Although they have not been around for long, microplastics have found their way to almost every ecosystem on the planet. They have been discovered in the soil, in rivers, in our food and bottled water, and even in the human body. Recently, a team of researchers found, for the first time, microplastics in water trapped in plant leaf axils.
Katarína Fogašová, Peter Manko, and Jozef Obona of the University of Prešov, Slovakia, initially set out to Eastern Slovakia to study the organisms living in the little water puddles forming in teasel leaf axils.
Teasels of the genus Dipsacus have characteristic opposite leaves that grow on the stem above each other in several levels. As they clasp the stem, they form cup-like structures that collect water, known as telmata.
“Teasel phytotelmata are a relatively common but overlooked aquatic microcosm with a very short-term occurrence of only 3 to 4 months.“
To their surprise, they found differently coloured fragments and fibers, some reaching 2.4 mm in length, which were identified as microplastics.
“These phytotelmata are very small and have a short lifespan,” the researchers write in their paper, which was published in the journal BioRisk. “The question is, therefore, how were they polluted with microplastics?”
No other sources of contaminants were found in the studied area, so the fragments and fibers most likely came from polluted atmosphere, they suggest. Another theory is that snails may have transported them from the soil or from other plants, in or on their bodies.
“The first finding of microplastics in small short-term water reservoirs created by plants is further evidence that contamination of this kind spreads through various pathways and probably no environment on Earth is safe, which of course makes our discovery quite disheartening,” the researchers say.
“On the other hand, the results of our research of teasel phytotelmata, as a very unusual and highly specific natural environment, offer many possibilities for use in researching the spatio-temporal characteristics of the spread of microplastic pollution and its potential impact on the plants themselves, as well as organisms bound to them by ecological relations.”
They suggest that, due to their abundance and theoretical ability to capture microplastics in several ways from the environment, teasel phytotelmata could be a good indicator of microplastic presence.
“Our publication therefore not only brings the first discovery of microplastic pollution of habitats of this type, but also the first proposal of a new approach to the use of teasel phytotelmata and similar micro-ecosystems provided by plants (or artificially created), as bioindicators of the presence of microplastics in the environment, possible sources and pathways of their spread through the environment and spatio-temporal changes in microplastic contamination.”
Fogašová K, Manko P, Oboňa J (2022) The first evidence of microplastics in plant-formed fresh-water micro-ecosystems: Dipsacus teasel phytotelmata in Slovakia contaminated with MPs. BioRisk 18: 133-143. https://doi.org/10.3897/biorisk.18.87433
The new special issue of BioRisk compiles materials presented at the International Seminar of Ecology – 2021. The multidisciplinary nature of modern ecology was demonstrated by the main topics of the Seminar: biodiversity and conservation biology, biotic and abiotic impact on the living nature, ecological risk and bioremediation, ecosystem research and services, landscape ecology, and ecological agriculture.
Research teams from various universities, institutes, organizations, and departments, both from Bulgaria and abroad, took part in the Seminar. Foreign participants included: Environmental Toxicology Research Unit (Egypt), Pesticide Chemistry Department, National Research Centre (Giza, Egypt); National Institute for Agrarian and Veterinary Research (Oeiras, Portugal), Centre for Ecology, Evolution and Environmental Changes (Lisbon, Portugal); Bach Institute of Biochemistry, Research Center of Biotechnology of the Russian Academy of Sciences (Moscow, Russia).
Some of the reports presented joint research of Bulgarian scientists and scientists from Germany, the Czech Republic, Lithuania, Romania, Slovenia, Spain, and the USA. After assessment by independent reviewers, the articles published in the journal cover the topics presented and discussed at the Seminar.
A set of reports were focused on the anthropogenic and environmental impacts on the biota. Soil properties were shown as a factor that can modulate the effect of heavy metals, present in chronically contaminated soils. Different approaches to overcome environmental pollution were presented and discussed: zeolites as detoxifying tools, microalgae for the treatment of contaminated water bodies, and a newly developed bio-fertilizer, based on activated sludge combined with a bacterial strain with detoxifying and plant growth-promoting properties. The clear need for the enlargement of existing monitoring program by including more bioindicators and markers was pointed out.
