Take the 2-minute tour ×
Biology Stack Exchange is a question and answer site for biology researchers, academics, and students. It's 100% free, no registration required.

The article "The Bacterium That (Almost) Ate the World" by Elaine Ingham (see also here or here) describes a genetically modified bacterium that would break down cellulose plant matter into alcohol:

The genetic engineers took genetic material from another bacterium and inserted that trait in the GMO to allow Klebsiella planticola to produce alcohol. The aim of this genetic modification was to eliminate the burning of farm fields to rid them of plant matter after harvest. The idea was that you could, instead, rake up all that plant residue, put it in a bucket. and inoculate it with the engineered bacterium, and in about two weeks' time you would have a material that contained about 17 percent alcohol. The alcohol could be extracted and used for gasohol, for cleaning windows, or for myriad other uses: cooking with alcohol in Third World countries, for instance... [but could the bacteria] wash into the root systems of your plants? Most likely. Once it's there and growing in the root systems of your plants, it's producing alcohol. What level of alcohol is toxic to plants? It's one part per million. How much alcohol does this engineered organism produce? Seventeen parts per million. Very soon you will have drunk dead plants.

The author asks what the consequences of an escape and spread of this bacteria would be:

Very possibly, we would have no terrestrial plants left. Some plants, such as riparian and wetland plants, have mechanisms for dealing with alcohol production in their root systems. But the logical extrapolation of that experiment is that we would lose terrestrial plants.

My question is: could this problem actually occur, i.e. could this bacterium indeed survive and spread "in the wild", and how likely is it that this would occur?

If not an actual spread of the organisms, what about a spread of their genetic material? We know that bacteria are wont to exchange genetic material, happens all the time (latest example: Sewage-treatment plants described as giant 'mixing vessels' after scientists discover mutated microbes in British river).

Ae we just the right escape or gene-exchange away from a major biosphere change?

share|improve this question

closed as primarily opinion-based by Chris, Bez, Cornelius, canadianer, WYSIWYG Dec 13 at 4:55

Many good questions generate some degree of opinion based on expert experience, but answers to this question will tend to be almost entirely based on opinions, rather than facts, references, or specific expertise.If this question can be reworded to fit the rules in the help center, please edit the question.

    
In order for the gene to spread in the environment it would have to offer some advantage for the bacteria that carry it over the bacteria that don't. Antibiotic resistance genes obviously offer this advantage, especially in medical environments. I don't know if the ability to efficiently convert cellulose to ethanol would help these bacteria survive in the wild. –  user137 Aug 19 at 22:49
    
@user137 If they just had "as many chances as the others" their spread would not be particularly fast but they still could slowly pervade the ecosystem anyway, wouldn't they? A game of chances. The article also mentions: How far does a single-point inoculation of a genetically engineered organism spread in one year? An engineered Rhizobium bacterium that was released in Louisiana in the mid-1990s spread eleven miles per year and has by now dispersed across the North American continent. Ethanol could also be useful for fending off other bacteriae. Maybe. –  David Tonhofer Aug 26 at 9:18