Genetically Modified Organisms

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Bioenergy > Issues > Environmental issues > Genetic Modification/Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs)/ Biotechnology

Slides from a presentation made by David Glass Ph.D at the
EUEC 2010 conference.

Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs) are living organisms whose genome has been artificially modified by man (through genetic engineering, also known as "biotechnology"), for example to improve resistance to disease in the case of crops.

GMOs also include organisms developed for the processing of biofuels, a potentially promising area of research and development. In the future, issues such as resistance to drought or disease, in addition to pesticide resistance, may become a focus of the development of GMO crops.



  • USDA Approves Use of Genetically Engineered Corn for Ethanol, 11 February 2011 by Friends of the Earth: "The U.S. Department of Agriculture announced today that it has approved a form of genetically engineered corn created by the biotechnology corporation Syngenta Seeds, Inc. for use in ethanol production."
    • "The USDA deregulated the crop, meaning it is not subject to a comprehensive Environmental Impact Statement or any restrictions on where and how it can be planted."
    • "Eric Hoffman warned, “This new strain of genetically engineered corn is not meant for human consumption, but... contamination is bound to happen."
    • "The Renewable Fuel Standard, the law passed by Congress in 2007, requires the consumption of 36 billion gallons of ethanol by 2022, 15 billion gallons of which is projected to be met with corn ethanol. The Environmental Protection Agency recently released a report detailing the harmful impacts that this law continues to have on water, soil and air quality."[1]


  • Fungus Genes Help Turn Grass into Ethanol, 10 September 2010 by Technology Review: "Genes copied from a common fungus could simplify the production of ethanol from abundant materials such as grass and wood chips, a development that could one day help ethanol compete with gasoline."
    • "Scientists have taken genes from a fungus that grows on grass and dead plants, and transplanted them into yeast that is already used to turn sugar into ethanol. The genes let the yeast ferment parts of plants that it normally can't digest, potentially streamlining the production of ethanol."
    • "Most ethanol is produced using simple sugars, like the glucose derived from corn kernels or sugar cane. Ethanol producers would like to use glucose from more abundant sources, such as corn husks and stalks, switchgrass, wood waste, and other tough plant materials. But those plant parts are made of cellulose, a carbohydrate built from long chains of sugars. For yeast to produce ethanol from these materials, the complex carbohydrate has to first be broken down into very simple sugars, a process that takes time and normally requires the addition of expensive enzymes."
    • "With the new technique, ethanol makers would no longer have to break cellulose down into simple sugars. Instead, they would only need to break down cellulose into an intermediate material called cellodextrin."[3]
  • The race to make fuel out of algae poses risks as well as benefits, 22 July 2010 by ClimateWire via EarthPortal: "One day, Big Algae may be competitive with Big Oil, but as researchers search for the ideal oil-producing algae strain to grow in commercial quantities, there are still a host of uncertainties standing in the way."
    • "The first is simply supply. A central question dominating algal biofuel conferences is whether the best oil-producing algae crop will come from strains occurring in nature, or if they will need to be genetically modified to enhance their fuel-producing potential."
    • "History shows that in general, genetically modified organisms (GMOs) can be difficult to contain."
    • "Unlike genetically modified, or GM, corn, which has been used for some 15 years, similarly altered algae are newcomers to the scene and have not been tried outdoors before. 'Being a nascent industry, there are no existing standards for various aspects of algal biofuels production,' said an Energy Department algae road map issued last month."
    • "If companies do not take the time to educate the public and regulators about potential risks and the current state of the technology, they run the risk of a 'serious backlash from the public and from advocacy groups and eventually from regulators that could shut down these projects' in the event anything goes wrong,'" according to Evan Smith, "co-founder of Verno Systems, a Seattle-based consulting firm that looks at financial strategies for advanced biofuels."[4]
  • Biofuels from algae plagued with problems, says review, 7 May 2010 by SciDevNet: "Hopes that algae could become a source of biodiesel that is friendly both to the environment and the poor may be premature, according to a review."
    • Algae feedstocks "have serious drawbacks that may mean they can never compete with other fuels, according to Gerhard Knothe, a research chemist with the US Department of Agriculture's Agricultural Research Service."
    • "When researching his paper, 'Production and Properties of Biodiesel from Algal Oils' which will be published by Springer in a book, currently in press, entitled Algae for Biofuels and Energy, he made "unexpected" findings, he said."
    • "Knothe found that 'many, if not most' of the biodiesel fuels derived from algae have 'significant problems' when it comes to their ability to flow well at lower temperatures ('cold flow') and they also degrade more easily than other biofuels."
    • "The principal hope for overcoming the problem," scientists said, "is through genetic engineering of algae so they yield oils with more useful properties."[5]
  • Banking on Fuel-Sweating Flora, 4 May 2010 by the New York Times: "A start-up company has broken ground on a Texas pilot plant that is supposed to produce ethanol and diesel in a radical new way: with an organism that sweats fuel."
    • "The company, Joule Unlimited of Cambridge, Mass., has developed several patented gene-altered organisms that absorb sunlight and carbon dioxide and combine these into hydrocarbons."
    • "Joule says its organisms release their oil and survive to make more. And the diesel fuel is easy to gather because, like most hydrocarbon oils, it is lighter than water and tends to separate. Ethanol mixes with water and must be distilled, but the technology for this is widely available."
    • "Carbon dioxide is trucked in for now, but the longer-term strategy is to locate the operation near a power plant that runs on coal or natural gas and captures its carbon dioxide. If a national cap on emissions is enacted, a power plant might be willing to pay a fuel plant to take its carbon dioxide gas."
    • "The company projects production of 25,000 gallons of ethanol a year from each acre, which would be many times higher than production from wood waste or other biomass source."[6]
  • BIO Calls for a Range of Policies to Support Biorefinery Commercialization and Create Green Jobs, 4 March 2010: "Public policy should extend support to all biorefinery projects, because production of biobased products and green chemicals at integrated biorefineries holds the same potential to generate jobs, boost economic growth, and lower greenhouse gas emissions as advanced biofuels."
    • Brent Erickson, executive vice president for BIO’s Industrial and Environmental Section, stated,"The United States is a world leader in developing industrial biotechnology for biofuels, biobased products, and green chemicals. Deployment of the technology can improve U.S. economic competitiveness, contribute to renewed, sustainable economic growth, and create high-wage, green jobs. U.S. employment in plastics and chemical manufacturing has declined over the past two decades and is projected to shrink further, as capital investment for the petroleum-based industry has shifted away from the United States. Development of domestic biobased products and renewable chemicals can restore competitive advantage to the United States and possibly save jobs in the sector."[7]


