EPA considers fungus with potential to promote growth and yield in crops

The Environmental Protection Authority (EPA) is considering an application from a Spanish company to release a new microorganism, the fungus Glomus iranicum var. tenuihypharum. The fungus, and products derived from it, are claimed to promote growth and yield in agricultural and horticultural crops.

The applicant, Symborg Business Development, has developed products overseas using this fungus in various forms. They are used for agricultural and horticultural applications where soils are depleted through intensive use.

In powdered form, the fungus can be dissolved in water and applied through irrigation systems, or as a seed coating. In granular form, it can be spread in furrows.

The EPA’s General Manager of Hazardous Substances and New Organisms, Dr Fiona Thomson-Carter, says the fungus is not a genetically-modified organism and cannot be cultured in a laboratory in the absence of a plant host.

The applicant notes that closely related species have already been found in New Zealand.

“The fungus itself propagates by contact with the roots of a host plant, so its spread is confined to the application zone,” Dr Thomson-Carter says.

The applicant says the fungus is highly saline-tolerant. High salinity is often a feature of soils subject to intense agricultural and horticultural use, and heavy application of fertilisers. Products derived from the fungus have been shown to alleviate the negative effects of salt stress on plants such as lettuce. They also promote drought resistance, Symborg says.

The fungus grows in association with the roots of plants in a symbiotic relationship. Its network of hyphae, or long, branching filaments, improve plant growth through increasing nutrient absorption. They also promote soil stability, by binding tiny particles into coarser fragments. These factors can assist in reducing erosion, and improving plant productivity, Symborg adds.

Symborg Business Development has consulted with the HSNO Komiti of several iwi, and with the EPA’s Te Herenga Network. It discussed concerns that were raised over the possibility of the fungus displacing native species, or forming a symbiotic relationships with invasive species.

Links to the application and information for submitters are provided HERE. 

Source:  Environmental Protection Authority

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Otago researcher takes genomic sequencing to the farm to help transform lives

International scientists, including a University of Otago researcher, in a world first have used whole genome sequencing to help diagnose a plant pathogen destroying crops on African farms, potentially paving the way for preventing crop failures, vital to the African economy.

Dr Jo-Ann Stanton, a Senior Research Fellow in the University of Otago’s Department of Anatomy, helped develop the PDQeX, one of the two prototype technologies which have made it possible to carry out the whole genome sequencing on remote African farms.

“This achievement opens the way to rapid and accurate pathogen identification, permitting immediate corrective action to prevent crop failure,” Dr Stanton explains.

“For the subsistence farmers of East Africa this is the difference between having food and an income or going hungry,” she says.

“Crop failure means a loss of food security and no income for school fees, supplies, farm improvements or maintenance.”

The team including scientists from Mikocheni Agricultural Research Institute in Tanzania, the National Crops Resources Research Institute in Uganda, Jomo Kenyatta University of Agriculture and Technnology in Kenya and the University of Western Australia worked together under the “Cassava Virus Action Project” with cassava growers in three countries: Tanzania, Uganda and Kenya.

Cassava, a tuberous root of a tropical tree which produces flour and a starchy vegetable similar to potato, is under attack from viral pathogens that reduce or destroy the crop. Farmers affected by the growing viral threat depend on cassava for their main food source and yearly income.

“800 million people worldwide depend on cassava as their main source of calories and virus spread is a significant global threat,” Dr Stanton says.

As a researcher her vision is to take complex molecular diagnostics out of the lab and into the hands of non-experts to facilitate rapid, accurate and cost-effective responses to real-life situations. This project is achieving exactly that, she says.

Using hand-held molecular diagnostic devices, Dr Stanton and the team has been able to carry out whole genome sequencing on the farms. A device (PDQeX) from New Zealand company ZyGEM that permits on-site DNA extraction, was used together with the MinIT base-calling mini-supercomputer made by UK company, Oxford Nanopore.

Bringing these technologies together with the MinION, a portable DNA sequencer, it was possible to select either leaf, stem or insect samples on the farms, prepare the DNA for sequencing and then covert raw data to DNA sequence reads for data interpretation, all in real time.

Dr Stanton says the whole process took less than four hours from sampling to diagnostic results and all devices were run on battery working outdoors at the farms.

The project has significant implications not only for the African farmers, she says.

On a broader level, this breakthrough has applications in areas of human and animal health, environmental management and conservation.

The need for accurate, rapid and on-site diagnosis is growing as the globalisation of human activity accelerates.

Source: University of Otago

RSI System Performance Report is released

Science and Innovation Minister Megan Woods today announced the release of the 2018 Research, Science and Innovation System Performance Report, detailing how New Zealand is performing in key areas.

Findings show New Zealand’s science system is highly productive and produces a large amount of publications both per researcher and per $1 million spent on higher education and research, she said.

New Zealand’s international collaboration rates are high and strong connections have been made with key overseas partners, including in the United States, Australia, the United Kingdom, Germany and China.

