Gene technology challenges

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The Gene Scene

The Agricultural Biotechnology Council of Australia (ABCA) is an industry initiative established to increase public awareness of, and encourage informed debate and decision-making about, gene technology. The organisation is supported by a number of agriculture sectors and organisations, including the GRDC.

Barley genes unravelled

Scientists from the University of Adelaide have been part of an international effort to map the entire barley genome.

The research was published recently in the journal Nature and it is being heralded as the key to breeding better barley varieties that are drought, heat, pest and disease resistant.

“We’ve gone out and worked out where all of the genes sit within the barley genome,” said the University of Adelaide’s Professor Peter Langridge, from the Australian Centre for Plant Functional Genomics (ACPFG).

“So we can go to a region of the barley genome and say: ‘Here are genes involved in seed development, or here are genes involved in disease resistance’. We can go in and we can target particular areas now, in ways we couldn’t before.”

The results can be used to create new barley varieties, either by genetic engineering or conventional breeding.

Barley is Australia’s second most important crop, after wheat, with about seven million tonnes of barley harvested a year, worth $1.3 billion.

The barley genome is twice the size of the human genome, so the project has been a huge collaborative task. The International Barley Sequencing Consortium was founded in 2006 and includes scientists from Germany, Japan, Finland, Australia, the UK, the US and China.

New grain research facility in Western Australia

Katanning is the site of the ‘New genes for new environments’ project facility officially opened by Western Australia’s Agriculture Minister Terry Redman in October. The research facility will complement the facility previously launched in Merredin, WA, and is part of a $9-million investment to help develop high-performance grains.

The facilities, operated by the Department of Agriculture and Food, WA (DAFWA), will enable the Australian grains industry to remain internationally competitive through access to the latest global advances in crop technology.

“Genetic modification of crop varieties is helping to deliver productivity gains to growers and the grains industry,” Minister Redman said.

“The ‘New genes for new environments’ facilities meet the stringent national standards of the Office of the Gene Technology Regulator and enable research partners to work with the department to evaluate the performance of trial GM crops in a safe and controlled environment.”

The media release stated that since its approval in 2010, WA grain growers had increased the area planted to GM canola to an estimated 125,000 hectares in 2012. Effective segregation means that WA’s non-GM canola continues to be sold to the GM-sensitive European Union (EU) market.

GM maize, rats and cancer

In September, the research results of a team of French university scientists studying rats fed a particular GM maize variety that experienced negative health effects were published in the Food and Chemical Toxicology journal. Specifically, the researchers reported that rats fed a diet supplemented with either the herbicide Roundup® or a GM maize tolerant to Roundup® had a reduced lifespan and a higher incidence of tumours.

The research has since been rejected by government regulatory agencies.

In its final evaluation of the paper by French scientist Gilles-Eric Seralini and his research team, the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) concluded: “Serious defects in the design and methodology of a paper by Séralini et al. mean it does not meet acceptable scientific standards and there is no need to re-examine previous safety evaluations of the GM corn involved. These are the conclusions of separate and independent assessments carried out by the EFSA and six EU member states [Belgium, Denmark, France, Germany, Italy and the Netherlands].”

EFSA’s final review confirmed its initial assessment that the authors’ conclusions cannot be regarded as scientifically sound because of inadequacies in the design, reporting and analysis of the study. Some of the shortcomings of the research, according to EFSA, include that the strain of rat used in the two-year study is prone to developing tumours during their life expectancy of approximately two years regardless of any treatment and that the researchers have not complied with internationally recognised methods for setting up and carrying out experiments. For example, a minimum of 50 rats is required per treatment group in order to draw firm conclusions and the authors used only 10 rodents per group.

Australia’s food regulator, Food Standards Australia New Zealand (FSANZ), has also released a statement regarding the GM maize research. It states: “the relevance of the reported findings and conclusions drawn is limited because of a number of methodological and interpretive limitations … the claimed toxicity of Roundup® is implausible and doesn’t align with extensive data from well designed and conducted long-term studies that used the active ingredient of Roundup®, glyphosate, in multiple species (i.e. mice, rats, rabbits and dogs) at higher doses where no effects were observed.”

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