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Keywords:

  • aquatic macroinvertebrates;
  • Bacillus thuringiensis;
  • genetic modification;
  • leaf litter decomposition;
  • nontarget effects;
  • phytochemistry;
  • Populus hybrids

Summary

1. Recent research has addressed how transgenic residues from arable crops may influence adjacent waterways, aquatic consumers and important ecosystem processes such as litter breakdown rates. With future applications of transgenic plants in forestry, such concerns may apply to forest stream ecosystems. Before any large-scale release of genetically modified (GM) trees, it is therefore imperative to evaluate the effects of genetic modifications in trees on such ecosystems.

2. We conducted decomposition experiments under natural stream conditions using leaf litter from greenhouse grown GM trees (Populus tremula × Populus tremuloides) that express Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) toxins (cry3Aa; targeting coleopteran leaf-feeding beetles) to examine the hypothesis that GM trees would affect litter decomposition rates and/or the aquatic arthropod community that colonizes and feeds on leaf litter in streams.

3. We show that two independent transformations of isogenic Populus trees to express Bt toxins caused similar changes to the composition of aquatic insects colonizing the leaf litter, ultimately manifested in a 25% and 33% increases in average insect abundance.

4. Measurements of 24 phenolic compounds as well as nitrogen (N) and carbon (C) in the litter did not significantly differ among modified and wild-type trees and were thus not sufficient to explain these differences in the insect assemblage.

5. Decomposition rates were comparable among litter treatments suggesting that the normal suite of leaf traits influencing decomposition was similar among litter treatments and that the shredding functions of the community were maintained despite the changes in insect community composition.

6.Synthesis and applications.  We report that leaf litter from GM trees affected the composition of aquatic insect communities that colonized litter under natural stream conditions. This suggests that forest management using GM trees may affect adjacent waterways in unanticipated ways, which should be considered in future commercial applications of GM trees. We also argue that studies at different scales (e.g. species, communities and ecosystems) will be needed for a full understanding of the environmental effects of Bt plants.