In North Dakota, Genetically Modified Canola Goes Wild

By Joseph Calamia | August 6, 2010 3:19 pm

canolaEcologists recently took to the highways of North Dakota on the hunt for genetically modified canola. Along 3,000 miles of interstate, state, and county roads, they found it: 86 percent of the 406 road-side plants they collected showed evidence of modification.

Sager announced these results at this week’s Ecological Society of America meeting.

The scientists behind the discovery say this highlights a lack of proper monitoring and control of GM crops in the United States…. “The extent of the escape is unprecedented,” says Cynthia Sagers, an ecologist at the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville, who led the research team that found the canola. [Nature]

Though Sager does not believe that the modified canola will overtake North Dakota, she thinks the study is important for understanding how and to what extent a genetically modified crop can spread.

“We found the highest densities of plants near agricultural fields and along major freeways…. But we were also finding plants in the middle of nowhere–and there’s a lot of nowhere in North Dakota.” [BBC]

Specifically, the team looked for traces of a genetic modification that makes the crop resistant to herbicides. There are two manufacturers of these modified plants: Roundup Ready crops have a bacterial gene that gives them resistance to the weed-killer Roundup (glyphosate), and Liberty Link crops are resistant to glufosinate. At least two of the plants Sager found showed cross-breeding between the two varieties.

It was during a pit stop in Cavalier County that the two had an idea. “We looked through the windshield and there were these beautiful yellow flowers blooming,” Sagers recalled. They recognized the plant as canola, and wondered if it was a genetically modified variety. The duo had test strips that would detect proteins present in genetically modified canola. They walked across the parking lot, documented the plant and then tested it. Sure enough, it was a genetically modified variety resistant to herbicides. [NPR]

Despite that large percentage of GM plants in Sager’s study, many ecologists agree that the canola itself–as a domesticated plant–should not cause concern. Sampling by the road means that the plants likely resulted from trucks spreading the seed; some samples came from herbicide-sprayed areas (meaning the modified percentage is higher); and most of the plants, given their usually pampered lives, aren’t likely to survive in competition with wild plants.

Norman Ellstrand, a professor of genetics at the University of California, Riverside says that GM corn and soybeans have not made strongholds off the farm, and notes that they’re grown more often than GM canola.

“They are super-domesticated and they just don’t really like to go wild.” [New York Times]

Though GM canola might appear next to roads, Linda Hall, a researcher at the University of Alberta in Canada, says she also believe the plant is unlikely to compete in more wild terrains.

“It’s pretty spoiled — it’s used to growing in well-fertilized, clean seedbeds without competition, so it does not do well if it is having to compete with other plants.” [NPR]

Related content:
80beats: Genetically Modified Salmon May Soon Land on Your Dinner Plate
80beats: Genetically Modified Tomatoes Can Last 45 Days on the Shelf
80beats: GM Corn & Organ Failure: Lots of Sensationalism, Few Fact
80beats: India Says No to Genetically Modified Eggplants
80beats: GM Cotton in China Drives Off One Pest, But Another Sneaks In

Image: flickr / Paraflyer

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Environment, Living World
  • Rhacodactylus

    Our strains that have been modified via selective reproduction haven’t taken over and dominated the entire ecosystem, I’m not super concerned that the strains we modify in the same way but through different methods are likely to do it either.

  • Idlewilde

    Does canola grow in washington? Because it looks kind of familiar….

  • nick

    I wouldn’t underestimate the will of life to survive. Maybe not quickly, but…

    I’d also like to point out that weeds themselves are breeding RoundUp Ready varieties with no help from our super science.

  • Brian Too

    Yet. The operative word is yet!

    The creators of the GM seed claimed that Roundup resistance transfer to other species (particularly targeted weed species) was impossible or improbable, but it’s happening.

    Canola is merely a derivation of rapeseed, and wild rapeseed plants are likely still able to be cross-pollenated by canola. Whether by hybridization, mutation-driven evolution, or gene transfer (perhaps by bacterial or viral vectors), those patented, manipulated genes are loose in the wild, widely distributed, and offer selective advantages to plants that can acquire them.

    The main thing that might stop the spreading of these novel genes is the end of widespread herbicide use. And there appears to be no particular movement in that direction (even counting organic techniques and products).

    I’m pretty sure I read somewhere (I think it might have been in Discover too), that genetically manipulated species, when left in totally wild environments, usually get outcompeted by their wild counterparts. The explanation was that their manipulated gene set, when no longer faced with artificially changed environmental circumstances, imposed a metabolic cost on the organism, one that the wild species did not have. Once the selection pressures like spraying with herbicide ended, the selective advantage given by resistance genes ended and instead actually imposed a cost upon the organism.

    At least that’s how I remember it.

    However with vast acreages under agricultural regimes, and routine use of spraying, that’s not going to happen. GM crops and the genes that make them distinctive are sure to prosper even when we don’t want them to.

    That’s not a slam against all GM species. However herbicide resistant crops are a bad idea. It would be like making a poison-resistant rat, then massively deploying that poison to kill all the rats that weren’t resistant. Hey, you could kill all rats except the resistant lab rats! Sounds great, right?

    Except what if the poison resistance gene gets out, becomes widespread. Now you can’t use Warfarin anymore to destroy the occasional rat infestation, because they are all resistant to it. You’ve destroyed a working and useful control mechanism. It’s short-sighted.

  • Georg

    someone raised in the countryside, I wold
    recommend this story to be shifted to the
    headline “ROFL”.

  • Melissa

    The widespread dispersion of patented genes presents problems whether or not the GMO plants are able to out compete wild vegetation. Farmers can be (and have been) sued for damages by the patent owners for saving seed which contains patented genes even if they had never planted a GMO crop or utilized the enhanced trait.

  • Jockaira

    “…and there’s a lot of nowhere in North Dakota.”

    The truly funniest phrase I’ve read this past week!

  • scribbler

    Y’all seem to be missing the whole point here. That point is that this stuff was s’posed to be contained and monitored and all and yet it is free in the environment. What will be the outcome?

    Well, we just don’t know, do we?

    However, if you look back at what happens when nonindigenous species are introduced by man, the prospects are rather dismal, are they not?

  • Zachary

    Often the prospects are actually fairly positive, such as the Agricultural revolution that allowed for centralized stationary societies and culture to flourish.

  • Merri Bee

    Altered gene canola surviving and breeding in the wild, a brassica related to 30 or more vegetables we eat and a few common weeds which it will crossbreed with readily. In Japan teams of volunteers go out testing brassica plants for GM. They have found Roundup Ready mustard plants, RR broccoli ect.


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