The Report also says that while only 20% of New Zealand university graduates specialise in STEM subjects, New Zealand has a net brain-gain with more STEM professionals migrating to New Zealand than STEM professionals departing.

Total expenditure on R&D was 1.23% of GDP in 2016.

The Ardern Government is committed to raising this to 2% – an increase that will require sustained growth in R&D investment by both the public and private sectors.

The 2018 Research, Science and Innovation System Performance Report presents a series of findings from across the system, and compares New Zealand’s performance to other similar-sized economies and Australia.

It can be read on the MBIE website HERE.

Source:  Minister of Research, Science and Innovation

EPA ramps up chemical reassessments programme

The Environmental Protection Authority (EPA) is making changes to the way some chemicals are managed in New Zealand.

It is ramping up its reassessments programme and taking action on some chemicals to ensure risks to people and the environment continue to be managed effectively.

As New Zealand’s independent regulator, the EPA manages the regulation, approval and reassessment of chemicals classed as hazardous substances under the Hazardous Substances and New Organisms (HSNO) Act.

Working with international counterparts it has identified a priority chemicals list of around 40 chemicals that require review and scrutiny.

This will involve reviewing the rules that apply to those chemicals to ensure risks to people and the environment continue to be managed effectively, providing greater confidence for New Zealanders that the EPA is properly managing their health and environmental concerns on their behalf and on behalf of future generations.

“This is an extensive and important programme of work that goes to the heart of keeping New Zealand and New Zealanders safe,” says EPA Chief Executive Dr Allan Freeth.

“It is designed to lay the foundations for a modern chemical management system; one supported by robust and up-to-date evidence and data, and which aligns with the standards, knowledge and practices recognised by our regulatory partners globally.

“Industry groups, importers, manufacturers and our trading partners will also enjoy greater consumer and international confidence in the way New Zealand manages its chemical regime.

“Our worldwide knowledge about chemicals and their effects increases every day through advances in science and technology.

“At times, new information may indicate a chemical poses more risks than existed, or that we knew of, at the time it was originally approved for use in New Zealand.

“But when an approval is granted for a chemical to be used in New Zealand that approval does not expire. The only legal way it can be amended or revoked is when the EPA, or an interested party, takes formal action.

“The EPA did this in April 2017 when it reassessed five approvals for the pesticide chlorothalonil. At that time it revoked four of those approvals for domestic use and restricted a fifth approval to commercial use only.”

As part of the programme, grounds for reassessment have already been established for the herbicide paraquat, and a call for information has been completed. Further grounds for other chemicals on the priority list are being prepared for consideration by an EPA decision-making committee in the near future.

Reassessments can be complex, lengthy and some may cost more than $1 million. The EPA is funding this initial reassessment work by reprioritising its current expenditure, and is in discussion with the government on longer-term funding.

The priority chemicals list can be viewed HERE. 

Background notes with the press statement from the EPA include:

• A large and diverse number of chemicals classed as hazardous substances are in use in New Zealand. There are around 9,000 individual approvals and 210 Group Standards, which cover a total of some 150,000 substances.

• A Group Standard can be used to approve ranges of similar substances routinely used in groups of commercial products (for example, toothpaste, cosmetics, some industrial raw materials etc). A significant number of approvals have been carried forward from regimes in place before the Hazardous Substances and New Organisms Act came into full effect.

• Reassessment is the formal legal process for the EPA to evaluate any new information, and take action to prevent, manage, mitigate or reduce risks that may have come to light since an approval was first granted. The process is a two-step one. More information on how it works is available HERE.  For more information on the reassessment programme, click HERE,.

• The EPA assesses and approves hazardous substance applications (about 100 new applications/year) with appropriate input from WorkSafe New Zealand.

• The Priority Chemicals list replaces the EPA’s former Chief Executive-Initiated Reassessments list.

Source:  Environmental Protection Authority

Gene editing upsets the GM applecart, says Dr Rolleston

“New Zealand will slip behind its competitors and forfeit opportunities to address climate change, water quality, pests and other environmental concerns if we reject the use of gene editing in our primary industries,” the chairman of the Life Sciences Network, Dr William Rolleston, said today.

A report released by the Royal Society of New Zealand explores the potential uses of gene editing in the primary sector such as removing allergens from milk, making mānuka disease-resistant, preventing wilding pines and accelerating apple breeding.

Gene editing enables more precise and targeted breeding than is available through traditional breeding methods but because it is considered genetic modification in New Zealand its use will be significantly limited.

The use of genetic modification has been difficult in New Zealand due to the current regulation and strong pressure from activist groups however the advent of gene editing has changed the stakes in the debate on genetic modification.

Dr Rolleston said only time would tell if gene editing would upset the anti-GM applecart,

‘” … but we are seeing encouraging signs that science, not fear, is coming to the fore in the debate on genetic modification as it already has in the debates on immunisation and fluoride.”

