Monday, April 22, 2024

GE workflow building in Aussie labs

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Pathway to market is not entirely smooth, however.
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New Zealand farmers are not alone in facing the challenge of striving for value while mitigating their environmental footprint. Senior reporter Richard Rennie is in Australia to find out how our neighbours are approaching the issues of gene technology, carbon farming and sustainability.

Australia’s leading gene technology researchers have a solid pipeline of work before them developing gene-edited crop variants, but acknowledge that despite having more regulatory freedom than New Zealand, hurdles remain to clear.

Dr Karen Massel, a University of Queensland (UQL) research fellow and her team are among some of that country’s leading lights in the rapidly advancing field of crop genetics. 

Her team is only one of eight at UQL engaged in gene editing work that stretches across a wide range of plant, animal and human health applications.

Her work includes GE research on lifting the productivity of sorghum, a valuable maize-like feed crop intrinsic to the poultry industry and valued at AU$2 billion ($2.18bn) a year. 

GE techniques are being used in “trait stacking” sorghum, to lift grain size and therefore protein content, and improve digestibility. 

In barley and sorghum the team are trying to reduce lodging in crops by improving stalk strength, while also lifting grain protein levels. 

Some smart work around root systems has them developing differing root patterns for barley to match different soil environments.  Wider root systems are for sandier soils, and more singular, narrower systems for denser soils.

As exciting and as advanced as the work is, she cautions that Australia’s genetic technology regulations could still put the brakes on the works’ commercial success.

“Our biggest challenge is the current regulations state that once lab work has been completed, the resulting crops are classed as ‘unregulated’. It then becomes difficult for risk-averse universities and research bodies to want to be the first to put them into the field.

“It was a flaw in the regulations to have that pressure put on institutions when they could still face subsequent prosecution from the OGTR [Office of the Gene Technology Regulator], should that crop prove in some way to not comply.”

The result is a logjam of lab-based research trials showing good potential.

“We had plants good to go [to next stage] in 2019 when GE was acknowledged as being different to genetic modification, but the process really was not finished.”

Massel and her colleagues are hoping joint university and research pressure on the government will unclog the pathway.

Meantime she and Professor Ian Godwin, director of the university’s centre for crop science, are upbeat about the prospects future GE work holds for greater food security and farm productivity.

With a wetter than usual summer through much of the eastern states, fall army worm is rife, and huge quantities of crop spray have been required.

Godwin said the tech to create GE Bt-resistant sorghum – as has been done for cotton – is quite viable.

“And you could be assured that if fall army worm got into wheat crops here, we would have a resistant wheat variant pretty damn quick.”

They point to the advances United States researchers have made in an even more conducive research environment. 

Poultry farmers in the US can now populate their farms with a chicken that carries GE DNA that ensures it is asymptomatic to the devastating bird flu virus. 

Animal genetics company Genus has also gained approval for commercial use of its gene-edited pigs, which are immune to the devastating porcine reproductive and respiratory syndrome virus. 

The disease costs European Union pig farmers about €1.5 billion ($2.7bn) a year.

In work NZ farmers would relate to, Queensland researchers are also looking hard at using GE to develop sorghum with lower nitrogen needs, given nitrogen has been identified as one contributor to coral bleaching on the Great Barrier Reef. 

In the wine industry, where the demand for new varieties is minimal, GE is being used instead to tweak existing varieties, making their bunch size, shape and density more suited to changing growing conditions.

Massel and Godwin maintain consumers’ view of gene tech has advanced significantly, and it is a view supported by the Gene Tech office’s regular perception surveys. 

The researchers believe the EU’s growing acceptance of the technology, and likelihood it will gain approval in the coming year, has also helped broaden its acceptance.

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