It was shown that, by using various markers for the evaluation of environmentally induced stress response at different levels (microbiological, molecular, biochemical), it is possible to gain insights of the organisms’ protection and the mechanisms involved in resistance formation. The contribution of increased DNA repair capacity and AOS to the development of environmental tolerance or adaptation was also shown.
Important results for understanding the processes of photoprotection in either cyanobacteria or algae, and higher plants were obtained by in vitro reconstitution of complexes of stress HliA protein with pigments. The crucial role of the cellular physiological state, as a critical factor in determining the resistance to environmental stress with Q cells was demonstrated.
Several papers were focused on the action of bioactive substances of plants origin. The bioactivity was shown to depend strongly on chemical composition. Origanum vulgarehirtum essential oil was promoted as a promising candidate for the purposes of “green” technologies. Analyzing secondary metabolites of plants, it was shown that their productivity in vitro is a dynamic process closely related to the plant growth and development, and is in close relation with the interactions of the plant with the environment.
The influence of the agricultural system type on essential oil production and antioxidant activity of industrially-cultivated Rosa damascena in the Rose valley (Bulgaria) was reported, comparing organic vs conventional farming. The rose extracts from organic farming were shown to accumulate more phenolic compounds, corresponding to the higher antioxidant potential of organic roses.
A comparative study, based on official data from the statistics office of the EU and the Member countries, concerning viral infection levels in intensive and organic poultry farming, demonstrated that free-range production had a higher incidence of viral diseases with a high zoonotical potential.
Pollinators of Lavandula angustifolia, as an important factor for optimal production of lavender essential oil, were analyzed. It was concluded that, although lavender growers tend to place beehives in the fields for optimal essential oil production, it was crucial to preserve wild pollinators, as well.
New data reported that essential oils and alkaloid-rich plant extracts had the strongest acetylcholinesterase inhibitory activity and could be proposed for further testing for insect control.
It was reported that the vegetation diversity of Bulgaria had still not been fully investigated. Grasslands, broad-leaved forests, and wetlands are the best investigated habitats, while data concerning ruderal, shrubland, fringe, and chasmophytic vegetation in Bulgaria are scarce.
New information was presented concerning pre-monitoring geochemical research of river sediments in the area of Ada Tepe gold mining site (Eastern Rhodopes). The obtained results illustrate that the explored landscapes have been influenced by natural geochemical anomalies, as well as, impacted by human activity. The forests habitat diversity of Breznik Municipality was revealed, following the EUNIS Classification and initial data from the Ministry of Environment and Water and the Forestry Management Plans. It was shown that, in addition to the dominant species Quercus dalechampii, Quercus frainetto, Fagus sylvatica, Carpinus betulus, some artificial plantations with Pinus nigra and Pinus sylvestris were also present, as well as non-native species, such as Robinia pseudoacacia and Quercus rubra.
Models for Predicting Solution Properties and Solid-Liquid Equilibrium in Cesium Binary and Mixed Systems were created. The results are of great importance for the development of strategies and programs for nuclear waste geochemical storage. In conclusion, many results in different areas of ecology were presented in the Seminar, followed by interesting discussions. A lot of questions were answered, however many others remained open. A good platform for further discussion will be the next International Seminar of Ecology – 2022, entitled Actual Problems of Ecology.
SEEA EA is a spatially-based, integrated statistical framework for organising biophysical information about ecosystems, measuring ecosystem services, tracking changes in ecosystem extent and condition, valuing ecosystem services and assets and linking this information to measures of economic and human activity.
To help implement ecosystem accounts, the One Ecosystem journal provides a platform for scientists and statisticians to publish newly compiled accounting tables.
The “Ecosystem Accounts” permanent collection welcomes articles that describe and report ecosystem accounting tables, compiled following the standards set by the SEEA EA. The current version of the framework is fully described in United Nations et al. (2021). System of Environmental-Economic Accounting—Ecosystem Accounting (SEEA EA), available as a white cover publication, pre-edited text subject to official editing at: https://seea.un.org/ecosystem-accounting.
This collection does not accept research papers on ecosystem accounting that solely report new developments on accounting methods, such as new models for ecosystem services, new indicators for ecosystem condition or new techniques for monetary valuation of ecosystems.
The inclusion of a compiled ecosystem accounting table is mandatory for this collection. Otherwise, papers will be diverted to the regular issue of One Ecosystem. In such cases, the authors may also choose to submit their contributions to another topical collection.
