The Eco Invertebase holds information on New Zealand invertebrate taxa, including data describing their biology, ecology, distribution and reproduction. The data entered into the database are limited to published data to ensure its integrity and accuracy. This information feeds into a model called PRONTI (Priority Ranking of Non-Target Invertebrates), which was developed by the OpERA group as a method of more consistently and objectively deciding which non-target invertebrate species should be tested in a laboratory as part of a risk assessment to determine the potential effects of genetically modified (GM) plants before they are released into the environment.

PRONTI works by ranking organisms in the Eco Invertebase by their degree of risk from the stressor, and hence their priority for testing. The higher the ranking given to an invertebrate, the greater its priority for testing. The model can specifically look at organisms that occur within the environment into which the GM organism will be introduced.

The work is aimed at helping the Environmental Protection Authority (EPA), which receives applications for the introduction of new organisms into New Zealand, including GM organisms. The benefit of this system is that it gives scientists and regulators a more objective and consistent way to rank the importance of testing various organisms.

Dr Jacqui Todd of Plant & Food Research in Auckland was one of the key scientists who helped develop the PRONTI model and Eco Invertebase, and through her PhD research, she investigated how PRONTI could be used to prioritise invertebrates for testing the effects of proposed biological control agents. Using the existing Eco Invertebase, Todd modified PRONTI so that it could be used to assess the risks posed by a biological control agent to each invertebrate in the database and to rank them for testing with the agent.

One of the key advantages of the Eco Invertebase is that the huge amount of data on individual species can be used with different stressors, providing flexibility of use for the database. Only the details of the stressor and the likely interaction with each species need to be changed in order to run the PRONTI model for a new scenario. The database currently includes invertebrates from diverse ecosystems including forestry, horticulture, and pasture.

Interest in the database has been widespread, with collaborators as far away as Canada showing interest in how it could be applied in other contexts overseas. For example, Dr Peter Mason of Agriculture and Agrifood Canada is testing the database and PRONTI model using North American biological control agents.

Being housed on the B3 website means that the Eco Invertebase is now easily accessible for simultaneous data entry by multiple people across several organisations. The goal is to make the database available to the rest of the scientific community within 3-4 years, once the group has fully tested the model.

The EPA are supportive of the concept of this work and Kate Bromfield, Senior Advisor, New Organisms, said, “The EPA supports any research that provides us with consistent decision-making tools, particularly when evaluating the off-target effects of biological control agents.”

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