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In consideration of GMOs: a virtual special issue of the Plant Biotechnology Journal

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A range of opinions have been expressed about the pros and cons of genetically modified (GM) crops. The intense media coverage of scientific communications such as those of Losey et al. (1999), Ewen and Pusztai (1999) and Quist and Chapela (2001) about the possible impacts of insect-resistant transgenic plants against non-target organisms and crop plant relatives triggered an unprecedented, and still ongoing, controversy over the large-scale deployment of GM crops worldwide. These highly publicized communications, despite concerns expressed by fellow scientists about their technical robustness or significance (Kuiper et al., 1999; Shelton and Sears, 2001; Kaplinski et al. 2002; Metz and Fütterer, 2002), had the merit to put forward a number of relevant questions on the so-called unintended effects of plant genetic transformation. In an indirect way, these reports have catalysed the funding of research programmes in many countries, aimed at assessing in greater detail the safety of GM crops or at developing original mitigation strategies to minimize their potential impacts.

Regardless of one’s opinions and interests, a consensus has been established in the scientific community about the need for more studies on the impacts of GM crops, and the relevance of thorough literature reviews providing objective, factual accounts on issues related to GM crops. As an active and prominent player in the biotechnology arena, the PBJ has published numerous high-quality research and review articles addressing specific issues of the GM crop question. An interesting example is provided in this issue by Areal et al. (2011), who adopted a multivariate statistical approach to categorize the attitudes of European farmers towards the adoption of GM crops. Other GM crop-related issues addressed in the PBJ this year include the relevance of substantial equivalence in the safety assessment of novel-generation biotech crops (Llorente et al., 2011); the development of a light-dependent, antibiotic marker-free system for the selection of transgenic clones in vitro (Koh et al., 2011); and the design of a new viral vector efficient to drive recombinant protein expression in planta, but unable to proliferate in the environment (Fukuzawa et al., 2011).

Articles addressing GM crop-related issues in the PBJ can be categorized into three groups, depending on the topics addressed and the research aims pursued by the authors (Table 1). The first group includes those papers which deal with agroeconomic, sociological and/or regulatory issues, such as intellectual property rights on plant genetic transformation technologies (Dunwell, 2005), the regulatory aspects of GM crops approval and commercialization (McHughen and Smyth, 2008; Smyth and McHughen, 2008), the challenges of commercializing GM crops in the current socio-economic context (Rommens, 2010), or the role of these crops in sustainable development (Park et al., 2011). The second group of papers includes safety assessment studies dealing with the environmental risks and benefits of GM crops (e.g. Strange et al., 2008; Meissle and Romeis, 2009; Rong et al., 2010) or with the compositional authenticity of GM lines and GM-derived foods as assessed using multifactorial approaches and novel ‘omics’ technologies allowing for a broad-scale analysis of the modified lines (e.g. Miki et al., 2009; Barros et al., 2010; Khalf et al., 2010; Llorente et al., 2011; Montero et al., 2011). The third group of papers includes studies aimed at mitigating risks, confirmed or perceived, associated with GM crops. These papers address a variety of topics, from the excision and site-specific integration of recombinant DNA in the host plant recipient genome (e.g. Djukanovic et al., 2008; Nandy and Srivastava, 2011), to the design of antibiotic marker-free systems for transgenic plantlet selection (e.g. Hou et al., 2007; Koh et al., 2011) and the development of containment strategies to prevent transgene escape in the environment (e.g. Yoshida et al., 2007; Rong et al., 2010; Fukuzawa et al., 2011).

Table 1.   Genetically modified organism-related issues addressed in the PBJ over the past decade
Issues addressedReferences
Agroeconomic, sociological and regulatory issues
 Genetically modified (GM) crops, sustainable development, and the future of agriculturePark et al. (2011)
 Farmers’ perception and attitudes towards GM cropsAreal et al. (2011)
 Barriers and paths to GM crops commercializationRommens (2010)
 Regulatory frameworks for GM crops approval and commercializationSmyth and McHughen (2008), McHughen and Smyth (2008)
 Intellectual property rights and plant genetic transformationDunwell (2005)
Assessment of risks and benefits
 Life cycle assessment of transgenic crops environmental impactStrange et al. (2008), Bennett et al. (2004)
 Multifactorial assessment of next-generation GM crops authenticityLlorente et al. (2011)
 Transcriptomics-based assessment of unintended effects in plantaMontero et al. (2011), Barros et al. (2010), Miki et al. (2009), Abdeen and Miki (2009), Baudo et al. (2006)
 Proteomics-based assessment of unintended effects in plantaKhalf et al. (2010), Barros et al. (2010)
 Metabolomics-based assessment of unintended effects in plantaBarros et al. (2010), Baker et al. (2006)
 Unintended effects on non-target organisms in the environmentMeissle and Romeis (2009), Griffiths et al. (2007)
 Modelling of pollen-mediated transgene flowRong et al. (2010), Messeguer et al. (2006)
Risk mitigation
 Antibiotic resistance marker-free transformantsKoh et al. (2011), Dufourmantel et al. (2007), Hou et al. (2007), Baisakh et al. (2006), Gao et al. (2005), Schaart et al. (2004), Tu et al. (2003)
 Site-specific integration and/or excision of recombinant DNA materialNandy and Srivastava (2011), de Pater et al. (2009), Djukanovic et al. (2008, 2006), Hu et al. (2008), D’Halluin et al. (2008), Luo et al. (2007), Chawla et al. (2006), Mlynarova et al. (2006), Schaart et al. (2004), Srivastava et al. (2004)
 Promoters for tissue-specific transgene expressionGudynaite-Savitch et al. (2009); Thilmony et al. (2009), Kim et al. (2005)
 Molecular and cellular containment of recombinant DNA and proteinsFukuzawa et al. (2011), Yoshida et al. (2007), Murphy (2007), Luo et al. (2007), Mlynarova et al. (2006), Höfig et al. (2006), Al-Ahmad et al. (2006), Al-Ahmad and Gressel (2006)
 Physical or spatial containment of recombinant DNA and proteinsMurphy (2007), Messeguer et al. (2006), Wang et al. (2006)
 Non-food and non-crop hosts for biopharmaceuticalsMorandini et al. (2011), Murphy (2007)

To assist readers and researchers who are interested in the ongoing debate concerning the adoption of GM crops and to show how the topic is being addressed by innovative research on many aspects, we have launched an online special issue of the PBJ entirely devoted to GM crop-related issues (http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/journal/10.1111/(ISSN)1467-7652/homepage/virtual_issues.htm). With this online issue, relevant original and review papers published in the journal over the last 4 years, along with a selection of highly cited papers published in earlier years, are now accessible from a single source. In the view of the editorial board, this collection of recent papers is both a convenient synthesis of what has been published in the field and a useful working basis for what is to come next. As illustrated in the journal, transgenic plant lines exhibiting a wide array of new physiological traits have been developed over the past decade. Such exciting developments, while suggesting a bright future for GM plants in biotechnology, also promise to generate a number of ‘related issues’, which, the journal hopes, will continue to trigger exciting research and papers on the ‘risks and benefits’ assessment of GM crop technologies. The editors of the PBJ look forward to reading and publishing your best contributions to this important research theme in years to come.

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