February 01, 2003


 NAS reports on potential risks of animal biotechnology

Potential environmental impact and threats to human health top list of concerns 

A report from the National Academy of Sciences calls for more publicly funded research on animal biotechnology, such as the research being conducted at the Department of Agriculture's Agricultural Research Service. Animal physiologist Vernon Pursel at ARS' Reproduction Laboratory prepares an embryo for microscopic examination before implanting it in an animal.
Leaner, more efficient, new varieties of farmed salmon may soon be on the way to dinner tables across the country, thanks to advances in genetic engineering, but some scientists fear these giant eating machines could spell trouble for wild salmon and the ecosystems they live in.

The potential negative environmental impact of "super" salmon and other genetically altered animals tops the list of concerns about animal biotechnology in a report from the National Research Council. The report, which was released in August 2002, was prepared at the request of the Food and Drug Administration's Center for Veterinary Medicine, which may soon develop regulations on animal biotechnology products. The National Academy of Sciences and the CVM jointly funded the study.

The report comes at a time when food products made from cloned animals and their offspring are on the verge of entering the food supply. Until the FDA has completed research on the safety of some of these products, the agency has asked companies that are developing cloned animals to keep food products derived from these animals and their progeny out of the food supply.

A committee of scientists from an array of disciplines compiled the report after conducting a review of the literature, consulting with experts in the public and private sectors, and holding public hearings. The report doesn't provide policy recommendations or list the potential benefits of biotechnology because the scope of the study was limited to identifying potential problems.

"As is the case with any new technology, it is almost impossible to state that there is no concern, and in certain areas we did identify some legitimate ones," said John G. Vandenbergh, the chair of the committee and a professor of zoology at North Carolina State University, in a statement. "By identifying these concerns, we hope we can help this technology be applied as safely as possible without denying the public its potential benefits."

The potential for genetically engineered animals, particularly fish, insects, shellfish, and other animals that can easily escape and become feral, to disrupt ecosystems or to introduce novel genes to a population was one of the top concerns of the committee. Another concern raised by the committee was whether food products from genetically altered animals would be safe for human consumption. Although, the committee found no evidence of a threat, it was noted that more information was necessary.

Other potential risks identified by the report included:

  • The creation or spread of novel zoonotic diseases through xenotransplantation
  • Diminished welfare among genetically altered animals or animals undergoing certain techniques
  • Social, ethical, or cultural conflicts
  • Insufficient regulatory framework to adequately address concerns related to biotechnology

A first step
Scientists who contributed to the NAS report said it is the first step toward fully evaluating and regulating animal biotechnologies. They caution that the report gives an overview of concerns about animal biotechnology and not a statistical analysis of risk.

Joy A. Mench, PhD, a committee member and an animal science professor and researcher at the University of California-Davis, said veterinarians and animal scientists need to be involved in the process of evaluating these technologies, since animal health may be affected.

"There are animal welfare concerns, particularly with transgenetic animals and cloned animals in the early stages," said Dr. Mench, whose research focuses on improving animal welfare. She added that some biotechnology, such as genetically engineering animals to be disease resistant, might improve animal health.

She also highlighted the report's finding that the existing regulatory framework may not be adequate to regulate biotechnology.

"There's no coordinated system of oversight," Dr. Mench said.

Fellow committee member, Lawrence B. Schook, PhD, a professor of comparative genomics and veterinary pathobiology at the University of Illinois, agreed that veterinarians and animal scientists would play a critical role in the emerging field of biotechnology.

He said creating standards for genetically altered animals will be important to regulation, and veterinarians will likely be involved in creating animal identification, keeping records, and evaluating the quality of genetically engineered animals.

Dr. Schook noted the need for funding for independent research on animal biotechnology because the most of information and research on the techniques is coming from the private sector.

"There should be more research that looks at embryo development and in vitro fertilization," he said.

Though herds of cloned dairy cows have already been produced, Dr. Mench said it's too early to tell how many biotechnologies will be used in production or how they may develop in the future.

"These are issues that will need a lot of monitoring," she said.

"We don't really know where these technologies are going."