Detailed instructions for authors
Submitting authors need to select One Ecosystem as a journal and “Ecosystem Accounting table” as an article template in ARPHA Writing Tool.
Submissions to this collection shall respect the following requirements:
The introduction makes clear reference to the type (or types) of account(s) submitted, the accounting area, and the accounting period. The introduction should contain a clear reference to the SEEA EA.
The following accounting tables can be published with data referring to a specific accounting area and for a given accounting period:
Ecosystem extent account – physical terms: Total extent of area of one or more ecosystem types
Ecosystem condition account – physical terms: (Aggregated) data on selected ecosystem characteristics and optionally the distance from a reference condition.
Ecosystem services flow account – physical terms: Physical supply of final ecosystem services by ecosystem assets and the use of those services by economic units.
Ecosystem services flow account – monetary terms: The monetary estimate of final ecosystem services by ecosystem assets and the use of those services by economic units.
Monetary ecosystem asset account – monetary terms: Stocks and changes in stocks (additions and reductions) of ecosystem assets in monetary terms.
Data and methods
This section describes which typologies or classifications have been used to classify ecosystems, ecosystem condition indicators, ecosystem services, or economic sectors. Preference should be given to different typologies proposed by SEEA EA, but deviations or other typologies are acceptable as well.
The section provides a list of all ecosystem types, variables, indicators, or economic sectors used in the accounting tables and it provides references to the data sources used to quantify them.
Optionally, papers justify the use of variables and indicators making reference to specific selection criteria.
For ecosystem service accounts, this section describes or refers to the methods used to quantify ecosystem services.
For monetary accounts, this section describes or refers to the methods used to assign monetary values to ecosystem services.
The use of supplementary materials is recommended in case the description of data and methods is too long. In that case, this section contains a summary of the data and methods.
Accounting tables and results
This section presents the accounting table(s). Ideally, this section presents the most aggregated version of the accounting table(s), while detailed versions with a high number of rows and columns can be easily published as a spreadsheet in the supplement section of the paper.
Stylised versions of accounting tables are available in the SEEA EA guidelines. A stylized example for each ecosystem accounting table is available in MS Excel. It is highly recommended to follow these examples to the maximum possible extent.
Graphs or maps that illustrate the accounting tables or that provide key results used to compile the accounting table can be published as well in this section.
In this section, authors are invited to add at least one of the following topics:
A short interpretation of the results: are the reported data comparable to other published data on ecosystem extent, condition or services or do they deviate substantially.
Critique or comments on the SEEA EA framework. Identify issues with application of the framework. Highlight areas for improvement or further research.
Demonstration of how the accounts have been or can be used to support policy and decision making or implementation. Particular cases of interest are (however, not restricted to) agricultural, forestry, fishery and biodiversity policies, biodiversity and ecosystem monitoring and reporting, ecosystem restoration projects, demonstrating values of ecosystems, or environmental impact assessments.
Green spaces in cities have a number of positive effects: they’re good for our physical and mental health, they’re good for the environment, and they can even help fight off the effects of climate change.
To explore the impact of additional green structures in cities, Katja Schmidt and Ariane Walz, affiliated with the University of Potsdam, Germany, quantified their effects on different aspects such as thermal comfort, biodiversity, carbon storage and social interaction. Their study, published in the open-access, peer-reviewed journal One Ecosystem, combines knowledge from health research, ecology and socio-ecological research, and shows how the better we know a particular type of ecosystem, the better we can adapt to climate change.
Pursuing a multi-method approach that ranged from local climate measurements to habitat and tree mapping, the authors compared four green residential courtyards in Potsdam. The spaces were similarly built, but had different ratios and sizes of features (lawns, flowerbeds, paths, playgrounds and allotments), as well as different tree and shrub population.
While doing their research, Schmidt and Walz saw how even small differences in the green structure affect the provision of benefits, but one thing was clear: the greener courtyards yielded more benefits. Trees have the vital ability to cool down the environment and increase thermal comfort. Remarkably, the researchers report additional cooling effects of up to 11°C in the greener court yards. This means that residential green structures can prove of great value for human health during summertime heat, when asphalt and buildings make hot days even hotter. Considering the ageing demographic and the likely increase of heatwaves in the area, this is likely to have even greater health implications in the coming years.
