A model to determine the environmental risks of genetically modified organisms, or GMOs, has been developed by two Purdue University researchers.

William Muir, professor of animal science, and Richard Howard, professor of biology, were funded by USDA’s Biotechnology Risk Assessment Program to develop a method to assess the environmental risk posed by genetically modified fish. They have expanded the model to include all sexually reproducing organisms, which includes most animals and plants.

Muir says that such an objective test to assess environmental risk could actually make biotechnology more readily accepted by those currently opposed to it, even if the model points out more problems.

"I think this model could be a first step to the acceptance of biotechnology," Muir says. "Without having rules or a way of regulating or measuring risk, biotechnology will never be accepted. Now we have an objective, science-based method to measure risk. If a genetically modified organism shows little or no risk with this set of tests in a laboratory environment, we’re confident that in nature’s more stringent conditions, the organism will be even less of a risk."

Using the model, academic scientists, corporations and government regulatory agencies can screen genetically modified plants and animals to determine if their introduction into the environment could result in an environmental risk.

"What we have here is a model that makes scientific sense, one that makes common sense," Howard says. "We don’t know whether it makes nature sense, but we can’t put transgenically modified fish into the ocean and watch what happens. So this is the best we can do."

The model to assess biotech risks looks at factors related to viability and the ability to reproduce, and measures:

o Juvenile viability – ability of a plant or animal to live long enough to reproduce.

o Age at sexual maturity – age at which plants or animals begin to breed.

o Female fecundity – ability to produce eggs in animals or seeds in plants.

o Male fertility – ability of a male to fertilize eggs or seeds.

o Mating advantage – ability to attract mates in animals or pollinators in plants.

o Adult viability – number of breeding opportunities an animal or plant has during its lifetime.