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Science of The Total Environment
Vol. 583, 2017, Pages: 123–132

Assessing environmental impacts of genetically modified plants on non-target organisms: The relevance of in planta studies

Salvatore Arpaia, A. Nicholas E. Birch, Jozsef Kiss, Joop J.A. van Loon, Antoine Messéan, Marco Nuti, Joe N. Perry, Jeremy B. Sweet, Christoph C. Tebbe

ENEA, DTE-BBC, Research Centre Trisaia, Rotondella (MT), Italy.


In legal frameworks worldwide, genetically modified plants (GMPs) are subjected to pre-market environmental risk assessment (ERA) with the aim of identifying potential effects on the environment. In the European Union, the EFSA Guidance Document introduces the rationale that GMPs, as well as their newly produced metabolites, represent the potential stressor to be evaluated during ERA. As a consequence, during several phases of ERA for cultivation purposes, it is considered necessary to use whole plants or plant parts in experimental protocols. The importance of in planta studies as a strategy to address impacts of GMPs on non-target organisms is demonstrated, to evaluate both effects due to the intended modification in plant phenotype (e.g. expression of Cry proteins) and effects due to unintended modifications in plant phenotype resulting from the transformation process (e.g. due to somaclonal variations or pleiotropic effects). In planta tests are also necessary for GMPs in which newly expressed metabolites cannot easily be studied in vitro. This paper reviews the scientific literature supporting the choice of in planta studies as a fundamental tool in ERA of GMPs in cultivation dossiers; the evidence indicates they can realistically mimic the ecological relationships occurring in their receiving environments and provide important insights into the biology and sustainable management of GMPs.

Graphical abstract

Keywords: Environmental risk assessment; Bacillus thuringiensis; Insect resistance; Ecosystem services; Insect-plant interactions; Non-target organisms; Risk management.

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