The GENetic Engineering Risk Atlas was conceived and built over the course of several years. It started when a group of scientists at Biology Fortified, Inc., wanted to find and show people how much scientific research has been conducted on genetically engineered crops, and by whom. People have concerns about these crops and the foods we eat from them, and they want to know how well it has been studied. They want to know if the information can be trusted, and what it all means. Our early effort to communicate the scope of the scientific research was to start putting them in a list.

The first list was started by Dr. David Tribe, a professor of biotechnology and food safety at the University of Melbourne, Australia. The list grew to a couple hundred studies, at which point it was copied to, and a second list of studies known to be independent from corporate funding was also collected. At the time, there were about 300 studies in the main list, and about 100 in the second, independent list. The idea that about one-third of the research was independently funded was based on these two lists, and this has been repeated widely.

However, we quickly realized that as a tool for communication and a resource for people who want to learn about all of this research, a list of citations is not very useful. In 2010, we started to brainstorm about how to turn these lists into a more useful resource. The project was then named the GENetic Engineering Risk Atlas, and was originally conceived to be a collection of plain-english summaries of each study in our list.

We applied for funding in 2011 with the American Society of Plant Biologists (ASPB), and although we did not receive a grant, we did get helpful feedback and we worked hard on refining our idea. Plain-english summaries of each paper would have been laborious, and when we searched the literature for more studies, we found a lot more that were not already in our list. Instead, the concept for GENERA was reworked to instead be a searchable database where each study would have its important details displayed in an easy-to-read format on the side of the page, so that users could quickly see and understand what the study was about, what the scientists concluded, and who funded it. We reapplied for funding from ASPB in 2012, and we won a $10,000 competitive, peer-reviewed grant for the project.

The first step was to systematically search the scientific literature for more studies that would be included, and then develop a specific plan for collecting, organizing, and rating each study for the Atlas. We organize our Atlas in the Qiqqa reference manager, which allows us to export the data we collect in a spreadsheet that is imported into the site to build the Atlas. Qiqqa also allowed us to set up a system that would allow volunteers to assist in collecting and curating the studies. By 2013 our collection of studies had increased to over 650, and our protocol for categorizing and analyzing each study was developed.

Then, the work began. Hundreds of studies needed to be downloaded, entered, and read. Funding information, conclusions, all needed to be extracted from each study and carefully organized. During this process, a review study collecting over 1,700 peer-reviewed studies was published in the peer-reviewed scientific journal, Critical Reviews in Biotechnology, which covered the previous ten years of research. The primary author of this study, Dr. Alessandro Nicolia, assisted with augmenting our list with the results of his research, and our list of studies grew to well over 1,000

The GENERA website was built during the spring and early summer of 2014, while the first batch of completed, reviewed studies was being proof-read for accuracy an consistency. During this time, we contacted the authors of studies that had not declared their funding sources to help us fill in additional information. Alpha testing of the GENERA system was completed in August, 2014, and the public beta test of our new GENERA website was announced on August 25th, 2014.

The beta test only includes the first 400 studies, since this is how many our budget has covered. The beta test will allow a real-world test of how the Atlas works, and we can address any unexpected issues that arise prior to the full release. After the beta test is over, the remainder of the studies will be added with only their citation information at first, and their funding sources and outcomes will be updated on a rolling basis as this process is completed.

For more information

For more details about the development of GENERA for science communication, you can read Making sense of lists of studies by Dr. Karl Haro von Mogel on the Biofortified Blog.