Gene technologies among considerations as FSANZ prepares to revise its food code

Dr Grant Jacobs, a computational biologist based in Dunedin, has reminded New Zealanders and Australians they will have to hurry if they want to make last-minute submissions to revise Food Standards Australia and New Zealand’s code for controlling new food varieties.

The role of gene technology (he points out HERE) comes into considerations.

FSANZ is seeking input from the community on whether food derived using new breeding techniques (NBTs) should be captured for pre-market approval under the Code, and whether the definitions for ‘food produced using gene technology’ and ‘gene technology’ should be changed to improve clarity.

The consulting paper will need digesting first.

Dr Jacobs last year offered an outline of things to consider with current GMOs.

A key issue, he explains, is that by focusing on “breeding” technologies, good new varieties are being blocked.

This is not a case of avoiding risk. An alternative is to focus on each new variety on it’s own merits, it’s traits, the nature of that plant, and how it’s managed in the field, and so on. They’re the things related to risk.

Dr Jacobs provides anyone interested with his earlier list of thoughts on regulating gene-edited varieties

At the top of a list of 13 thoughts are:-

* GMO has little scientific meaning. People have different ideas about what it means, and it carries emotive baggage. Instead, use specific terms appropriate to each application.

* They’re new varieties, call them that. They’re basically the parent plant with one feature tweaked.

* The key to making these new varieties is being able to “read” genomes and work out what particular genes do. Editing technologies are “just” tools to make “whatever”.

To find other writing on this topic, he gives advice on how to use the Sciblogs homepage to find material and suggests this reading list: –

Kumara are transgenic (Transgenes occur in nature too.)

Genetic modification now accepted by most New Zealanders (A survey indicates New Zealanders now accept GM food as safe.)

GMOs and the plants we eat: neither are “natural” (An essay on food.)

Green Party GM policy and discussion about GE or GMOs (The Green Party should revise their stance on GM.)

In a demon-haunted world (Not about GM, but unfortunately relevant. A tribute to Sagan, sorely needed in these times.)

Is GM corn really different to non-GM corn? (Reporting other’s objections to one controversy.)

Séralini GMO maize and Roundup study republished with no scientific peer review (One of the ‘unorthodox’ researchers opposing GMOs re-publishes a retracted paper with no fresh peer-review.)

Christmas trees weedy and not (The proposed project that the court case shut down – despite EPA approval, and that it didn’t involve introducing new genes. Wilding pines are a curse in New Zealand.)

Carrots for my neighbour (A short story of sorts.)

New Zealand political spokesperson for GE and more endorses homeopathy for Ebola (What can we say. Some people are… interesting. He re-asserted this claim in his valedictory speech.)

Changing the GMO regulations – the ministry options (The options that set the current legislation.)

Gene editing and GMOs in NZ, part one (A short series; parts two and three are linked at the start.)

GMOs and legislation: useful suggestions for New Zealand in British report (A summary of a large UK report. Not a short read!)

The House of Commons Science and Technology Committee on GMO legislation (Lighter take on the previous article.)

In a footnote, Dr Jacobs complains about how notifications of these submission calls are so hard to discover.

Surely there must be a simple way to have them sent to you without having the circular problem of knowing what sites to “follow” in order to receive them. (For parliamentary submissions, I’ve tried the government notifications tools; my experience was that it seemed to want to send (spam!) me everything BUT what I wanted!)

He says he will write later on relevant issues, such as “‘genes from other species”.

He has illustrated his post with a picture of transgenic C5 plums, which contain a gene that makes them resistant to plum pox virus.

UPDATE: Dr Jacobs advises the deadline has been extended to 19 April (see his comment below).

Plant scientists are delighted by US ruling which gives green light to gene-editing

American researchers have been given the go-ahead to use gene-editing techniques to alter crops and plants, The Guardian reports (HERE).

The decision allows scientists to create a new generation of genetically altered crops without serious restriction and paves the way for approvals for similar work in Britain and the rest of Europe.

The decision – by the US Department of Agriculture – has delighted scientists, who had feared that limitations on the creation and growing of genetically modified crops would also be imposed on crops created using far simpler gene-editing techniques.

“I think this decision by American legislators will have all sorts of benefits in the long run,” said Professor Denis Murphy of the University of South Wales.

“This is a win-win situation because agriculture for gene-editing is cheaper, faster, simpler and more precise than the genetic modification of plants, in which a gene is taken from one organism and moved to another.”

The European Court of Justice indicated in January that it does not think crops created though gene-editing techniques should be regulated by the rules that govern genetically modified organisms in Europe, The Guardian says.

