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

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Gene editing in primary industries – Science Media Centre gathers expert reaction

New Zealand has historically had a conservative approach to gene editing, but embracing gene editing technology could allow us to create disease-resistant mānuka honey and remove certain allergens from milk, a new Royal Society Te Apārangi report says.

This discussion paper – the third in a series from the Society’s Gene Editing in Aotearoa project – says gene editing could bring a range of benefits for our agriculture, horticulture and forestry sectors, zoning in on apples, mānuka, ryegrass, wilding pines, and dairy cows.

The society is seeking public feedback on the paper and holding three workshops around the country this month to discuss the findings.

The Science Media Centre collected the following commentary from scientists.

Dr Prof Peter Dearden, Bio-Protection Research Centre, Director of Genomics Aotearoa, and Professor of Genetics at University of Otago:

“The panel has looked at a number of scenarios in primary production in New Zealand in which gene editing could be used. These scenarios are not really futuristic, but ideas that could be implemented relatively quickly. The report clearly shows that the biggest barriers to using these technologies are regulatory ones and that the regulatory regimen is complex and often contradictory.

“The scenarios show the benefits that gene editing could bring in each scenario, clearly indicating the benefits we would miss out on if we do not engage with this technology, and develop the skills to carry out effective gene editing in New Zealand. Without skills and research in gene editing we will not be able to determine risk vs benefits, nor have the ability to understand and assess technologies coming from overseas.”

Conflict of interest statement: I am a member of The Royal Society Panel on gene editing, but am not an author of this work.

Dr Tony Conner, Science Group Leader, AgResearch:

“It is timely to have a public discussion about the merits or otherwise of gene editing, and potential applications and opportunities for New Zealand as a food-producing nation. The genetic technologies are developing at such a pace internationally that it’s important we don’t get left behind, and as a society that we understand what gene editing is, and what it is not.

“The difficulty with public perceptions of any genetic technology is that it tends to be skewed in favour of the worst-case scenario, even when there is no real evidence of harm. It puts the onus on us as scientists to communicate what the evidence actually shows.

“My colleagues at AgResearch have already demonstrated what is possible with gene editing in both the plant and animal space. My colleagues in animal science have proven that they can use CRISPR technology to remove a major allergen from a cow’s milk, and this shows one path to enhancing our food supply and human health (this example is captured in the Royal Society discussion paper).

“In the plant space, a lot has already been achieved over the decades in selective breeding to make our pastures perform better. This has meant production from our farms, that is the backbone of the NZ economy, has flourished. Billions of dollars have been saved through the targeted use of endophytes (a type of fungi that lives within grasses) to deter pasture pests, but there is also an issue with some endophytes being harmful to the livestock. Gene editing has the potential to remove that harm to livestock, while maintaining the huge benefits the endophytes offer.

“My hope is that this discussion paper from the Royal Society will not only provoke discussion about gene editing, but also help lift the general understanding of this technology, with the evidence at the heart of the discussion.”

Conflict of interest statement: Tony is the Vice President (Biological and Life Sciences) at Royal Society Te Apārangi, but he was not involved in producing the report.

Professor Andy Allan, School of Biological Sciences, University of Auckland:

“Gene editing of plants should be treated in the same way as any breeding method. If the resulting plant is measurably better for the environment or the consumer then that is the only hurdle it should meet.

“At present, these plants are categorised as ‘genetically modified’ (GM) by NZ law, even though the DNA changes made are exactly the same as those created by sunlight, and a lot less than those made by traditional breeding. The simple message should be: these plants now contain new DNA.

“Fast flowering of apple was used as one example in the Royal Society’s discussion document. Why use this technique? Because with changing climate new cultivars have to be constantly developed. Otherwise, we lose our production. Growing what cultivars we have under slightly warmer conditions won’t be an option. In addition, new plant pathogens arrive or evolve in our areas of production. The best way to protect against these events is good breeding, and fast breeding should be one of these tools.

“I hope that the RSNZ’s discussion paper on the use of gene editing in the primary industries will be a great start to an adult conversation on benefit versus risk for this breeding method.”

No conflict of interest statement received.

Professor Richard Newcomb, Chief Scientist at Plant & Food Research:

“Scientists at Plant & Food Research are excited by gene editing technology because it allows incredibly precise changes to the genetic makeup of an organism without necessarily introducing any foreign DNA.

“As our climate, environment and population changes, gene editing could help us to adapt plants through pinpoint changes to key genes which control desirable traits. Breeding plants with the right combinations of genetic characteristics to resist pests, be more productive or to taste better takes decades today, but could be achieved in much less time with gene editing – and with more predictable outcomes.

“Plant & Food Research is here to help ensure a smart, green future for New Zealand. To achieve that future we need plants that grow more, healthier food with less chemical and water inputs on less land. Those plants also need to be resilient to climate change and able to create foods which global consumers will love and pay a premium price for. If we can learn how to apply gene editing in the right crops it offers the promise of breeding those new plant cultivars faster and with a higher chance of success.