Urban green spaces can also be an important factor in carbon storage, as urban soils and trees have the capacity to act as a sink for atmospheric carbon dioxide. The residential yards with more and larger trees, logically, have the power to store more carbon. This is where proper maintenance comes in: when yards are managed sustainably, trees live longer and can store more carbon.
“Considering the trend of increasing quantity and magnitude of extreme weather events and the vulnerability of urban areas, green spaces are known to provide great potential to increase urban climate resilience. Our work highlights the widespread positive effects of additional green structures in residential open spaces, a type of urban green space that is frequently understudied,” points out Dr. Schmidt.
As a conclusion, the researchers point out that if land owners and leaseholders receive incentives to commit to climate adaptation, and neighbourhoods come up with deliberate management strategies, these benefits could be further enhanced, contributing to a more sustainable urban development.
Schmidt K, Walz A (2021) Ecosystem-based adaptation to climate change through residential urban green structures: co-benefits to thermal comfort, biodiversity, carbon storage and social interaction. One Ecosystem 6: e65706. https://doi.org/10.3897/oneeco.6.e65706
Between 2016 and 2021, over 500 researchers collaborated within the DNAqua-Net international network, funded by the European Union’s European Cooperation in Science and Technology programme (COST), with the goal to develop and advance biodiversity assessment methods based on analysis of DNA obtained from the environment (e.g. river water) or from unsorted collections of organisms.
Such innovative methods are a real game changer when it comes to large-scale assessment of biodiversity and ecological monitoring, as collecting environmental samples that are sent to the lab for analysis is much cheaper, faster and non-invasive, compared with capturing and examining live organisms. However, large-scale adoption has been hindered by a lack of standardisation and official guidance.
Recognising the urgent need to scale up ecological monitoring as we respond to the biodiversity and climate crises, the DNAqua-Net team published a guidance document for the implementation of DNA-based biomonitoring tools.
The guide considers four different types of samples: water, sediments, invertebrate collections and diatoms, and two primary analysis types: single species detection via qPCR and similar targeted methods; and assessment of biological communities via DNA metabarcoding. At each stage of the field and laboratory process the guide sets out the scientific consensus, as well as the choices that need to be made and the trade-offs they entail. In particular, the guide considers how the choices may be influenced by common practical constraints such as logistics, time and budget. Available in an Advanced Book format, the guidelines will be updated as the technology continues to evolve.
“The urgency of addressing the twin biodiversity and climate crises means that we need to accelerate the adoption of new technologies that can provide data and insights at large scales. In doing so, we walk a tricky line to agree on sufficiently standardised methods that can be usefully applied as soon as they add value, while still continuing to develop them further and innovate within the field. It was a daunting task to seek consensus from several hundred scientists working in a fast-moving field, but we found that our technology is based on a strong foundation of knowledge and there was a high level of agreement on the core principles – even if the details vary and different users make different choices depending on their environmental, financial or logistical constraints.”
Looking back on the last four years that culminated in the publication of a “living” research publication, Prof. Dr. Kristy Deiner says:
“The document took many twists and turns through more than ten versions and passionate discussions across many workshops and late night drinks. All in the days when we could linger at conferences without fear of the pandemic weighing on us. As we worked to find consensus, one thing was clear: we had a lot to say and a standard review paper was not going to cut it. With the knowledge and experience gathered across the DNAqua-Net, it made sense to not limit this flow of information, but rather to try and tackle it head on and use it to address the many questions we’ve all struggled with while developing DNA-based biodiversity survey methods.”
Now that the document – or at least its first version – is publicly available, the researchers are already planning for the next steps and challenges.
“The bottom line is we’ve come a long way in the last ten years. We have a buffet of methods for which many produce accurate, reliable and actionable data to the aid of biodiversity monitoring and conservation. While there is still much work to be done, the many unanswered questions are because the uptake is so broad. With this broad uptake comes novel challenges, but also new insights and a diversity of minds with new ideas to address them. As said this is planned to be a living document and we welcome continued inputs no matter how great or small,” says Deiner.
Dr. Micaela Hellström recalls:
“The book evolved over the four years of COST Action DNAqua-Net which made it possible for the many scientists and stakeholders involved to collaborate and exchange knowledge on an unprecedented scale. Our whole team is well aware of the urgent need to monitor biodiversity loss and to provide accurate species distribution information on large scales, to protect the species that are left. This was a strong driving force for all of us involved in the production of this document. We need consensus on how to coherently collect biodiversity data to fully understand changes in nature.”