“At the same time, Britain’s Acre – the advisory committee on releases into the environment – also seems to be sympathetic to this position,” said Professor Huw Dylan Jones of Aberystwyth University.

“It is very encouraging.”

In the wake of hostile green campaigns, Britain imposed severe restrictions on GM crops two decades ago and few have been grown.

Many scientists worried that this fate would also befall plants created by the newer and simpler technique of gene-editing and a technology at which Britain excels would be banned.

These fears are now disappearing, they say.

“If we have our own domestic gene-editing industry then scientists trained at our universities will have something to work on here when they qualify,” said Professor Murphy.

“At present, our young scientists have to go to work in another country if they want to continue working on the topic.”

Gene-editing could lead to the development of domestic crops particularly suited to Britain, said Professor Jones.

“Loliums and clovers that are good for grazing could be improved to make them more hardy, for example,” he said. “It is very hopeful.”

The Guardian explained that genetically modified crops are generated through the introduction of foreign DNA sequences.

Gene-edited crops are created by editing an organism’s native genome.

Gene-editing is more efficient, cheaper, quicker and more precise.

By altering the DNA make-up of a gene the characteristics of a cell or an organism can be changed.

UC biotechnologist creates biodegradable coating to protect crops

A novel system for protecting plants from pests, infection and adverse weather has been awarded one of the top prizes in the University of Canterbury’s Tech Jumpstart competition.

Biotechnology expert Associate Professor David Leung, of the university’s School of Biological Sciences, entered the annual competition held by UC’s Research & Innovation department and won $20,000 towards his research. His project also won the WNT Ventures prize, garnering a further $35,000 of practical services with the technology-based incubator.

Associate Professor Leung’s system is designed to protect agricultural crops during critical stages of the plant lifecycle by way of a biodegradable coating for the plant. It has the potential to protect much of New Zealand’s horticultural exports, including kiwifruit, apples, citrus and grapes.

Once fully-developed, the proposed project would provide new tools or management options to growers.

“Good plant growth in orchards and other horticultural industries contribute heavily to economic well-being,” Associate Professor Leung says.

“This is important in terms of export earnings as well as job opportunities.”

The potential to have more control over the impact of weather and pests on plants would have a substantial bearing on growers’ businesses.

WNT Ventures investment manager Jon Sandbrook believes the project will attract global interest.

“There a lot of big complex problems to solve in this sector and people like David Leung are using smart agricultural science to do that,” he says.

“We’ve been involved in the Tech Jumpstart competition for the last couple of years and we are so impressed with the calibre of entries. This reflects very well on the individuals at UC but also their R&I team. They do a great job of encouraging commercialisation.

As investors WNT is looking for ideas with a global potential and this one “absolutely has that”, Mr Sandbrook says.

Lincoln Agritech researchers in team to use bacteria in revolutionary ways

A new Lincoln Agritech research programme will find revolutionary ways of using naturally-occurring bacteria and fungi to increase the availability of nitrogen to plants and improve plants’ tolerance to stress.

A second programme will work towards naturally removing “off” flavours in wine.

Lincoln Agritech is an independent multidisciplinary research and development company owned by Lincoln University.

Biotechnology Team Manager Dr Richard Weld, who is leading the research, says the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment has awarded the programmes a combined $8.2m.

The first of the two projects will benefit the forestry and pastoral sectors by allowing pine trees and grasses to convert atmospheric nitrogen into plant-available mineral nitrogen in the same way that legumes such as clover do, and by improving the plants’ tolerance to stress.

Dr Weld says this can be achieved by optimising the natural microbial communities associated with the plants, thereby creating new symbioses between plants, bacteria and fungi.

“We will select bacteria that fix nitrogen and that enhance plant tolerance to stress,” says Dr Weld. “These bacteria will then be combined in symbiotic association with two fungi which naturally live within plants.

“After this, the fungal-bacterial hybrids can be introduced to pine trees and perennial ryegrass. The combination will make the plants more resistant to stress and more able take up nitrogen.”

Dr Weld says the five-year programme is world-leading – no other researchers have attempted a triple symbiosis between fungi, bacteria and these plants.

The research team from Lincoln Agritech, Lincoln University, Scion and AgResearch includes scientists who have been instrumental in developing fungal biocontrol endophytes.

The team will work with commercial companies which are already producing and licensing fungal endophytes. The new fungal-bacterial hybrids will be added to their product lines.

