As a GMO under development progresses through the laboratory to the growth room and into the greenhouse, the basic biosafety requirement is to limit spread of the engineered organism and its genetic material. Containment is a term for the use of physical barriers to restrict spread within a structure or enclosed space. Laboratory facilities and greenhouses afford this relatively high level of control.
Physical containment of transgenic plants and plant cells within laboratories, tissue culture facilities, and growth cabinets is maintained by good laboratory practice. Plants can be monitored relatively easily under such conditions, although care must be taken to ensure that seeds produced under lab or growth cabinet conditions are carefully collected for disposal or subsequent use. Labeling plants or pots will help avoid accidental mixing of transgenic and nontransgenic plants. Materials to be disposed of need to be treated in a way that prevents their survival or growth outside the contained facility. This may be achieved by autoclav-ing, steam sterilization, treatment with a household bleach solution, or proper composting.
Greenhouses are designed to keep insects and animals out and plant and plant parts in. Construction details and procedures for handling GMOs will vary depending on the types and degrees of biosafety concern associated with the experimental materials to be housed within. In many cases, conventional greenhouses can be made suitable for GMOs by simple refurbishing and minor structural upgrades. For higher levels of containment, facilities may have to meet such specifications as controlled and filtered airflow, systems to control and disinfect water leaving the facility, autoclaves for on-site sterilization of plant material and equipment, disinfecting the facility after experiments, strict limits on whom is allowed to enter, and staff and worker training. Consideration also must be given to safe transport of GMOs into and out of the facility and methods to monitor for accidental escape during and after the experiment.
Greenhouses cannot prevent pollen from escaping; even newly built, top-quality greenhouses will not contain microscopically small grains of pollen. Pollen containment requires specialized equipment, materials, and expensive construction details that may be beyond the means of most public institutions. An easy and commonly used solution to this problem is to place small bags over the male flowers before the pollen is shed; collected pollen may then be used for hand-pollination as needed, or disposed of. More effective containment is achieved by building within the greenhouse a small sealed room fitted with special air filters that block pollen escape. For more detailed information, refer to A Practical Guide to Containment: Greenhouse Research with Transgenic Plants and Microbes.8
Environmental risk is a function of the combined characteristics of the organism, the nature of the genetic modification, and the site (local ecosystem) where the GMO is to be released. Each characteristic affords opportunities to manage potential risks. Not all GMOs pose an environmental risk; of those that may cause harmful effects, not all pose the same level of risk. Accordingly, biosafety reviewers strive to tailor risk-management procedures to the nature and magnitude of an identified risk. Some of these strategies are discussed in the following sections.
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