“It was a great and intense experience to be a part of the five-person core writing team. In the months prior to submitting the document, we spent countless hours, weekends and late nights researching the field, communicating with researchers and stakeholders, and joining vivid Zoom discussions. As a result, the present book provides solid guidance on multiple eDNA monitoring methods that are – or will soon become – available as the field moves forward.”
The DNAqua-Net team invites fellow researchers and practitioners to provide their feedback and personal contributions using the contacts below.
Bruce K, Blackman R, Bourlat SJ, Hellström AM, Bakker J, Bista I, Bohmann K, Bouchez A, Brys R, Clark K, Elbrecht V, Fazi S, Fonseca V, Hänfling B, Leese F, Mächler E, Mahon AR, Meissner K, Panksep K, Pawlowski J, Schmidt Yáñez P, Seymour M, Thalinger B, Valentini A, Woodcock P, Traugott M, Vasselon V, Deiner K (2021) A practical guide to DNA-based methods for biodiversity assessment. Advanced Books. https://doi.org/10.3897/ab.e68634
The “Recent advancements in the risk screening of freshwater and terrestrial non-native species” Special Issue in the open-access, peer-reviewed scholarly journal NeoBiota is now open for submissions. The deadline for submission is 30 April 2022, with the issue scheduled for publication in August 2022.
Update: The deadline for submission has been extended to 30 April 2022, with the issue expected to be published in August 2022.
The new special issue is expected to collate prominent contributors from the field of invasive ecology, thereby addressing existing gaps in the knowledge about both freshwater and terrestrial non-native species and their management.
The editors note that despite the current efforts and measures to monitor and tackle the spread of non-native species, and especially those posing imminent threat to local biodiversity and ecosystems, further expansion of such populations has increasingly been recorded in recent years. Of special concern are developing countries, where legislation for controlling non-native species is still lacking.
A major problem is that – as of today – we are still missing on risk screening studies needed to provide evidence for the invasiveness potential of many non-native species across several taxonomic groups, which would then be used to support specific conservation efforts. Unfortunately, this is particularly true for species inhabiting the world’s biodiversity hotspots, point out the editors.
Risk-based identification of non-native species is an essential process to inform policy and actions for conservation and management of biodiversity. Previously published papers on risk screening of aquatic non-native species, and especially those using the most widely-employed ‘-ISK’ decision-support toolkits, have attracted mounting interest from the wider scientific community.
Guest blog post by Kennedy “Ned” Rubert-Nason, Caitlin Mandeville and Kirsten Schwarz
Global change is an immediate, accelerating threat to humanity, and its impacts are perpetuated by human activities. Changes such as climate warming, landscape alteration, pollution, resource extraction and depletion, extreme events, biodiversity loss, and spreading of invasive species including diseases, threaten the natural environment and human society. The consequences of these changes are often disproportionately borne by people who have the least political representation. Despite tremendous investment in research aimed at understanding and developing technological solutions to global change threats, implementing effective science-based solutions remains a major challenge.
An article just published in the open-access, peer-reviewed journal Rethinking Ecology explores how translational science, or the process of putting basic research and technological development into use, can bring about the changes in human behavior that are critical to guiding humanity toward a sustainable future. The engine that drives translational science is a theory of change, or strategic plan, which identifies a global change threat, ties it to a goal (usually eliminating or adapting to the threat), and lays out specific actions needed to achieve that goal along with indicators of success. A theory of change that aims to bring about social and structural changes, as required to address global change threats, must embrace relationship-building, collaboration, engagement, commitment, communication, trust, inclusion, equity, transparency, process, and decision framing.
To overcome global change threats, ecologists and other scientists need to prioritize building partnerships with communities that help bring science into practice. These partnerships are critically needed to combat misinformation, build public trust in science, bring about equitable and evidence-informed policies that are accountable to communities’ priorities, and empower people to respond effectively to challenges posed by climate change, pollution, landscape change, extreme events and pandemics.
The authors of the paper identified four priority areas for ecologists to engage in translational science:
garnering public support,
building strong communities,
and protecting natural resources.