The second research programme involves using bacteria with two unique features – they are naturally magnetic and have an unusual sulphur metabolism that allows them to derive energy from hydrogen sulphide. This means they can be controlled using magnetic fields and used to remove hydrogen sulphide from wine, which can be responsible for “off” flavours.

Dr Weld says the research will use the wine industry as an exemplar, but the technology can benefit other industries where hydrogen sulphide is also an issue.

The programme involves researchers from Lincoln Agritech, Plant and Food Research, Aix-Marseille University, France and will take place over a two-year period.

Industry participants in the project include Agrimm Technologies Ltd, Agriseeds Ltd, ArborGen Inc, Grasslanz Technology Ltd, Indevin NZ, KonoNZ, Lake Taupo Forest Management Ltd, NZ Forestry Owners Association, NZ Wingrowers, PGG Wrightson Seeds, Rayonier Matariki, and Timberlands.

Using milk protein to 3D-imprint muscle and bone cells

A University of Canterbury PhD student is using milk protein to 3D-imprint muscle and bone cells. She hopes her research eventually may be used to regrow missing body parts.

Electrical and Computer Engineering doctoral candidate Azadeh Hashemi, originally from Tehran, Iran, came to Christchurch to start her PhD at the University of Canterbury four years ago.

Her successful work in the university’s Biomolecular Interaction Centre is turning what basically is milk powder into biomedical devices, such as implants to help regrow missing body parts. Her work is focused on fabrication of casein-based films with surface patterns, and growing cells on them.

“The aim of my work is to replicate a 3D imprint of cells onto films made of milk protein, to use them as a substrate for growing cells. Development of the replication process and controlling the biodegradability of these films are the main parts of this work,” she says.

“The patterns on these biodegradable cell culture substrates mimic the cells’ natural physical environment and they can influence cell shape and growth. Once they have done their job, the films gradually degrade and leave the grown tissue behind.”

The possibilities of these micro- and nanostructures are tantalising, the university says in a press released, with applications in stem cell engineering, regenerative medicine, and implantable devices.

“If they can help the cells grow into muscles, bones or other tissues they would be able to replace any missing body part and help them regrow,” Azadeh says.

“Another great application for these substrates is to grow stem cells on an imprint with patterns of different cell types and see what type of cell the stem cells would change into. We might even be able to stop cancer cells from being cancerous by growing them on these patterns, in which case the biodegradability of the substrates would also be an advantage for eliminating the need for secondary surgery.”

These materials have not yet been used in the human body, but in theory their application could help recovery from injury or disease with muscle or bone replacement.

“These films could especially be used as implants to help missing tissue or muscle regrow using the surface patterns as a guide. The biodegradable implant would then just dissolve and there won’t be any need for secondary surgery to take the implant out.”

The project is based on a collaboration between Dr Volker Nock of the University of Canterbury’s Biomolecular Interaction Centre and Dr Azam Ali, formerly at AgResearch, now at the University of Otago. It was initiated through the Biomolecular Interaction Centre via a summer scholarship.

The early results were promising and Azadeh’s work took it to the next level, Dr Nock, her PhD supervisor, says.

“Azadeh’s work has demonstrated that we can replicate the shapes of biological cells into casein biopolymers with extremely high-resolution, that we can control how long these materials take to degrade and that we can culture other cells on top of them. She is just now getting her first results as to what influence the shapes have on the cells and how the shapes change over time. One premise is that plastic (bio or not) with the shape of similar cells imprinted on the surface may positively influence the response of other real cells encountering such a surface,” he says.

Azadeh’s research also builds on the work of her PhD co-supervisor University of Canterbury Professor Maan Alkaisi and his students in developing a method of imprinting the shapes of cells into plastic.

“We now have a biodegradable, pattern-able surface on which we can culture cells. The patterns can for example be used to help guide cells during muscle fibre formation in a Petri dish, while slowly being dissolved by the cells in the process so that only the finished tissue remains,” Dr Nock says.

Azadeh recently returned to Christchurch from the United States where she was invited to give a presentation at one of the largest micro- and nanofabrication conferences in the world, the International Conference on Electron, Ion, and Photon Beam Technology and Nanofabrication, based on a prize she won last year at a European conference in Vienna, Austria (International Conference on Micro & Nano Engineering).

She co-wrote the academic paper Fabrication of free-standing casein devices with micro- and nanostructured regular and bioimprinted surface features.

You can find more from University of Canterbury on InfoPages.


Adding vitamin C to crops – a way of helping plants and people

Enhancing plants with vitamin C could improve both human and crop health, according to New Zealand and Australian researchers. Because most major commodity crops have low levels of vitamin C, the researchers want to take a leaf out of certain superfruits’ DNA (which have high levels) to help fortify staple crops. They say there are many methods to turn on genes that boost vitamin C in plants, so a multi-pronged approach should be taken.

