Measuring the flow of transgenes from GM crops into wild plants

Gene flow under contrasting levels of human disturbance

Gene flow under contrasting levels of human disturbance

Rapid development of biotechnology offers new opportunities to ensure our future food supply. Novel traits can be introduced into crops by transgene technology more efficiently than by conventional crop breeding. Since the first commercialization of a genetically modified (GM) crop in 1996, the global area of GM crops has grown steadily and reached 170·3 million hectares in 2012. Increasing numbers of GM crops with different traits are being produced and released into the environment. The introduction of new transgenes into crops has raised concerns about possible negative effects on the environment. Transgenes could move from crops into wild relatives via gene flow. Depending on the nature of the transgene and its product, such transgene flow may lead to unwanted ecological and evolutionary consequences in wild populations

The process of transgene flow from crops into wild relatives involves several steps: first, the formation of crop–wild hybrids with a transgene through hybridization between crops and wild populations; second, the establishment of the transgene in local wild populations through backcrossing with wild plants; third, the spread of the transgene across the whole metapopulation of the wild species via pollen and seed dispersal. The majority of previous studies have focused only on evaluating the first two steps of transgene introgression. A recent paper in Annals of Botany examines the role of metapopulation dynamics in transgene spread.

Wild populations close to crop fields are usually strongly affected by human disturbance. Habitat loss and fragmentation due to human disturbance may alter the level of gene flow among patches and the rate of patch turnover. If gene dispersal becomes limited under strong human disturbance, the distribution pattern of genetic diversity may change dramatically in the metapopulation. In this case, a newly emerged gene, such as a transgene in a local wild population, may not be able to spread through the metapopulation. Conversely, human-mediated dispersal may enhance connectivity among populations in areas where anthropogenic disturbance is high, which would lead to increased spread of an escaped transgene. However, it is difficult to study the effects of human disturbance and associated habitat changes on gene flow, because finding intact wild populations as controls is hard and the effects of other factors may interfere with those of human disturbance.

The authors compared historical and contemporary patterns of gene flow in a wild carrot metapopulation, testing the null hypothesis that human disturbance did not change gene flow in the metapopulation and that contemporary gene flow was similar to historical gene flow in wild carrots and aiming to answer the following questions:

  1. What is the rate of gene flow in the wild carrot metapopulation?
  2. Is contemporary gene flow equal to historical gene flow in the wild carrot metapopulation?
  3. How does the rate of gene flow affect the chance of transgene introgression into the wild carrot metapopulation?

They found that the contemporary gene flow was five times higher than the historical estimate, and the correlation between them was very low. Moreover, the contemporary gene flow in roadsides was twice that in a nature reserve, and the correlation between contemporary and historical estimates was much higher in the nature reserve. Mowing of roadsides may contribute to the increase in contemporary gene flow.

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About AJ Cann

Alan Cann is a Senior Lecturer in the Department of Biology at the University of Leicester and Internet Consulting Editor for AoB.