  • Scientists Identify Enzyme That Could Help Grow Biofuel Crops In Harsh Environments, 19 October 2009 by ScienceDaily: "Scientists at the U.S. Department of Energy's (DOE) Brookhaven National Laboratory have identified a novel enzyme responsible for the formation of suberin — the woody, waxy, cell-wall substance found in cork....Adjusting the permeability of plant tissues by genetically manipulating the expression of this enzyme could lead to easier agricultural production of crops used for biofuels."
    • "For example, if certain breeds can be created that are more adept at absorbing and storing water and nutrients, the crops could be farmed in much drier climates — maybe even the desert."
    • "These approaches to biofuel agriculture would leave more-fertile land open for food crops, helping to strike a much-needed balance between the nutrition and energy needs of the world."[8]


  • Environmental groups expose Biofuel technology threats to Global Biodiversity, 15 September 2008 Press Release in The Canadian: The Canadian Biotechnology Action Network (CBAN) and the STOP GE Trees Campaign issued a press release in opposition to the Biotechnology Industry Organization (BIO) conference held in Vancouver, BC, Canada.
    • "'The biotechnology industry has pounced on the tremendous hype over biofuels to push out all of their nightmarish technologies, even pushing the use of genetically engineered trees for transport fuel,' said conference attendee Lucy Sharratt, coordinator of CBAN and member of the North American STOP GE Trees Campaign."
    • "'We want no part of this nightmarish future where trees are genetically engineered to fill our gas tanks,' said Tony Beck of the Society for a GE Free BC."[9]






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