The have published their work in a paper in Current Opinion in Biotechnology 2017 titled Increasing ascorbate levels in crops to enhance human nutrition and plant abiotic stress tolerance (HERE) .

The authors are Richard C Macknight (University of Otago, Department of Biochemistry);   William A Laing and Sean M Bulley (Plant & Food Research); Ronan C Broad and Alexander A. T. Johnson (University of Melbourne’s School of BioScience); and Roger P Hellens (Queensland University of Technology’s Centre for Tropical Crops and Biocommodities, Institute for Future Environments).

The abstract says:

Ascorbate (or vitamin C) is an essential human micronutrient predominantly obtained from plants. In addition to preventing scurvy, it is now known to have broader roles in human health, for example as a co-factor for enzymes involved in epigenetic programming and as regulator of cellular iron uptake. Furthermore, ascorbate is the major antioxidant in plants and underpins many environmentally induced abiotic stress responses.

Biotechnological approaches to enhance the ascorbate content of crops therefore have potential to improve both human health and abiotic stress tolerance of crops.

Identifying the genetic basis of ascorbate variation between plant varieties and discovering how some ‘super fruits’ accumulate extremely high levels of ascorbate should reveal new ways to more effectively manipulate the production of ascorbate in crops.

Ascorbate is a major antioxidant produced by plants and its primary role is to protect the cell from the damaging effects of reactive oxygen species that are produced as a result of normal cellular metabolism, especially during photosynthesis. Ascorbate also plays an important protective role under stress conditions where damage to cellular machinery causes increased production of ROS.

Changing global climate patterns are predicted to increase extreme environmental conditions, such as high temperatures and drought. Developing abiotic stress tolerant crops therefore will be critical to ensuring food security for an increasing world population, the paper says.

As plants with increased ascorbate levels are more tolerant to stress, this is a promising way to generate more resilient crops.

Increasing the ascorbate levels of crop plants should also provide a way to improving human nutrition.

The paper reviews recent research efforts to increase ascorbate in leaves (primarily aimed at stress tolerance) and edible plant parts (aimed at improved nutrition).

The work was supported by the University of Otago School of Biomedical Sciences Bequest Fund and a grant from the Australian Research Council (LP130100785).

NZBIO award goes to Scion for new ‘green’ glue for wood products

Scion’s environmentally friendly bioadhesives technology has been awarded Biotechnology of the Year at NZBio’s annual conference.

Dr Will Barker, chief executive of NZBioO, described the technology as “a game changer” for wood panel manufacturers.

The Scion bioadhesives team, led by Warren Grigsby, has developed a world-first 100 per cent bio-based adhesive and resins for engineered wood products. Made from natural sources, such as forestry and agricultural waste, these adhesives and resins are petrochemical-free, have very low formaldehyde emissions and can be made and used in existing manufacturing operations.

Grigsby said the team had spent years mixing and matching assorted ingredients to come up with right recipe. “This is the icing on the cake,” he said.

The technology has been trademarked and patented as “Ligate”.

Grigsby said:

“The ‘green’ credentials of Ligate products will provide manufacturers with a competitive advantage over wood processors using conventional petrochemical-based adhesives and resins.

“Adhesives and resins made from natural sources have a lower environmental footprint and are considered more socially acceptable than their traditional formaldehyde-based counterparts.”

The technology has already attracted international interest. Grigsby will travel to Europe next week to further profile the technology at two international conferences.

More information can be found here.


Chance discovery about food crops and carbon capture holds lesson for NZ science funders

University of Guelph researchers believe an almost entirely accidental discovery could transform food and biofuel production and increase carbon capture on farmland.

By tweaking a plant’s genetic profile, the researchers doubled the plant’s growth and increased seed production by more than 400 per cent.

The findings were published in the March 2016 issue of Plant Biotechnology Journal.

The team studied Arabidopsis, a small flowering plant often used in lab studies because of its ease of use and its similarity to some common farm crops. They found that inserting a particular corn enzyme caused the plant’s growth rate to skyrocket.

“Even if the effects in a field-grown crop were less, such as only a tenth of what we’ve seen in the lab, that would still represent an increase in yield of 40 to 50 per cent, compared with the average one to two per cent a year that most breeding programs deliver,” said Prof. Michael Emes, Department of Molecular and Cellular Biology (MCB).

