Biotechnologies have been utilized "ante litteram" for thousands of years to produce food and drink and genetic engineering techniques have been widely applied to produce many compounds for human use, from insulin to other medicines. The debate on genetically modified (gm) organisms broke out all over the world only when gm crops were released into the field. Plant ecologists, microbiologists and population geneticists carried out experiments aimed at evaluating the environmental impact of gm crops. The most significant findings concern: The spread of transgenes through gm pollen diffusion and its environmental impact after hybridisation with closely related wild species or subspecies; horizontal gene transfer from transgenic plants to soil microbes; the impact of insecticide proteins released into the soil by transformed plants on non-target microbial soil communities. Recent developments in genetic engineering produced a technology, dubbed "terminator", which protects patented genes introduced in transgenic plants by killing the seeds in the second generation. This genetic construct, which interferes so heavily with fundamental life processes, is considered dangerous and should be ex-ante evaluated taking into account the data on "unexpected events", as here discussed, instead of relying on the "safe until proven otherwise" claim. Awareness that scientists, biotechnologists and genetic engineers cannot answer the fundamental question "how likely is that transgenes will be transferred from cultivated plants into the natural environment?" should foster long-term studies on the ecological risks and benefits of transgenic crops.
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