Scientists under fire for irresponsibly testing genetically engineered microalgae in open ponds

Field testing of GMO plants has been a controversial issue since its inception. The world’s first open field experiment of genetically modified organisms took place almost exactly 30 years ago, in 1987 — and the practice is no less frowned upon today, as concerns about the environmental impact of GMOs remain high.

Scientists from the University of California at San Diego (UCSD) and Sapphire Energy are now facing hefty criticism for their experimentation with genetically engineered algae open ponds. Their open-pond trials have taken the controversy of testing out in the environment to new heights. As Dana Perls, a senior campaigner for Friends of the Earth, explains, “This study confirmed that genetically engineered microalgae grown in open ponds will escape and spread into the environment. Once this genie is out of the bottle, there is no way to put it back.”

“Not only is it impossible to contain GE algae in open air production, but there are currently no adequate regulations which fully address its risks to our environment, from lab to final product. Without this essential oversight, there should be no environmental release or commercial uses of GE algae and other synthetic biology organisms,” Perls noted further.

The open-pond experiment led by UCSD and Sapphire Energy is the first-ever EPA-approved outdoor field trial of GM algae, according to the researchers. Of course, one can’t help but wonder if trials have been conducted without EPA approval, but that’s another discussion entirely. Regardless, a total of five lakes were reportedly tested on, according to the study’s abstract.

As you may know, microalgae are an essential part of the ecosystem. Not only is algae an integral part of the food chain for marine life, it also provides a substantial portion of the oxygen in our atmosphere. Because microalgae reproduce quickly and exhibit what’s known as “horizontal gene transfer,” the potential for GM traits to spread like wildfire through native algae populations is extremely concerning. As Eco Watch explains, there are also concerns that the GM traits may not remain stable over time, and could change over time and inevitably, spiral out of control.

Dr. Rachel Smolker, the director of Biofuelwatch says that despite the claims that GE microalgae will not survive in the wild, there are significant reasons to believe otherwise. Smolker contends that many of the traits that would make GE algae desirable for industrial purposes (such as fuel production) would also be preferential and make it more competitive in the wild. Some of these traits include resistance to predators or pests, better conversion of nutrients and strengthened photosynthesis. Even the increased resilience for withstanding industrialized cultivation could lend GE microalgae a competitive edge over its native brethren. [RELATED: Learn more about the issue of genetic modification at]

Smolker continues by saying, “The tests performed by UCSD scientists were of very limited scope and little assurance that GMO microalgae are ‘safe.’ Meanwhile, we need to ask ourselves: Are these products worth the money and worth the risks to our health and environment?”

While microalgae may seem harmless, they are capable of forming harmful algae blooms — and the chemical fertilizers used in modern farming practices are boosting their growth already. Algae blooms suck up nitrogen from water while they grow — and when they die, they further deplete bodies of water of valuable oxygen. As this repeats and algae blooms grow larger, they create what’s known as “dead zones” in large swathes across the Earth’s oceans. Right now, where the Mississippi River meets the Gulf, there is a dead zone that is reportedly the size of New Jersey, and with current farming practices as they are, there is little hope for it to recover life anytime soon. GE algae could very well make the problem of algae blooms and ocean dead zones worse, should it thrive and spread across wild algae populations and into other waterways.


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