on the potential adverse effects of GMOs on aquatic ecosystems.

Environmental scientists do not yet know what long-term impacts on biodiversity and ecosystem function could result from dispersing GMOs and related products such as herbicides and Bt toxins (Bacillus thuringiensis toxins) in the environment, what effects they could have on indigenous microorganisms and invertebrates in streams and soils, and what threats they might pose to water quality.

The research activities in Environment Canada address the deficiency of much needed regulatory information and relevant field data on potential environmental effects of the commercial release of GMOs. Little information about their long-term effects on aquatic ecosystems is available. Federal GMO policy makers and regulators require sound scientific information generated from Canadian aquatic ecosystems to validate and refine GMO policies. Environment Canada scientists conduct a wide range of research to ensure the health and sustainability of Canadian aquatic ecosystems.

Water S&T Research

To detect and monitor the spread and persistence of GMOs in aquatic ecosystems, Environment Canada researchers are studying the survival of free transgene DNA in water samples from different sources and potential horizontal gene transfer, and the possible presence of GMO related products such as Bt toxins in wetlands and ponds, occurring as a result of leaching and runoff. They have also conducted studies to examine the survival of model microbial GMOs in laboratory microcosms and make pre-release predictions about their environmental fate.

Scientists are building a molecular database on biodiversity and functional gene abundance in aquatic ecosystems. This information serves as baseline data of pre-GMO release conditions to compare with post-release conditions to enable researchers to detect and monitor trends and adverse changes in biodiversity and ecosystem functions.

A federal government initiative, led by Environment Canada, is applying DNA microarray technology and other molecular techniques to better characterize microbial biotechnology products and detect the presence of indicator species or potentially harmful microorganisms.

In addition, Environment Canada is developing and applying genomics techniques to characterize the role of a particular, natural organism – as defined by genetic activity – in the functioning of an aquatic ecosystem, so that changes in that role, as a response to the presence of GMOs, can be perceived and monitored, and the consequences of the GMO presence to ecosystem functioning can be better understood.

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