Tracking genetically modified animals: new CSI-like methods for detecting artificial transgenes

McGill University researchers have discovered a new way to track genetically modified animals using the artificial transgenes they leave behind in the environment.

The discovery provides a powerful new tool to locate and manage genetically modified animals that have escaped or been released into the wild.

In a study published in PLOS ONE, the researchers show for the first time that artificial transgenes from a variety of genetically modified animals like fruit flies, mice, and tetra fish can be detected and sequenced from the DNA left behind in soil, water, and in the form of feces, urine, or saliva. These findings could be used, for example, to detect the transgenes of genetically modified mosquitoes from pools of standing water in areas where they were recently released.

Compared to traditional animal monitoring methods, environmental DNA (eDNA) has proven to be more accurate and efficient, requiring less time and lower costs.

“Until now no one had applied these environmental DNA methods to genetically modified animals, even though they are already in the wild,” says Charles Xu, a PhD student in Department of Biology at McGill University.

“Detection of animal transgenes from eDNA can be very useful because it can tell you whether genetically modified animals are there without the need to find them.”

Advances in genome-editing technologies like CRISPR have dramatically simplified the process of creating genetically modified organisms, leading to an explosion in the number and types of genetically modified animals being produced around the world.

With them come concerns about the ecological, evolutionary, and bioethical implications of these new creatures. Some genetically modified animals, like glowing aquarium fish, can be purchased by the public, while others, like mosquitos, have been released into the wild.

The creatures carry artificial transgenes, or genes that have either been altered by scientists or introduced from another species by artificial means.

“Because genetically modified animals are often indistinguishable from their natural counterparts based on appearance alone, environmental DNA or eDNA methods could be especially useful for early detection and monitoring purposes,” Charles Xu says.

“That is especially true in cases where these animals may escape from the lab or the farm, move to places they don’t belong, or crossbreed with natural animals.”

In the future, labs, companies, and governments involved in producing and managing genetically modified animals will be able to use eDNA methods to detect and track them in real-life contexts.

Journal Reference:
  1. Charles C. Y. Xu, Claire Ramsay, Mitra Cowan, Mehrnoush Dehghani, Paul Lasko, Rowan D. H. Barrett. Transgenes of genetically modified animals detected non-invasively via environmental DNAPLOS ONE, 2021; 16 (8): e0249439 DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0249439

Source:  ScienceDaily

NZ’s warmest June on record – why climate change research is regarded as critical

The June Climate Summary was published today, showing last month was the warmest June on record for the country.

The average temperature was 2.0°C above average, the 13th time this has happened since 1909.

Several records were broken with 24 locations having their warmest June on record.

The highest temperature was 22°C at Hastings on June 26 and Leigh on June 19.

Taranaki is still leading the sunniest location table.

The data were being posted at much the same time as AgResearch Research Director Trevor Stuthridge was describing the recently released advice of the Climate Change Commission as an endorsement of the research being done to support agriculture’s shift to lower emissions.

The Climate Change Commission was established to provide advice to the Government about the paths to meeting New Zealand’s climate change targets. Continue reading

Young scientists’ letter to a divided Green Party calls for a review of our GM law to help tackle climate crisis

A group of 155 New Zealanders under 30 who specialise in biological or environmental science have challenged the Green Party to revisit its position on genetic modification.

They have signed an open letter which urges Green Party members and MPs to take a lead in overhauling strict legislation, enacted 16 years ago, that regulates GM research. The climate crisis makes a review of the law a matter of urgency, they argue.

  “Climate change is one of the greatest crisis in human history, and our current law severely restricts the development of technologies that could make a vital difference,”  the letter says.

Continue reading

James Shaw and GM technologies – the debate is about trade (he said), not about science

Climate Change Minister James Shaw told Parliament this week he supports the use of all scientific technologies to tackle climate change “that do not themselves also cause harm in other ways”.

He was being questioned by National’s science spokeswoman, Dr Parmjeet Parmar, who was aiming to tease out his position on genetic modification.

Just because something is scientifically possible doesn’t always make it a good idea, he said.

