New achieved through gene modification creates new potential for curing human diseases and ailments. This field of research also opens up the way to improving the characteristics of plants, animals and human beings. One of the major challenges facing this new area of knowledge is that one does not have a full and complete picture of all the consequences such manipulations can bring. Gene Ecology as a professional study field grew from this lack of certainty. The objective is to study how gene modified organisms can affect our ecological systems. Risk analyses are an important tool in gene ecology research.
The term ”Gene Ecology” was born in Tromsø, and the establishment of the term as a scientific field was initiated through GenØk. Research into gene-ecological matters is carried out both in the laboratory and in full-scale projects in nature.
The basis for gene ecology as a scientific subject is a difficult clash of interests: While gene manipulation opens the way to several potential advantages – in particular with regard to health, the environment and natural resources – there are also risks attached to the use of gene modified organisms. A set of known biological and ecological processes may contribute to the dissemination of modified genetic material in given situations with clearly damaging consequences. Examples of this are the development of resistance to antibiotics and cross-pollination between organic and modified maize in Mexico. Risk evaluation therefore becomes a key term in gene ecology, and a vital task will be to build up a base of knowledge and experience in order to implement such evaluations. One must among other things establish models and conditions in laboratories at a much earlier point in time than has previously been the case that duplicates the ecological inter-actions and complexity of nature.
Risk and probability are not the same. Risk can be defined as the probability of an event or phenomena occurring, multiplied by any consequences that may result from the incident actually occurring. At this point in time we have little knowledge of both the probabilities and consequences in relation to theoretically possible consequences for health and the environment resulting from gene modification.
Gene ecology research starts with a list of ”if”, ”perhaps” and ”maybe”. The objective of the research is to replace uncertain presumptions with exact knowledge. Until such knowledge has been established, gene ecology as a professional field has adopted a caution-first principal as its starting point for further research.
The ethical dimension
Gene technology opens new potential opportunity for the treatment of illnesses, food production and livestock breeding. However, new potential is always accompanied by new potential risks and dangers. The challenge is therefore to direct research in a direction where the advantages can be harvested while at the same time implementing caution-first based strategies if order to avoid undesirable ethical, ecological and socio-economical consequences. In a gene-ecological relationship we wish to establish a more impacted basis on which to assess the ethical implications for science and the administration when gene technology is to be used. An ethical analysis is closely linked with to the understanding of how the technology may affect the well being of humans, animals and the natural environment. Important questions are: How are we to act when we do not know the long-term consequences? Hoe ”sure” is sure enough? Who makes the decision? Who are the affected parties? Questions that require ethical reflection where ethicians, molecular biologists, ecologist, social scientists, politicians and other interested parties are involved.
Gene ecology is an inter-disciplinary subject area, which among other things combines genetics and biochemistry with ecology, bio-ethics and scientific philosophy. Gene ecology is in the process of establishing itself as a central discipline in the design of new medicines and provides society with the possibility for more realistic cost/usefulness analyses. Centre for Integrated Research in Biosafety has arrived at the following unified definition of this interdisciplinary subject area: “Gene Ecology a new interdisciplinary field that is unique in its combination of genetics and biochemistry with bioethics, the philosophy of science, and social studies of science and technology. It builds on innovative work in the areas of genomics, proteomics, food science, ecology, evolution, intellectual property, indigenous rights, participatory technology assessment, and globalisation. This synthetic approach reverses the trend toward the more reductionist qualities of the component sciences. Gene ecology is rapidly becoming a central discipline for drug design and for the comprehensive evaluation of gene-based technologies.”