Does Genetically Engineered Algae Pose a Threat to Biodiversity?
Genetically engineered (GE) microalgae are nearing commercial release for biofuels production without sufficient public information or ecological studies to investigate their possible risks. Blue-green algae (cyanobacteria) and eukaryotic green algae are likely to disperse widely from open ponds and, on a smaller scale with lower probability, from enclosed photobioreactors. With powerful molecular techniques, thousands of algal strains have been screened, hybridized, and redesigned to grow quickly and tolerate extreme conditions. Some biologists do not expect GE microalgae to survive in the wild. However, thorough ecological and evolutionary assessments are needed to test this assumption and, if the algae do survive, to confirm that their persistence is highly unlikely to cause environmental harm. Cyanobacteria are especially difficult to evaluate because of the chance of horizontal gene transfer with unrelated microbes. Before novel GE algae enter the environment, key biosafety and environmental risk issues should be formally addressed by teams of experts that include ecologists.