There could be economic or brand risks or ethical risks.

He referenced dicyandiamide (DCD), which was added to milk, then had huge consequences in important export markets. Continue reading

Government responds (cautiously) to report on gene editing but National calls for urgency

The Government’s response to the recently released papers on gene editing from the Royal Society Te Apārangi was issued by Environment Minister David Parker, not Research, Science and Innovation Minister Megan Woods.

We may suppose this is a consequence of New Zealand’s legislation on genetic modification being administered by the Environmental Protection Authority.

The society’s papers note “there are considerable benefits that gene editing can bring to our lives, particularly in health,” Mr Parker acknowledged.

The provisions governing gene editing, including genetically modified organisms (GMOs), were amended in 2003 in line with the Government’s overall policy of proceeding with caution while preserving opportunities. Continue reading

Northland Regional Council’s rejection of GMO moratorium is welcomed

Rejecting a moratorium on genetic modification in Northland will broaden economic opportunities, enable vital tools to meet environmental challenges “and was the right decision for the Northland Regional Council to make”, the chairman of the Life Sciences Network, Dr William Rolleston, said today.

GE Free Northland and others had attempted to inject prohibitive GM provisions into the regional plan part way through the planning process.

When finally rejecting this earlier in July, the council said it was the responsibility of the Environmental Risk Management Authority to assess and control genetically modified organisms (GMOs).

Activists for some time have pushed to stop farmers and conservationists using modern genetic technologies by persuading councils to impose onerous local rules and outright prohibitions, Dr Rolleston said. Continue reading

Environment Minister sticks to his position on genetic engineering and the precautionary approach

Environment Minister David Parker has reiterated his belief in the precautionary approach being applied to  genetic engineering.

National’s Dr Parmjeet Parmar asked in Parliament if he stood by his statement about regulation of genetic engineering, “I think that the precautionary approach hasn’t done us any harm so far, either economically or environmentally”; if so, why?

Mr Parker said yes, “because it has benefited New Zealand, which explains why GM regulation did not substantially change over the last nine years of the previous Government”.

Hansard records the rest of the exchange:

Dr Parmjeet Parmar: Does he believe the Ministry for the Environment is incorrect to have concluded that New Zealand’s regulatory framework for genetic modification, under the Hazardous Substances and New Organisms Act, is increasingly difficult to enforce, and may be limiting the country’s competitiveness?


Dr Parmjeet Parmar: Has he asked for any further advice on the economic or environmental impact of continuing his precautionary approach in light of his colleague the Hon James Shaw’s willingness to take a fresh look at the genetic engineering regulations in New Zealand?

Hon DAVID PARKER: I don’t understand that the Hon James Shaw was proposing to abandon a precautionary approach in respect of GM. I did say to the Environment Committee last month that there is a rising issue as to whether or not some new genetically modified organism (GMO) techniques are distinguishable from other non-GMO changes. That issue is not quite upon us but may arise in the future, and the Prime Minister’s chief science officer is bringing forward some advice in respect of that issue.

Dr Parmjeet Parmar: Does he believe organisms created using gene editing technology present greater risk than naturally occurring organisms?

Hon DAVID PARKER: I’m not satisfied that that is yet sufficiently clear to allow those techniques to be unregulated.

Dr Parmjeet Parmar: Does he agree with the Ministry for the Environment’s advice that failing to update our legislation may result in organisms being regulated at a level not proportionate to the risk they pose and New Zealand missing out on the benefits they could provide, such as advancing success in reducing greenhouse gas emissions and pests?

Hon DAVID PARKER: If there was a miracle cure for climate change brought about by a GM crop, I’m sure that any Government would consider it. At the moment, it could be considered under the existing regulatory framework.

Source:  Hansard

James Shaw’s regard for science may portend a shift in Green position on GM research

Towards the end of the Prime Minister’s press conference on February 25, someone without much to think about asked Jacinda Ardern what she thought of Huawei’s public relations campaign that compared itself in New Zealand to the All Blacks?

The PM was appropriately dismissive:

It’s not for me to judge the marketing campaign of any private company. All right, thank you, everyone. Last question—I’m feeling generous.