While fundamental research remains vital, there needs to be greater emphasis on the communication, policy, education, leadership and role modeling dimensions that help bring the findings from that research into practice. Interdisciplinary scientists like ecologists are particularly well-suited to this line of work, although they can face barriers such as inadequate training, time, funding and institutional support. Lowering these barriers, and creating a culture that values science-based solutions, must be key priorities in future measures aimed at combating global change threats. Many organizations, including the Union of Concerned Scientists and the Ecological Society of America, provide training and support for ecologists to engage more deeply in translational science.
Rubert-Nason K, Casper AMA, Jurjonas M, Mandeville C, Potter R, Schwarz K (2021) Ecologist engagement in translational science is imperative for building resilience to global change threats. Rethinking Ecology 6: 65-92. https://doi.org/10.3897/rethinkingecology.6.64103
In recent years, the concept of Ecosystem Services (ES): the benefits people obtain from ecosystems, such as pollination provided by bees for crop growing, timber provided by forests or recreation enabled by appealing landscapes, has been greatly popularised, especially in the context of impeding ecological crises and constantly degrading natural environments.
Hence, there has been an increasing need for robust and practical methodologies to assess ES, in order to provide key stakeholders and decision-makers with crucial information. One such method to map and assess ES: the ES Matrix approach, has been increasingly used in the last decade.
The ES Matrix approach is based on the use of a lookup table consisting of geospatial units (e.g. types of ecosystems, habitats, land uses) and sets of ES, meant to be assessed for a specific study area, which means that the selection of a particular study area is the starting point in the assessment. Only then, suitable indicators and methods for ES quantification can be defined. Based on this information, a score for each of the ES considered is generated, referring to ES potential, ES supply, ES flow/use or demand for ES.
Ten years later, a research led by Dr C. Sylvie Campagne (Leibniz University Hannover, Germany), Dr Philip Roche (INRAE, France), Prof Dr Felix Muller (University of Kiel, Germany) and Prof Dr Benjamin Burkhard conducted a review of 109 published studies applying the ES matrix approach to find out how the ES matrix approach was applied and whether this was done in an oversimplified way or not.
In their recent paper, published in the open-access, peer-reviewed journal One Ecosystem, the review confirms the method’s flexibility, appropriateness and utility for decision-making, as well as its ability to increase awareness of ES. Nevertheless, the ES matrix approach has often been used in a “quick and dirty” way that urges more transparency and integration of variability analyses, they conclude.
“We analysed the diversity of application contexts, highlighted trends of uses and proposed future recommendations for improved applications of the ES matrix. Amongst the main patterns observed, the ES matrix approach allows for the assessment of a higher number of ES than other ES assessment methods. ES can be jointly assessed with indicators for ecosystem condition and biodiversity in the ES matrix,”
“Although the ES matrix allows us to consider many data sources to achieve the assessment scores for the individual ES, these were mainly used together with expert-based scoring (73%) and/or ES scores that were based on an already-published ES matrix or deduced by information found in related scientific publications (51%),”
In 29% of the studies, an already existing matrix was used as an initial matrix for the assessment and in 16% no other data were used for the matrix scores or no adaptation of the existing matrix used was made.
“Nevertheless, we recommend to use only scores assessed for a specific study or, if one wishes to use pre-existing scores from another study, to revise them in depth, taking into account the local context of the new assessment,”
she points out.
The researchers also acknowledge the fact that 27% of the reviewed studies did not clearly explain their methodology, which underlines the lack of method elucidation on how the data had been used and where the scores came from. Although some studies addressed the need to consider variabilities and uncertainties in ES assessments, only a minority of studies (15%) did so. Thus, the team also recommends to systematically report and consider variabilities and uncertainties in each ES assessment.
“We emphasise the need for all scientific studies to describe clearly and extensively the whole methodology used to score or evaluate ES, in order to be able to rate the quality of the scores obtained. The increasing number of studies that use the ES matrix approach confirms its success, appropriateness, flexibility and utility to generate information for decision-making, as well as its ability to increase awareness of ES, but the application of the ES matrix has to become more transparent and integrate more variability analyses,”
concludes the research team.