“While gene editing offers lots of promise, its successful use to breed better plants needs to be proven by more science not only to understand the benefits but the potential risks associated with the technology.

“As such we believe it is timely to consider having a national discussion here on gene editing in New Zealand for farming, food, pest control and conservation. Plant & Food Research would like to be part of this national conversation.”

Dr James Millner, Senior Lecturer, School of Agriculture and Environment, Massey University:

“Mānuka (Leptospermum scoparium) is very valuable as a pioneer species after disturbance caused by erosion or fire. More recently, the high value of mānuka honey is driving a lot of investment in the honey industry, ranging from the establishment of mānuka plantations for honey production to the acquisition of hives so that apiarists can increase collection of nectar.

“The Ministry for Primary Industry, Massey University and industry partners have recently completed a Primary Growth Partnership programme to lift investment and production of high-value mānuka honey; thousands of hectares have been planted, mostly on steep erosion-prone hill country. This will result in benefits for the environment and allow landowners to generate income from land which is generally unproductive.

“There have been a number of examples of self-introducing pests and diseases (blown in on the wind) which have or potentially could affect mānuka. Myrtle rust is the latest example; prior to that there have been a number of scale insects which also arrived from Australia. Leptospermum scoparium is present in Australia so there is considerable potential for more pest and disease arrivals and a risk that one or more of these new organisms could threaten mānuka.

“If there is little natural resistance in existing populations we may not be able to do anything about this because extensive use of pesticides, for example, is not likely to be feasible due to cost and environmental issues. If gene editing was able to provide opportunities for combating existing or future incursions then it should be evaluated.”

Conflict of interest statement: None declared.

Dr Elspeth MacRae, Chief Innovation and Science Officer, Scion:

“I am pleased to see the Royal Society document inviting discussion on the potential for gene editing to significantly advance New Zealand’s primary industries and solve potential problems with diseased taonga species.

“Gene editing is a very precise approach to modifying a genome, more precise than anything else we can do, and can result in exactly the same result as normal mutations that can occur naturally but very rarely. New Zealand already accepts much less precise approaches to modifying plants such as radiation mutagenesis.

“Scion is actively researching the potential to use gene editing to make sterile conifers and currently has both glasshouse and field trials. We are also researching other opportunities to modify conifers such as their productivity and tree characteristics.

“We believe this is very important for New Zealand as trees take a very long time to breed desired characteristics, even using the latest breeding techniques. Plantation trees in New Zealand are really just long-lived crops, and others are progressing modifying trees to achieve goals faster. An example is the reintroduction of the American Chestnut following a devastating disease outbreak.

“New Zealand does not have to rely on FSC certification, but can also use New Zealand’s PEFC accreditation (used by more of the world’s forests than FSC) which is currently more accepting of modern technologies.

“An added advantage to creating sterile trees is a boost to reaching New Zealand’s zero carbon by 2050 and low emissions economy targets. Faster-growing sterile trees take more carbon out of the atmosphere in any unit of time because they use energy to grow rather than to reproduce. Achieving sterile Douglas fir and other plantation conifers will also benefit the one billion trees planting initiative of the current government by preventing unmanaged spread of wilding trees.

“Our global interactions tell us that other than the EU (but not some individual countries within the EU), most countries are deciding that gene editing without adding any new DNA will not be regulated. New Zealand needs to have a well-informed debate on the implications of this for our economy and our future.”

Conflict of interest statement: Scion is actively researching the potential to use gene editing to make sterile conifers and currently has both glasshouse and field trials.


Dr Phillip Wilcox, statistician, University of Otago:

“Gene editing of conifers to prevent or accelerate reproduction has both benefits and risks.

“On the benefits side, preventing the formation of cones and/or pollen has environmental and financial benefits from dramatically reduced weedy-ness. In theory, this means the trees could reallocate their energy to producing wood over reproduction, potentially improving productivity and therefore profitability. It is likely to reduce the costs of wilding control and improve the acceptability of conifers for some local authorities. In addition, there are likely health benefits for those allergic to pine pollen.

“Accelerating flowering under controlled conditions could also shorten the breeding cycle of commercially important conifers, further enhancing profitability.

“There are risks, however. For example, the prospect of artificially-modified sterile pine or Douglas Fir forests does not sit comfortably with some New Zealanders, who may perceive such forests as unnatural and inconsistent with New Zealand’s clean, green image.

“Widespread use of such sterile conifers could exacerbate some of the other issues associated with commercial forestry, including perceived loss of biodiversity and in some cases, poor environmental management.

“There are still substantive technical challenges required to get us to the point where we can actually produce these artificially-modified conifers, which could impact reputations of those promoting such an approach if the research does not deliver promised outcomes. A balanced, careful and considered approach is needed, which this report can make a valuable contribution to.”

Conflict of interest statement: I am a member of The Royal Society Panel on gene editing. I collaborate with the Radiata Pine Breeding Company in the areas of breeding strategy and applied genomics, and collaborate with researchers from Plant and Food Research Ltd and University of Waikato regarding cultural perspectives on gene editing.