We can be grateful she was of a generous disposition.  The final question raised an issue of interest to agricultural and horticultural scientists:

Media: Are you concerned that your Conservation Minister is blocking any exploration into genetic engineering despite her officials saying that it could be an effective alternative to 1080?

PM: Look, my understanding is that the Minister’s simply expressed that that’s not currently part of the work programme, but hasn’t given a position as definitive as that. Continue reading

Strongest opponents of GM think they know best but actually know the least

Science blogger Grant Jacobs refers his readers to a new study which shows the strongest opponents of GM (genetic modification) think they know the subject well, but in fact know the least.

Dr Jacobs asks: what does this means for science communication?

Especially contentious topics – and doubly so where deliberate misinformation is being offered?

Similarly, what are the lessons for politicians?

The paper in question isn’t looking at the Dunner-Kruger effect, Dr Jacobs acknowledges – but it helps to know what this is first, he advises.

The incident that prompted what has become known as the Dunner-Kruger effect involved a bank robber who was baffled to be caught after rubbing lemon juice into his face in the belief it would make him invisible to security cameras

As Errol Morris wrote in The Opinonator blog,

As Dunning read through the article, a thought washed over him, an epiphany.  If Wheeler was too stupid to be a bank robber, perhaps he was also too stupid to know that he was too stupid to be a bank robber — that is, his stupidity protected him from an awareness of his own stupidity.

Revisiting the Dunner-Kruger effect,  Dr Jacobs describes it as a cognitive bias where people of low ability mistakenly think they have better ability than they do. Their lack of ability also means they’re not good at recognising their lack of ability.

Conversely, those with great knowledge tend to underrate their ability. One finding was that capable people assume others find the tasks easy too, and so they don’t rate themselves so highly. They don’t recognise how much better they really are.

Dr Jacobs adds from personal experience that people with deep knowledge tend to be critically aware of what they don’t know. “Knowing what you don’t know is a tricky thing. You’ve got to be aware of what there is to know first.”

An upshot can be paradoxical communication styles. The poorly informed person will present incorrect or misleading ‘advice’ with great gusto, whereas those who are very well informed are tentative and cautious.

People who follow contentious topics see this all the time, Dr Jacobs says. In many ways vaccines discussions are a clearer example of this than GM food, he suggests. It’s more obvious the benefits that vaccines bring. Despite this, those strongly opposed to vaccines will say ‘definitively’ something is flat-out wrong.

Philip Fernbach and colleagues are looking at the psychology of extremism rather than the Dunner-Kruger effect. What does it take for people to hold extreme views about scientific topics?

In many ways what they find is that in order to hold extreme opposition to a scientific topic people have too a poor knowledge of the subject but be convinced they are knowledgable, Dr Jacobs says. Good knowledge introduces nuances and complexities that preclude a simplistic extreme opposition to the thing.

They compared public surveys from the US, Germany and France, comparing people’s views, their self-assessed belief of how good their science understanding was, and their actual science understanding. The research also checks out a number of potential pitfalls, for example –

  • the order of the questions
  • confounding from considering things other than food safety more important
  • differences in education levels

Overall they find that –

The interaction is statistically significant, indicating that the relationship between objective knowledge and self-assessed knowledge differs by extremity of opposition

Basically, people’s tendency to be extremely opposed to GM food was intrinsically linked to their tendency to over-estimate their knowledge.

Dr Jacobs is interested in their focus on food safety because his (anecdotal) perception is that this is a dwindling concern. They find that –

Extreme opponents were actually more likely to cite food safety/health concerns than moderates and the main results replicate when we restrict analysis to the subset of participants citing food safety/health concerns.

It’s a minor result for their work, but an important one for dealing with the topic, Dr Jacobs observes. Concerns about food safety are not uniformly spread, but are mostly in those with extreme opposition to GM food.

They also looked at medical applications for genetic engineering. People are more accepting of this. It was possible that the trend of a disconnect of perceived and actual knowledge and extreme opposition was something mostly true of more strongly held things like opposition to GM foods.