Original source: Campagne CS, Roche P, Müller F, Burkhard B (2020) Ten years of ecosystem services matrix: Review of a (r)evolution. One Ecosystem 5: e51103. https://doi.org/10.3897/oneeco.5.e51103
Gene drive organisms (GDOs) have been suggested as an approach to solve some of the most pressing environmental and public health issues. Currently, it remains unclear what kind of regulations are to be used to cover the potential risks. In their study, published in the open-access journal BioRisk, scientists evaluate the options for an operational risk assessment of GDOs before their release into environments across the EU.
EU scientists are taking a closer look into the CRISPR/Cas-9-induced population-wide genetic modifications before introducing it into practice
Within the last decades, new genetic engineering tools for manipulating genetic material in plants, animals and microorganisms are getting large attention from the international community, bringing new challenges and possibilities. While genetically modified organisms (GMO) have been known and used for quite a while now, gene drive organisms (GDO) are yet at the consideration and evaluation stage.
The difference between these two technologies, where both are meant to replace certain characters in animals or plants with ones that are more favourable for the human population, is that, even though in GDO there is also foreign “synthetic” DNA being introduced, the inheritance mode differs. In GDO, the genome’s original base arrangements are changed, using CRISPR/Cas-9 genome editing. Once the genome is changed, its alterations are carried down the organism’s offspring and subsequent generations.
In their study, published in the open-access journal Biorisk, an international group of scientists led by Marion Dolezel from the Environment Agency Austria, discuss the potential risks and impacts on the environment.
The research team also points to current regulations addressing invasive alien species and biocontrol agents, and finds that the GMO regulations are, in principle, also a useful starting point for GDO.
There are three main areas suggested to benefit from gene drive systems: public health (e.g. vector control of human pathogens), agriculture (e.g. weed and pest control), environmental protection and nature conservation (e.g. control of harmful non-native species).
In recent years, a range of studies have shown the feasibility of synthetic CRISPR-based gene drives in different organisms, such as yeast, the common fruit fly, mosquitoes and partly in mammals.
Given the results of previous research, the gene drive approach can even be used as prevention for some zoonotic diseases and, hence, possible future pandemics. For example, laboratory tests showed that release of genetically modified mosquitoes can drastically reduce the number of malaria vectors. Nevertheless, potential environment and health implications, related to the release of GDO, remain unclear. Only a few potential applications have so far progressed to the research and development stage.
“The potential of GDOs for unlimited spread throughout wild populations, once released, and the apparently inexhaustible possibilities of multiple and rapid modifications of the genome in a vast variety of organisms, including higher organisms such as vertebrates, pose specific challenges for the application of adequate risk assessment methodologies”,
shares the lead researcher Mrs. Dolezel.
In the sense of genetic engineering being a fastly developing science, every novel feature must be taken into account, while preparing evaluations and guidances, and each of them provides extra challenges.
Today, the scientists present three key differences of gene drives compared to the classical GMO:
1. Introducing novel modifications to wild populations instead of “familiar” crop species, which is a major difference between “classic” GMOs and GDOs.
“The goal of gene drive applications is to introduce a permanent change in the ecosystem, either by introducing a phenotypic change or by drastically reducing or eradicating a local population or a species. This is a fundamental difference to GM crops for which each single generation of hybrid seed is genetically modified, released and removed from the environment after a relatively short period”,
2. Intentional and potentially unlimited spread of synthetic genes in wild populations and natural ecosystems.
Gene flow of synthetic genes to wild organisms can have adverse ecological impact on the genetic diversity of the targeted population. It could change the weediness or invasiveness of certain plants, but also threaten with extinction the species in the wild.
3. Possibility for long-term risks to populations and ecosystems.
Key and unique features of GDOs are the potential long-term changes in populations and large-scale spread across generations.
In summary, the research team points out that, most of all, gene drive organisms must be handled extremely carefully, and that the environmental risks related to their release must be assessed under rigorous scrutiny. The standard requirements before the release of GDOs need to also include close post-release monitoring and risk management measures.
It is still hard to assess with certainty the potential risks and impact of gene drive applications on the environment, human and animal health. That’s why highly important questions need to be addressed, and the key one is whether genetically driven organisms are to be deliberately released into the environment in the European Union. The High Level Group of the European Commission’s Scientific Advice Mechanism highlights that within the current regulatory frameworks those risks may not be covered.
The research group recommends the institutions to evaluate whether the regulatory oversight of GMOs in the EU is accomodate to cover the novel risks and challenges posed by gene drive applications.
