Grass on the run

Genetically engineered creeping bentgrass has been found growing miles from a test plot where it was planted two years ago, according to a NY Times story:

Two years ago, scientists at the E.P.A. laboratory in Corvallis, Ore., published a paper showing that pollen from a test plot of the grass had spread as far as 13 miles downwind, much farther than many had expected. That made it likely that genetically engineered grass would be found in the wild, though the scientists did not look for that.
In the new study, scientists sampled 20,400 plants up to three miles from the edge of an 11,000-acre zone surrounding the test plots. They found 9, or 0.04 percent, that were genetically engineered, the farthest being 2.4 miles from the control zone border.
The scientists said some of the plants had been created by seeds that had blown off the test plot and others by hybridization of wild grass with pollen from the genetically engineered grass. All were of the same species of grass being developed by Scotts and Monsanto.

I generally think genetic engineering of crops is a good idea, although I would prefer it not be used in the service of easier monoculture -- which these golf course grasses certainly are.

But articles like this always miss the point about the escape of plants or genes into wild populations. They tend to make it sound like the rate of escape is the limiting factor -- as if a low or "negligible" rate of escape will prevent gene flow to wild populations.

However, in reality it is the advantage or disadvantage an an introduced allele that determines whether it will spread or not. Wild populations are pretty well adapted, so in almost all cases an introduced allele (or gene) is likely to fail. But once in a while they may succeed -- especially if the gene is very different from alleles that might have arisen naturally (like moving genes from rice to corn), and if the trait is related to biotic resistance or drought tolerance or other ecological problems shared with wild plants.

And if an escaping gene begins with a few copies, it will take a long time to reach an appreciable frequency in the wild. In other words, the effects are long-delayed.

Unhappily, natural selection has no test plots for us to figure out in advance which genes will be adaptive in wild populations, and logic only takes us so far. So we're left with uncertain consequences, that may take a long time to manifest themselves.

I think in most cases, the risks of transgenic organisms are pretty minor compared to their economic benefits (which include feeding people who would otherwise be hungry). But it would be nice if other -- nonpatentable -- approaches to increasing production were getting some of the resources going into trangenic organisms.