Their results show a lower overall level of opposition, but the same the same trend of a disconnect of perceived and actual knowledge in those with the most extreme opposition.

They also investigated views on climate change. There the effects are similar, but people were readily split based on political views. Essentially, people fell in with their ‘in group’. (Climate change is political issue in the USA in particular.)

As to the lessons on communicating to people, the study authors suggest,

Our findings highlight a difficulty that is not generally appreciated. Those with the strongest anti-consensus views are the most in need of education, but also the least likely to be receptive to learning; overconfidence about one’s knowledge is associated with decreased openness to new information. This suggests that a prerequisite to changing people’s views through education may be getting them to first appreciate the gaps in their knowledge.

Dr Jacobs ventures that it you are familiar with interacting with people with opposing views on GM foods, there is a conundrum: these people don’t want to appreciate the gaps in their knowledge, thank you very much. They insist they already know everything they need to know.

He offers several thoughts:

Can you? Can you communicate with these people with extreme views at all?

Are there enough of them to matter? If they are a tiny minority, do they matter? What might matter more is to point out that they are a tiny minority. A minority at odds with everyone else for that matter. Strong opponents of vaccines might be an example.

Simply ignore them. Following the previous thought, ignoring them is an option. Write as if they’re not there. Of course, you won’t shift their views doing this; you’re no even engaging with them. A question might be how much influence do they have on others? If they have influence, you might want to deal with their influence. (This isn’t the same thing as dealing with the people.)

Try pointing to who they learnt their views from. Communicate with them, but refer to the views they hold as views others have encouraged them to hold, and criticise those people. This tries to avoid that some people bind their views to who they are, personalising any discussion. Make it someone else. You’re trying to get them—and any readers—to question what others have told them, a little of what Fernbach and colleagues suggested.

Use them as examples for those slightly less opposed. A bit nasty in some ways, but you could hold them up as examples of “you really don’t want to go to this place”. Deconstruct what they way, but for the benefit of others. This and slightly gentler approaches can aim to address the ‘silent readers’—people who are less vocally involved, and perhaps more likely to be open to new information.

And the lessons for politicians?

“I think there are always a few that you’ll never really get through to. Life is like that.

“You just wish politicians wouldn’t be such pathetic sods about this. You can’t make a policy that genuinely works for every last person. There will always be a few who are just ‘in an awkward place’. It may not be politically correct or the grand ideal, but it is reality.

“We do reasonably well with this for vaccines. Why not for GMOs?

“For vaccines in New Zealand the emphasis has been strongly on education, accepting that a tiny minority will just persist with unorthodox views whatever you do.

“Anecdotally there seems to be widespread recognition that GM food is safe, and that the opposition to GMOs is overplayed.. An Otago survey indicated most New Zealanders thought GM food safe.

“The persistence of laws ‘countering’ something that has no sound scientific basis appears to be largely political laziness. The previous government took the easiest option, one the EPA advised would be inherently temporary –

They suggested #4 is good and should be approached at some time, but the current problems want immediate attention and that options #2 or #3 would give immediate attention to this. They noted that options #2 and #3 could only be temporary as a longer-term, proper, review is needed.

They suggested #2 would address the immediate concerns, was a bare-bones temporary ‘patch’: “is a bare minimum and is not considered a long term solution.” Cabinet elected to take this approach.

“I’ll write about this some other time, but I feel a key is to recognise that the real objections to GMOs are not over science issues, but ‘values’ aspects that should be treated in the same way that secular governance deals with those with different religious views. People can choose to be ‘organic’, but they don’t have a right to inflict their wishes on others, or demand a monopoly.”

Source: SciBlogs

RNZ report gives succinct rundown on the issues surrounding genetic modification

Offsetting Behaviour, an economics blog, has steered us to Radio NZ’s “good summary” of the case for allowing genetically modified plants and crops.

The RNZ Insight report, by Charlie Dreaver, is headed Has the time come for Genetic Modification?

It starts with a sub-heading: Gene edited plants are just as safe as normal plants, according to one scientist.

According to several scientists, actually.