He said the team’s finding could boost yields of important oilseed crops such as canola and soybean, as well as crops such as camelina, increasingly grown for biofuels.

Larger plants would capture more atmospheric carbon dioxide without increasing the amount of farmland, said Emes.

“Farmers and consumers would benefit significantly in terms of food production, green energy and the environment. The ramifications are enormous.”

The finding came almost by chance.

Studying the enzyme’s effect on starch, the researchers noticed that their genetically engineered plants looked different and much larger in photos taken by lead author Fushan Liu, a former post-doctoral MCB researcher.

“That’s when we realized that we were looking at something potentially much more important,” said Ian Tetlow, an MCB professor and study co-author.

Although genetic engineering led to more flowers and pods containing seeds, it left the seed composition unchanged.

“The seeds are where we would get the oil from, and consistent composition is important so that the function and use of the oil isn’t changed,” said Tetlow.

The researchers plan to test canola and other crops. Field tests and analysis with industry and government will likely take several years.

Emes said the discovery could have enormous implications for agriculture, carbon capture, food production, animal feedstocks and biodiesel.

The work was started to test some ideas in basic science,  he said, which “just goes to show that you never know where that science will take you.”

This quote should be framed and mounted on the wall of the office inhabited by New Zealand’s Minister for Science and Innovation, for him to reflect on when making funding decisions.

NZ surges up global biotech rankings

New Zealand has been ranked #3 in the recently released Scientific American World View Scorecard, which measures the biotech innovation potential of 54 countries.

Using seven categories including productivity, IP protection, intensity, enterprise support, education/workforce, foundations and policy and stability, the study benchmarks each countries’ potential on an annual basis.

New Zealand has surged in the rankings from #18 in 2011 to #3 in 2015. Dr Will Barker, CEO of NZBIO says its members have always maintained New Zealand is a great place to grow bio-based businesses.

“It is fantastic to be recognised in such a prestigious international study,” Dr Barker says. “Taking top spot in several subcategories, including ‘most life science PhD’s per capita’ and ‘best political stability’ is great. However, there is room in NZ for significant improvement in both public and private R&D spending and investment, which is very low compared with the other top 10 countries.”

Commenting on the comparative strength in the Enterprise Support and Policy and Stability categories, added: “These results clearly show the infrastructure for supporting New Zealand’s growing bioeconomy is evolving nicely. However, while the study uses wide ranging data to measure potential it fails to examine local legislative challenges such as our HSNO Act, which affects a large portion of our biotech companies.”

NZBio backs fresh debate on biotechnologies

NZBio is reported to have waded into the debate over using new biotechnologies, including genetic modification, and given support to a call by Treasury secretary Gabriel Makhlouf for another look at New Zealand’s attitude to risk.

Will Barker, chief executive of the biotech industry organisation, said the Hazardous Substances and New Organisms Act needs to be urgently revised so new organisms are covered by better-conceived legislation.

Attempts to interpret the current legislation have shown it to be highly restrictive, yet there are considerable benefits that new genetic technologies can offer New Zealanders,” Barker said in a statement today.

In a speech at Fieldays last week on making informed decisions about natural resources, Makhlouf said New Zealand’s current system denies choice over whether the country should adopt them  when new technologies come along, both genetically modified and non-genetically modified.

But our international competitors do have this option, he said.

Makhlouf cited the example of a new variety of high-yielding eucalyptus tree recently approved for cultivation in Brazil which will allow growers to get a 15 per cent increase in wood for the same area, processors to get a 20 per cent reduction in the cost of wood production, while the environment benefits from a 12 per cent increase in the amount of carbon dioxide stored per hectare.

Although high-yielding wood is at the core of the pulp and paper industry, New Zealand’s current regime for regulating new organisms is highly restrictive in practice, and doesn’t allow flexibility to choose whether this is something wanted here, Makhlouf said.

“I’ve heard it said that our currently regulatory regime would deny us the choice to adopt many new plants and species that today offer us huge advantages: kiwifruit, rye grass, and even the ubiquitous pinus radiata,” he said.

Makhlouf also said New Zealand was denying itself choice over how much risk it took.

“When systems adopt rigid approaches to risk, for example, rather than genuinely enabling adaptive management approaches, we limit our ability to explore and assess the potential risks of our actions,” he said.

Barker said decisions on biotechnology, including GM, should be subject to an appropriate risk-based assessment.

“Much of what is being said about GM here in New Zealand is simply inaccurate. Millions of people around the world have accepted GMOs into their environment and their food supply, because under appropriate legislation, they are recognised as having no substantial difference in risk profile to any other agriculture practice.”