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New EU project

AMIGA: Coordinating European research on GM plants and their impacts

How can environmental risk assessments of GM plants be standardised within Europe whilst making allowances for the diversity of Europe’s agro-ecosystems? A consortium of research institutions from all over Europe has been considering this matter since December 2011. Two teams from Germany are involved and are focusing on bees and soil micro-organisms, continuing the biosafety research in these areas funded by Germany’s Federal Ministry of Education and Research.

Using Bt maize and fungus-resistant potatoes as an example, the AMIGA consortium is investigating to what extent the results of biosafety research from one European farming region are transferable to other regions.

Environmental conditions, patterns in agricultural land use and conservation aims vary significantly from one part of Europe to another. The ecological and economic impacts of GM crop cultivation could therefore be different as well. For instance, when assessing oilseed rape and sugar beet in Europe it is important to know whether the potential cultivation areas contain related wild plants that the crop plants could cross with. When assessing potatoes, it is important to know whether they can overwinter in the soil and germinate again the following spring or whether the winters in the potential cultivation areas are so cold that any potatoes left in the ground would freeze. These kinds of biogeographical characteristics play a role in the risk assessments of GM plants.

The aim of the AMIGA research consortium (Assessing and Monitoring the Impacts of Genetically modified plants on Agro-ecosystems) is to draw up specific proposals for making risk assessments of GM plants more standardised whilst making allowances for the diversity of European agro-ecosystems. AMIGA is being funded within the EU’s Seventh Framework Programme (FP7) and will run until the end of 2015.

A wide range of different agro-ecosystems are being selected: some without GMOcultivation and some in which Bt maize and fungus-resistant potatoes are grown. The scientists will characterise the composition and functioning of the living communities and investigate potential impacts of the GM plants on selected organisms. In addition, they will investigate which groups and species are of particular importance in the different ecosystems and would make suitable bioindicators.

The idea is to use the findings to develop recommendations on which experiments should be conducted with which organisms under which environmental conditions when a particular GM plant is to be assessed. The scientists will be producing recommendations for the first-time authorisation of GMOs and for post-market monitoring. In addition, model calculations and simulations will be used to estimate the financial and economic impacts of GMO cultivation for different European regions.

The 22 consortium partners come from 15 EU countries and Argentina. Three are from Germany and two of them were involved in the BMBF-funded research on Bt maize until 2011. Both teams are using these research projects as a basis.

Ingolf Steffan-Dewenter and Stephan Härtel from the University of Würzburg will be continuing their work with bees within AMIGA. There are plans for field and laboratory experiments. They are recording numbers of pollinating insects, including wild bees and bumblebees, in various agricultural landscapes in Europe. They are also setting up honeybee colonies with pollen traps fitted in their hives at various sites where crops are grown that can be genetically modified (e.g. maize). This is to investigate to what extent bees use, and therefore come into contact with, the pollen from these crops.

Laboratory experiments will test possible impacts of pollen from GM plants on the larval stage of bees, which is particularly sensitive. This trial will make use of the in-vitro larval test developed within the BMBF-funded research programme. In addition, adult bees will be studied to see whether they are harmed by eating GM pollen if, for example, they have been weakened by pathogens or plant protection products.

The team led by Christoph Tebbe at the Johann Heinrich von Thünen-Institut (vTI) in Braunschweig will be analysing the diversity of microbial communities in the root area (the rhizosphere) of maize and potato plants. To what extent is the composition of such communities, which are important for plant health, affected by the traits of the plants themselves and to what extent by environmental factors such as soil type and climate? Micro-organism diversity will be investigated using novel, high-throughput DNA sequencing methods that make it possible to study large numbers of samples quickly. This means that around 40,000 bacteria can be recorded from a single rhizosphere so that natural fluctuations caused by environmental factors can be detected. The results will provide important indications of the extent to which results of field trials with GM varieties are transferable between different European farming regions.

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