But in this case Ms Dreaver is reporting on her visit to a Plant and Food Research greenhouse in Auckland, where one of the sections is filled with $300 apple trees and Andy Allan, a professor of plant biology, is pointing out one of his favourite experiment, a tree with bright, fuchsia-coloured flowers.

“The particular red gene we’re testing is under a strong expression, so the roots are red, the trunk is red, the leaves are copper and the fruit goes on to look more like a plum, it’s so dark.”

The apple has an extra apple gene, making it genetically modified. Other plants in this room have exactly the same number of genes, but they’ve been edited.

The report goes on:

“Along with the apples, pears, tomatoes and petunias are thriving, but many also flower all year round and produce seeds five years earlier than usual. 

“Mr Allen compares the practice of gene editing in plant breeding to key-hole surgery.

” ‘It just makes a cut in a place you know exactly where it’s going to go to.

” ‘That cut is repaired by the plant, but often the plant makes a mistake, but those mistakes are like the natural equivalent to mutation and variants you see out there in the environment.’ 

“He says the public’s perception of the research is much more sinister than what actually happens.

” ‘We are academics or public civil servants and we’re doing experiments using the plant’s own DNA, so the perception of what we do as being evil or dangerous, is way different than what actually happens in this greenhouse’.”

Other countries would plant these crops in the field, he tells Ms Dreaver, and he believes some of those growing in the greenhouse are ready for the outside world.

” ‘I think these plants are as safe as the normal plants are, there is risk associated with everything, but there are no additional risks associated with these plants.’

“And the benefits of what’s being grown could be significant, he believes, including trees which would not need cooler winters to flower and grow fruit.

“But everything that leaves the facility, even the soil, will have to be destroyed.

“The only thing exiting this greenhouse at the moment is knowledge.”

The item answers the question What is Gene Editing? And it reports the division among farmers on whether they should be able to use GMOs or not.

“But others, including the Minister for the Environment David Parker, argue there is no need to jump the gun on introducing GMOs into the environment.”

Ms Dreaver also quotes the former Chief Science Advisor for the prime minister, Sir Peter Gluckman.

In his last report, Sir Peter laid out the ways genetic modification or gene editing can benefit the agricultural sector with pasture management and emissions.

“New Zealand scientists have developed promising forages using genetic technologies that could be used to make major progress through higher energy, lipid rich rye grasses which are now in field trials in the United States.

“However, these have not been and effectively cannot be subjected to field testing in New Zealand.”

Sir Peter said New Zealand needed to revisit the contentious topic.

“We have such big challenges ahead of us, between environmental degradation, climate change, the future of agriculture, the future of New Zealand’s economy, the way we live, the way rural life and provincial life occurs.

“This is the core technology of the future, alongside the digital technologies and precision agriculture, we can’t afford not to have the conversation.”

Ms Dreaver concludes her piece with a rundown on GM and the law.

Legal and Scientific researcher Dr Julie Everett-Hincks, from the University of Otago, told Ms Dreaver she believes legislation is due for an update.

To the contrary, Pure Hawke’s Bay – which was instrumental in the move to make the Hastings District Council adopt a  10 year moratorium on genetically modified crops – says business would suffer if any changes were allowed and they argue that not enough is known about the technology and its effects.

There’s resistance to any change at this stage from the government.

Environment Minister David Parker agrees with the European Courts decision to include GE under genetic modification rules and has no intention of changing the legislation here.

” ‘It takes a precautionary approach, people who want to make an application to release the GMO can, that’s then dealt with by the regulator and we think the law is fit for purpose.

” ‘I’d have to be satisfied there was a need to change the law, and I’m not satisfied’.”

He also highlights the trade benefits in keeping crops GM-free.

” ‘Sometimes they might be overstated, but none the less they are real’.”

If there are to be any changes in the use of GM, Mr Parker says the government will first be looking at pest control, rather than agriculture.

Offsetting Behaviour blogger Eric Crampton suggests that, as part of any agricultural accession into the ETS, the Crown be liable for any additional costs falling on farmers because of the ban on using GE pastoral systems.