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Universidad de Concepción Gobierno Regional

Genetic engineering started in the 1970s and has enabled the creation of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) that possess new characteristics as a result of the insertion of one or more genes from another organism. One well-known GMO is soy that is resistant to the herbicide glyphosate, because it has been modified with a bacterial gene. Now this easily degradable herbicide can be used on soy crops with a resulting benefit to the environment.

It is important to ensure that GMOs do not endanger people’s health or environment. Therefore, before authorizing the commercialization of a new biotechnological product, it is necessary for it to undergo biosafety tests. Biosafety is the discipline that defines an adequate level of protection in the safe use and manipulation of modified living organisms created by using modern biotechnology or recombinant DNA. To achieve this goal, it is necessary to carry out a risk assessment of the new GMO that seeks to enter the market, which means defining this product’s potential risks to the environment and human health.

There is extensive experience in risk assessment of genetically modified plants that have been on the market for more than 10 years in different countries, especially in the United States. All of them have undergone a strict biosafety control.

In order to determine whether GM crops present a potential risk, the product has to undergo studies lasting several years before obtaining the authorization for marketing. From the agronomical point of view, it must be ensured that the new biotechnological crop is as similar to the unmodified original as possible, except for the genetic modification. This means that if the new plant, for example, is smaller than the non-GM version (which was not the purpose of the genetic modification), it must be prevented from entering the market. These tests are carried out both at the greenhouse stage and as small-scale field experiments, and extend over several generations (at least 3).

Once it has been established that the new biotechnological crop is similar to the unmodified original, medium-scale analyses are conducted to determine potential effects on the environment, in other words, the interaction with the ecosystem in which it will be cultivated. The next tasks are to determine gene flow (pollen flow), the effect on non-target organisms and soil changes, among other effects. These long-term studies are very exhaustive since they must be repeated over different generations to guarantee the stability of both gene insertion and cultivation of the new plant.

Potential risks associated with human health also need to be identified, especially if the aim of the biotechnological crop is direct consumption or use as a derivative. To this purpose, different analyses are carried out in order to determine the potential use of the new protein being expressed (due to the inserted gene) as a toxin or its capability to be allergenic. In parallel, food safety analyses are conducted to make a comparison between the biotechnological crop and the unmodified original. It is necessary to determine both type and quantity of nutrients found in both crops submitted to the same agronomic treatment.

Only once all the information thus collected has been evaluated by a multidisciplinary committee can the entry onto the market of this biotechnological crop be authorized. Because of the great number of crops that can be modified and the great number of genes utilized, the analyses are conducted case by case.

The most important crops entering the market these days are insect-resistant corn (Bt corn), glyphosate-resistant soy, Bt cotton and herbicide-resistant canola or rapeseed. In some cases, these crops possess two characteristics, which means they are resistant to both insects and herbicides. Bt, also known as cry, is a gene that produces a substance that is toxic for some insects and is naturally present in the Bacillus thurengensis bacterium, hence its name.

The Biotechnology Center, jointly with the Faculty of Forest Sciences and the United Nations Industrial Development Organization (UNIDO), offers a graduate diploma in Biosafety (Diplomado en Bioseguridad) whose aim is the training of professionals in this area. At the same time, this course is dedicated to studying in depth aspects of biosafety associated with risk assessment of genetically modified trees.


Barrio Universitario s/n, Edificio Centro de Biotecnología
Fono: +56 (41) 2203850, Fax: +56 (41) 2207310, E-mail: cbudec@udec.cl