“The final decision to release GDOs into the environment will, however, not be a purely scientific question, but will need some form of broader stakeholder engagement and the commitment to specific protection goals for human health and the environment”,
Original source: Dolezel M, Lüthi C, Gaugitsch H (2020) Beyond limits – the pitfalls of global gene drives for environmental risk assessment in the European Union. BioRisk 15: 1-29. https://doi.org/10.3897/biorisk.15.49297
Struggling to put a face to the name? Let us bring the stories behind these fantastic discoveries for you:
The real-life fairy wrasse, whose scales shine bright like sci-fi vibranium
Even if the “twilight zone” – the ocean depths from 60 to 150 meters underneath the water surface, are long known to be teeming with all sorts of fascinating reef-dwelling lifeforms that still await discovery, California Academy of Sciences’ (CAS) initiative Hope for Reefs and partners are already concerned with the protection of these fragile habitats. One of the ways they do this is by deploying the taxonomic approach: recording and defining every creature the current environmental crisis could be putting in danger.
One of the latest discoveries made by the CAS team and Yi-Kai Tea, lead author and PhD student at the University of Sydney, is a stunning wrasse species with colours so mesmerising and vibrant that immediately triggered the creativity of the scientists. Discovered amongst the dusky coral reefs of eastern Zanzibar, off the coast of Tanzania, the species received the scientific name Cirrhilabrus wakanda in a nod to the Marvel Entertainment comics and movie Black Panther, where Wakanda is a mythical nation.
The fish also goes under its common name: Vibranium Fairy Wrasse, because of its hypnotising scales reminiscent of the fictional metal. In the franchise, the vibranium is a rare, robust and versatile ore capable of manipulating energy. In its turn, the scales of the Vibranium Fairy Wrasse have a pigment so strong, their shades survive even when preserved.
“When we thought about the secretive and isolated nature of these unexplored African reefs, we knew we had to name this new species after Wakanda,”
Conway KW, Moore GI, Summers AP (2019) A new genus and two new species of miniature clingfishes from temperate southern Australia (Teleostei, Gobiesocidae). ZooKeys 864: 35-65. https://doi.org/10.3897/zookeys.864.34521
The clingy, yet long unknown green fish
You might think that a common name for a genus of tiny, less than 21 mm long marine inhabitants, such as ‘Rat Clingfish’ is way too unusual already, but it’s getting even more curious when you find out about those species’ mind-boggling lifestyle.
These two miniature clingfishes were first spotted around microalgae in Australia back in the 1980s and since then they would puzzle scientists so much they would simply refer to them as “Genus B”. However, this was about to change, when in 2019, the US-Australian research team of Drs Kevin W. Conway, Glenn I. Moore and Adam P. Summers collected and studied enough specimens found in dense stands of macroalgae in intertidal and shallow subtidal areas along the coast of southern Australia. There, the two clingfishes use their well-developed adhesive discs located on their tummies to attach to the microalgae. Because of their miniature size, they have evolved multiple reduced and novel distinctive features.
As a result of their study, we now have the genus Barryichthys, whose common name is Rat Clingfish, and two new to science species assigned to it: the Brown Rat Clingfish (Barryichthys hutchinsi) and the Green Rat Clingfish (Barryichthys algicola), where the latter was found to be particularly intriguing thanks to its peculiar green colouration and a species name translated to “one who inhabits the algae”.
Conway KW, Moore GI, Summers AP (2019) A new genus and two new species of miniature clingfishes from temperate southern Australia (Teleostei, Gobiesocidae). ZooKeys 864: 35-65. https://doi.org/10.3897/zookeys.864.34521
The boring vegetarian amphipod
Another impressive creature with a taste for algae described in 2019 from Australia is the Thiel’s Boring Amphipod, which is indeed boring. The tiny crustacean, which can be found in colonies of hundreds in Tasmania, eats its way through its favourite bull kelp leaving behind tunnels.
Another peculiarity about the species is its head, which when seen from the front resembles that of an ant!
With its species name: Bircenna thieli, the scientists behind the study – Drs Elizabeth Hughes (Natural History Museum of London, UK) and Anne-Nina Lörz (University of Hamburg, Germany) pay tribute to respected crustacean expert Prof. Dr. Martin Thiel, who had originally collected some of the studied specimens.