Genetic modification no longer was a hypothetical argument for New Zealand, he said.

The examples presented in the Royal Society paper showed there were tangible benefits to using gene editing technology which would  be obvious to farmers and the public.  He hoped they became involved in the discussion.

Source:  Life Science Network

Tauranga Moana launches biosecurity collective

National and international biosecurity experts will gather in Tauranga this week for a series of biosecurity-related events and the launch of a new initiative.

Local and national government, iwi, businesses and other organisations have banded together to form Tauranga Moana Biosecurity Capital (TMBC) to tackle the threat of invasive pests and diseases. It is the first group of its kind in New Zealand.

The partnership, which launches tomorrow, will promote and coordinate biosecurity actions across Tauranga Moana.

“In practice, that means increasing local awareness about why biosecurity matters deeply to all of us who live here and just what would be lost if exotic pests enter or establish here,” says TMBC programme director Andrew Harrison.

“It’s about a pretty powerful, knowledgeable group standing shoulder to shoulder and saying it’s absolutely essential we pool our expertise and resources for the sake of the environment, our taonga, our economy.”

Mr Harrison says immediate TMBC priorities include overseeing a week of biosecurity-related activities, starting today. These activities include industry training days and public events, conferences and information sessions involving forestry and kiwifruit industries, iwi, Port of Tauranga, school children and more.

The group will host a one-day symposium at Tauranga Yacht Club tomorrow, where Biosecurity Minister Damien O’Connor will launch TMBC. Speakers and delegates will be treated to a demonstration by detector dogs.

The Minister says TMBC is the first collective of its kind in New Zealand and an exemplar for other regions.

“The concept shows leadership by local people who are working together to protect their region,” Mr O’Connor says. “It’d be great to see more of the same spring up.”

Mr Harrison says several high-profile biosecurity incursions – Psa in kiwifruit, myrtle rust, Mysoplasma bovis, marine pests affecting our harbours – serve as a reminder of what is at stake.

“Here, we value the fruit produced by a local orchard or in our back yard, having a bbq outdoors, enjoying a tramp in our local bush. And a devastating pest like brown marmorated stink bug can swarm our region and take all of these away, as has happened offshore and must not happen here.

“Of course biosecurity also affects everyone earning a living and operating a business in the Bay of Plenty, where our economy is so dependent on the natural environment.”

TMBC supports the national Ko Tatou This Is Us campaign, unveiled last late last month, which focusses on the personal and cultural impacts of a biosecurity breach and asks all New Zealanders to help create ‘a biosecurity team of 4.7 million’.

Source: Tauranga Moana

Great science and good food makes million-dollar business

A New Zealand start-up making apple, sauvignon blanc and pinot noir flour has received a $NZ1.2 million injection from the home of gastronomy, France.

Greenspot Technologies Ltd creates nutrient-rich alternative flours from fermented fruit and vegetable pulp that would otherwise go to waste. The product range, which is zero-waste, also includes beetroot, orange, carrot and parsnip flours. They are made using a fermentation process developed in the research labs of the University of Auckland.

Associate Professor Silas Villas-Boas and doctoral candidate Ninna Granucci, both from the University’s Biological School of Science, are now heading to France to grow their fermentation business.

They say the seed funding boost will allow the company to expand its team, test various fermentation technologies to inform the design of a dedicated manufacturing plant, and develop new food formulations.

Long-term plans are to have manufacturing plants in different parts of the world, including New Zealand.

The pair of academics turns entrepreneurs say they have good relationships with fruit and vegetable producers and food manufacturers here and New Zealand regulations result in the products coming out being very high quality.

Their careers pivoted after involvement with the University’s ‘Velocity Entrepreneurial Challenge’ which helps people test, prepare and grow smart ideas for commercial, social or environmental benefit. This year’s Challenge winners will be announced on 18 October.

In 2015, they entered ‘Velocity $100K Challenge’ with a business idea based on the results of Ninna’s research. She was looking into the actions of specific micro-organisms in the fermentation process to convert fruit and vegetable pulp into nutritious protein for human consumption.

They recognised how this might be applied to one of the biggest problems facing the modern world – food shortage versus food waste.

Rather than look for new foods, such as insects, or put money into developing meat alternatives they decided to focus on reducing wastage of good food. One-third of all food produced globally is lost or wasted every year, and 40 percent of that is fruits and vegetables.

The scientists placed second in the competition.

By early 2017, the pair opened a small pilot plant in East Tamaki, Auckland, to prove they could increase quantities from the lab and produce a consistent product.

By the end of the year the company was seeking significant investment to scale up.

Greenspot’s experience testifies to the value of applied research, says Associate Professor Villas-Boas.

When technology is brought back to society, jobs are created, income for the country increased and – in this case – negative impacts on the environment reduced.

Source: University of Auckland