On a sunny June day at the Plant Science Research Farm, Carol Auer, professor in the Department of Plant Science and Landscape Architecture, stands on the edge of a research field looking over thousands of golden flowers of Camelina sativa. Soon, these flowers will produce a small seed containing a high percentage of oil and protein. Camelina is an oilseed crop that has been cultivated in Europe for thousands of years. However, production in the US has been very limited. But with rapid scientific advances and the demand for renewable fuels, genetically engineered (GE) camelina is likely to produce future products such as jet fuel, dietary supplements and bioplastics. The value of these novel traits could boost GE camelina production on US farms, but it also raises some important questions about long-term ecological effects. That’s where Auer comes in. With the help of a new grant, she has begun gathering information about camelina to understand its pollen dispersal, gene flow and persistence as a weed. This type of baseline data is critical for predicting future ecological impacts. Auer received $436,000 this past September from the Biotechnology Risk Assessment Grant Program, an initiative of the USDA’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture. “Getting grants is one of the exciting events in academic life” Auer said. “Now my lab can move forward to answer many important questions about camelina biology and ecology.” There are probably few crops with as much potential as camelina because it grows quickly and can be engineered to produce high-value products. The last decade has seen a number of new GE camelina varieties emerge from research programs around the world. One high-profile research project in the United Kingdom has used genes from marine algae to modify camelina so that the seeds store high levels of omega–3 fatty acids. Ultimately, this critical nutritional compound could be harvested from GE camelina for consumption by humans or fish produced in aquaculture facilities.
Eco-friendly forest windbreaks could reduce gene flow
Plant gene flow has the potential to cause ecological changes that affect native plant communities as well as land management practices. One example is the management of weeds. As Auer explains, “If genes for herbicide resistance are in pollen carried by bees or wind from a field crop to weedy relatives nearby, then those weeds can develop into populations with herbicide resistance.” That could make weeds into more noxious pests for golf course managers, farmers and home gardeners. Some traits from GE crops might also be able to change the genetics of native plants, possibly decreasing their abundance in natural areas. Auer’s recent research on Panicum virgatum, commonly known as switchgrass, has led her to some new ideas for reducing gene flow. Auer and her colleague Thomas Meyer, associate professor in the Department of Natural Resources and Environment, found that by separating fields with narrow strips of forest, called forest windbreaks, it is possible to reduce wind-blown pollen concentrations by as much as 20,000-fold. Ultimately, the use of forest windbreaks could reduce plant gene flow while providing environmental services such as habitat for insect pollinators, birds and other wildlife.
One of Auer’s projects will study gene flow, the movement of genes between closely-related plants. Gene flow between plants increases when pollen is dispersed by wind or insects. At present, very little is known about gene flow and pollen movement in camelina, although early results showed that bees and flies are attracted to the flowers. Auer’s research will soon be measuring the amount of camelina pollen carried by insects and wind over large distances. There will also be research projects to determine which native plants and weed species can exchange genes with camelina. All of Auer’s research projects are designed to answer questions about gene flow without using GE camelina varieties.
This research will be important for a variety of people including farmers, crop breeders, seed companies and ecologists. But Auer’s research also targets another important audience: government regulators. It’s a group she knows well. From 2002 to 2003, she held a fellowship from the American Association for the Advancement of Science to study agricultural policy in Washington DC. In 2008, Auer used her sabbatical leave to learn about the EPA’s process for regulating GE crops. Both experiences helped her understand the politics, policy, and science behind the genetic engineering revolution.
“I think I have a lot of insight into the challenges that regulators face,” she says. “That’s a big driver for me in these projects. Although it sounds simple, good baseline data about crops is critical. In the long run, I hope my research will help regulators and others make good decisions,” says Auer.