Source:  Science Media Centre

Potential uses of gene editing for New Zealand’s primary industries

Removing allergens from milk, making mānuka disease-resistant and preventing wilding pines are some potential future uses of gene editing in New Zealand if we choose to utilise this new technology.

These are among the potential uses explored in the Royal Society Te Apārangi’s new discussion paper ‘The use of gene editing in the primary industries’, released today. The paper outlines the relevant considerations, risks and potential benefits for five scenarios of how gene editing could be used for primary production sectors including agriculture, forestry and horticulture.

It’s part of the society’s larger Gene Editing in Aotearoa project, for which a multidisciplinary expert panel and reference group have been brought together to explore the wider social, cultural, legal and economic implications of gene editing in New Zealand, incorporating Māori perspectives and broader cultural contexts.

Gene editing techniques will allow more targeted and precise genetic changes than has been possible before in crop and livestock breeding, says Professor Barry Scott, Professor of Molecular Genetics at Massey University and co-chair of the expert panel.

“It’s a good time for New Zealanders to consider what gene editing could offer our primary industries and how they’d feel about its use.”

One potential application of gene editing is to speed up the time it takes to produce new apple varieties. New Zealand is known internationally for its apples and there is strong commercial pressure to develop new and improved varieties, Professor Scott said.

But the process is slow because it can take five years before any fruit is produced to start the evaluation and testing of potential new apple varieties.

Gene editing could enable the temporary removal of the gene that slows down flowering, so the trees would flower in eight months instead of five years.

Once a new variety of apple with desirable characteristics had been selected, traditional plant breeding would reintroduce the genes that slow down flowering. This means the resulting trees sold to growers would not contain any of the gene editing changes, but would have been introduced to the market much faster than by using existing breeding methods.

Another scenario the paper discusses is using gene editing to make mānuka resistant to disease.

Lawyer and panel member Irene Kereama-Royal, who is also a research partner at Unitec, says myrtle rust and kauri dieback disease have got people thinking about what can or should be done to conserve native species.

“Extracts of leaves and bark from mānuka have been used for centuries by Māori and, with the growth in the mānuka honey industry, mānuka is now an important plant for New Zealand both culturally and economically.  Should we use gene-editing to create new varieties of mānuka that are resistant to disease?”

A third scenario is to use gene editing to make exotic conifer trees, such as Douglas fir, sterile.

Dr Phil Wilcox, Senior Lecturer in statistics at the University of Otago and a member of the expert panel, who has over 30 years experience in forestry research, said wilding trees are a big problem in New Zealand.

“Not only do they outcompete native species, they invade and modify unique natural ecosystems, are costly to remove and can contribute to pollen allergies.

“Gene editing could halt the production of cones and pollen in these species, which would mean that when these trees are planted for forestry, shelter belts, or to help prevent erosion or climate change, they wouldn’t escape into places where they are not wanted.”

How do New Zealanders feel about using gene editing for this?

The society is encouraging them to consider this and the four other scenarios and let the panel know what they think.

Feedback should be sent to marc.rands@royalsociety.org.nz.

Three workshops are being held around the country to discuss the potential use of gene editing in the primary industries with the panel and reference group members:

  • Hamilton | Wednesday 10 October,  9:45am – 2:30pm, The Verandah, Rotoroa Drive, Hamilton Lake
  • Napier | Monday 15 October  9:45am – 2:30 pm, Napier Conference Centre, Exhibition Room, 48 Marine Parade
  • Dunedin | Tuesday 23 October 10:00am – 2:30 pm, The Dunedin Centre, Fullwood Room, 1 Harrop St

This discussion paper is the third in a series, which includes papers exploring the potential use of gene editing for human health and pest control in New Zealand. All resources are available online at royalsociety.org.nz/gene-editing

Source: Royal Society Te Apārangi

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.

Royal Society encourages participation in gene editing workshops

Royal Society Te Apārangi is running workshops on how gene editing may impact on healthcare and pest management for those involved with these sectors.

The society is convening a multi-disciplinary panel to consider the potential uses and implications of gene editing in this country.

The first two discussion papers were released late last year.

The society says a valuable part of the process is receiving critical feedback from stakeholders on the two issues.

Anyone interested in attending one or both of the workshops in either Wellington, Christchurch or Auckland, are invited to contact Marc Rands, from the society’s Expert Advice team, to register: marc.rands@royalsociety.org.nz

Participation is encouraged because of the significance of the social, ethical, cultural, legal, scientific and economic challenges of gene editing technology for New Zealand.

Wellington – Royal Society Te Apārangi, Aronui Lecture Theatre
Tuesday 13 March
9:30-11:30am: Gene Editing in Healthcare
12:30-2:30pm: Gene Editing in Pest Control

Christchurch – Tait Technology Centre, Kauri Room
Wednesday 21 March
9:30-11:30am: Gene Editing in Healthcare
12:30-2:30pm: Gene Editing in Pest Control

Auckland – NIWA Auckland, Seminar Room
Wednesday 11 April
9:30-11:30am: Gene Editing in Healthcare
12:30-2:30pm: Gene Editing in Pest Control