Unintended Effects of Genetic Manipulation

A Project of The Nature Institute

Project Director: Craig Holdrege
Email: nontarget@natureinstitute.org

Critical Links:

Introduction to This Site

Much of the public debate concerning genetically modified organisms, their widespread use in animal and human food, and their impact upon the environment could be raised to an entirely new and more productive level if certain undisputed facts were more widely known. The facts at issue have to do with the unintended and systemic consequences of genetic manipulations, as revealed in one research report after another.

Putting the matter plainly: when researchers try to engineer changes in an organism’s genetic material, the results for the organism and its environment almost always include unpredictable effects. The intended result may or may not be achieved in any given case, but the one almost sure thing is that unintended results — nontarget effects — will also be achieved.

These facts have been, and are being, widely reported in the scientific literature. While they are correcting our understanding in important ways, they are not at all controversial. And they bear directly upon the wisdom of virtually all the current genetic engineering practices. If there has been limited reportage of unintended effects in the popular press, it may be because the facts are often buried in technical scientific articles. And within genetic engineering research itself, scientists are mainly concerned with achieving targeted effects and not with investigating beyond the range of their own intentions and reporting unexpected effects. But when they do investigate, there is usually plenty to see.

It is the purpose of this project to make evidence about the wide-ranging and never wholly predictable effects of genetic engineering readily accessible to concerned citizens, policy makers, and scientists. We have collected examples from the scientific literature, primarily from peer-reviewed journals, and written short reports on each example. These are ordered according to different categories and include effects on the manipulated organisms themselves as well as broader environmental ripple effects. Our compilation of reports is by no means exhaustive and will be expanded over time. The technical literature we have not yet touched remains extensive.

Unintended Effects of Genetic Manipulation — An Introduction by Craig Holdrege is a great place for newcomers to start, as it provides essential background information about unintended effects. What do we mean by unintended effects? How are these effects detected? What are the different categories of unintended effects? We encourage readers to consult this article in connection with searching the individual reports.

Here is a collection of articles on the broader issues of genetics and genetic engineering written by Nature Institute members Craig Holdrege and Steve Talbott, and others that can support one's inquiry into this subject matter. And here is a list of online resources relating to genetically engineered organisms—particularly their risks, regulation, and use.

Finally, perhaps you are wondering why we should expect genetic engineering routinely to produce the sort of unintended effects documented on this site. You will find it much less mysterious if you review this collection of informal notes from the technical literature, entitled “How the Organism Decides What to Make of Its Genes”. The processes involved in gene expression are so diverse, so complex, so interwoven, and so dependent upon an ever-changing context that it is inevitable we should run up against the limits of our predictive powers.

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