Friday, July 1, 2022

AgResearch blames uni for GM fungi

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AgResearch and Lincoln University are at odds over how a genetically modified (GM) fungus appeared outside approved facilities on the university campus. University scientists blew the whistle on the presence of the GM fungi in early March, after discovering it during a DNA test. The fungus, known as Beauveria bassiana or “icing sugar” fungus, is typically used as a biological control on certain insects, including aphids, white fly and grasshoppers. It occurs naturally in the wild. However, the strain discovered at Lincoln is believed to be modified with two marker genes. The university is awaiting confirmation which ones, but most likely modifications include one gene that causes the fungus to glow under UV light for tracking. The second is a selective resistance gene used to isolate the GM fungus so pure GM culture can be grown and studied.    

In a written explanation to The New Zealand Farmers Weekly, Lincoln University vice-chancellor Professor Stefanie Rixecker said university researchers did not know the strain they were dealing with was a GM version and as a result it was studied in labs with lower containment status than a GM-testing lab.

It was not until staff conducted DNA testing a GM version was confirmed.

However, AgResearch director Professor Warren McNabb said the GM strains were created by a Lincoln University post-doctorate fellow, working in an AgResearch laboratory at Lincoln.

Rixecker said she could not confirm if one of Lincoln University’s researchers was behind the creation of the GM fungi.

She said the discovery was subject to an investigation and anticipated it could be at least two weeks before the source of the release could be determined.

McNabb confirmed the post-doctorate fellow was working for Lincoln University when the modifications were made.

The study of GM material is subject to strict protocols around creation and movement of material between labs.

The AgResearch lab is confirmed as having “PC2” status and is approved for containing and working on GM material.

The Lincoln campus and those of other agencies nearby, including Plant and Food, have been blighted by GM handling issues in recent years (see related story).

The latest breach has drawn accusations from Green Party spokesman Steffan Browning of a “she’ll be right” attitude, sloppy procedures and staff indifference to rules on gene work by researchers.

“Every time there has been an issue with GM at Lincoln another agency has also been involved. It is good that agencies are working together, but there seems to be issues around this interagency work with GM and those monitoring them, including biosecurity staff.”

Rixecker acknowledged inter-agency work did appear to be a common pattern around GM release issues recently.

“Many people often assume it is Lincoln University in these issues, despite there being multiple organisations out here.”

She defended her scientists from claims of sloppy work.

“I cannot comment for everyone else but from a Lincoln University perspective the scientists I am working with, I do have confidence they are not sloppy.”

She said the question of whether a review of overall GM research was needed was a fair question to ask.

“Our view is we intend to do a full review and document things discovered along the way.”

The highest-profile challenge to GM research standards recently has come from Canterbury University Professor Jack Heinemann.

Heinemann assessed AgResearch work on GM cattle at Ruakura and determined the project was substandard. He described the work as cynical and contrived, with a lack of monitoring for horizontal gene transfer from the cattle into soil organisms.

He also described the GM brassica trial in 2008 by Plant and Food as shameful.

Heinemann was reluctant to comment on the Lincoln issue without full knowledge of the circumstances.

However, he noted his real concerns lay beyond lab containment in field trials, which had a chequered history of seed release.

A Ministry for Primary Industries spokesman confirmed offences for release of GM organisms come under the Hazardous Substances and New Organisms or Biosecurity acts.

The agency has investigated only two other containment breaches of GM organisms in the past five years.

Fungi deemed low-level risk

The biological risk from the B.Bassiana is very low, Ministry for Primary Industries deputy director general Roger Smith says.

The fungi appears in the wild and is a known biological insect control. It grows on insects, penetrating the body, killing in days and re-emerging from the body as fresh spores.

It is considered safe as an insecticide, but one case of human infection has been reported, in a person with suppressed immune system.

Lincoln University researchers are understood to have been studying how it could be used further as a bio-pesticide.

GM glitches

In the past decade GM has gained a high profile, more through its biosecurity breaches than its successes. These include:

2008 – Plant and Food, Lincoln site. GM brassica allowed to flower, in breach of regulations. Major deviations from procedure and lack of checks were identified in an internal report. Plant and Food forced to cancel GM brassica and onion trials.

2004-2009 – AgResearch, Ruakura site. The research institute is slated in an independent academic’s report on its measurement and analysis of gene transfer risk from GM cattle. Professor Jack Heinemann noted significant weaknesses in AgResearch monitoring of risk and cautioned the technology “should not unduly tempt us to put our environment at risk”.

2009 – Plant and Food, Lincoln site. GM cress plants found growing outside secure glasshouse. The glasshouse was on Lincoln University property but was leased to Plant and Food for research. Evidence was destroyed and scientists refused interviews. The paperwork showed the seeds should never have been in New Zealand. No criminal charges were filed because of uncertainty over how the seeds escaped confinement.

2012 – AgResearch, Palmerston North Grasslands site. Senior scientist allowed GM rye grass to flower. The scientist was found to have breached AgResearch policy and EPA regulations, and it was reported as a “critical non-compliance” issue. The scientist was sacked and failed early this year in an attempted unjustified dismissal and personal grievance claim.

2013 – Lincoln University, Lincoln. Discovery of GM fungi outside certified containment facility on campus prompts investigation involving MPI and university staff.

Related story: MPI investigates GM breach

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