Jumping Genes

Rocky Mountain National Park has identified a research need related to identifying possible threats to park resources from Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs). While the vast majority of GMOs will likely not present any type of threat, and some may even be positive in helping us manage park resources, there may be a reason to be concerned about some GMOs.

Genetically modified organisms are organisms that contain gene combinations that do not occur naturally and have not been created through traditional breeding practices such as artificial selection for specific traits or hybridization. The technologies for creating GMOs are rapidly developing, but the current method of GMO creation involves removing a small number of genes (typically one or two) from a donor organism and inserting them into a recipient organism, often resulting in the transfer of genes across taxonomic groups (for example, from bacteria to plants). The terms bio-engineered organism and genetically engineered organism are often used as synonyms for GMO.

An example of a GMO that is likely of no threat is soy beans. They are not closely related to wild species occurring in the Rocky Mountain National Park, thus the chances of gene flow occurring between distantly related species of higher plants and animals is very small.

An example of a positive application of bioengineering would be if the American chestnut could be modified to be resistant to chestnut blight. In such a case, the American chestnut might be reintroduced to eastern forests where it was a native species. Although not a help in managing Rocky Mountain National Park, it might be very useful in many eastern parks.

An example with direct application to Rocky Mountain National Park and that could pose a threat is the possible use of genetically modified creeping bentgrass (Agrostis stolonifera) on golf courses. Rocky Mountain National Park has eight closely related species of bentgrass (Agrostis sp.). Because grass is wind pollinated, the possibility that genes from the genetically modified bentgrass on a nearby golf course could be transported into the park and incorporated into our native plants is quite high. Recent research in Oregon showed pollen from genetically modified creeping bentgrass pollinated plants ten miles away.

Would this create a problem with our native species? We don't know. That is why we are asking for research on the topic. What we are sure of is that our mission is to protect our resources unimpaired for future generations. Thus we believe it is important to learn all we can about the possible benefits and threats to park resources from GMOs.

Last updated: March 31, 2012

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