Gene editing dawns as the next breeding step-change

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Portrait of Dr Karl Kruszelnicki

Dr Karl Kruszelnicki talked about the emerging potential of gene-editing technology in plant breeding and also human medicine.

PHOTOS: Clarisa Collis

Prominent science commentator Dr Karl Kruszelnicki emphasised the importance of research investment to advance the national grains industry at the 2016 Australian Summer Grains Conference in March on Queensland’s Gold Coast.

In a keynote presentation, Dr Karl explored the scope of China’s investment in research and the benefits that such a large-scale approach could provide to Australian industries, including the grains sector. Using China’s exploration of gene-editing technology as an example, he said investment in clustered regularly-interspaced short palindromic repeats (CRISPR) had the potential to transform the way we genetically modify grain crops to lift productivity.

Gene editing

The ‘gene editing’ described by Dr Karl Kruszelnicki is considered to have enormous implications for crop and livestock science.

It is said to be far more subtle and precise than any gene technology that has preceded it, in particular genetic engineering.

The new method is already being applied to crop science allowing a backlog of genetic possibilities to more readily find applications in pre-breeding research.

Broadly, gene editing is a suite of new techniques that can precisely target changes to the DNA sequence in human, plant or animal genomes. The technique works by guiding the cell’s own DNA repair mechanism into making a modification to
the genome. Among the changes made possible by gene editing is the ability to repair, silence or re-script any segment of DNA, including genes.

Compared to genetic engineering, gene editing is seen as a step up in capability, efficiency and precision. According to the journal Nature Plants, gene editing is creating the “dawn of a new paradigm in plant breeding”.

Ground Cover will have a comprehensive feature on this new technology in the July–August issue.

“It’s really cheap and you can do it in your laboratory – a high school student could do it,” Dr Karl said.

Illustrating the potential for this gene-editing tool, he said that in the future CRISPR could be used to “snip” the gene for cystic fibrosis carried by at least 14 of the 350 delegates attending the conference (one in 25 people are said to carry the cystic fibrosis gene).

He said it was also possible to remove the gene for this chronic illness from a child born with cystic fibrosis.

“This is what CRISPR will give us – we can’t do it yet, but we’re heading that way.”

Dr Karl’s lively presentation kicked off a wide-ranging set of presentations. Maize research manager at DuPont Pioneer for 32 years Steve Wilson provided an overview of advances in Australian maize pre-breeding and future directions for the crop.

Of these future directions, Mr Wilson said CRISPR gene editing has the potential to usher a range of genetic gains into Australian maize pre-breeding programs, such as drought tolerance, disease resistance and yield increases.

“It’s only been implemented and used in the past 12 months, and it gives us another way of speeding up the efficiency of what we do (plant breeding) and to utilise genetic differences a lot more precisely,” he said.

“It’s going to have a huge impact, not just in agriculture, but basically in all areas of genetics,” Mr Wilson said.

Non-GM maize gain

In the context of the Australian maize crop, however, Mr Wilson said the industry was working hard to continue benefiting from its non-GM status.

“GM technology has been around for 20 years, but there are still segments of our community that say they don’t want it,” he said.

In another conference presentation, Mark Macrander, specialty grain contracting manager for US-based processing company Ingredion, said that in contrast with Australia’s non-GM maize, about 93 per cent of the US crop is GM.

But Mr Macrander conceded Australia’s non-GM crop could provide a marketing edge for Australian maize growers and traders, particularly in developing markets.

For example, he said a US not-for-profit organisation, the Non-GMO Project, verifies that products are grown using best management practices to avoid GM contamination. Ingredion produces both GM and non-GM maize.

The symbol or brand used to indicate this certification on food packaging is an orange butterfly. “A certain segment of consumers will purchase products because of that little butterfly,” he said.

Portrait of Steve Wilson

DuPont Pioneer’s maize research manager Steve Wilson provided an overview of Australian maize pre-breeding.

“Tracing a product, such as a box of cereal, back to the farm-gate is becoming more and more important.”

Mr Macrander said that combining the non-GM profile of Australian maize with a marketing push showing the crop is also farmed sustainably might further assist growers to attract a price premium and access new markets.

“This could be an opportunity for you guys in Australia,” he said of a marketing strategy pitching maize as both non-GM and sustainable.

“With the global customers that we work with ‘sustainably sourced’ is the big phrase right now.

“Finding a common definition for sustainability around the globe is tough but an increasing number of companies are wanting assurance that the ingredients they purchase are sustainably produced.

“This sustainability thing is not going away: big food companies are putting a lot of money towards it and they’re requiring their suppliers to step up, so we’ve been doing that.”

For Ingredion, plus major US-based agricultural companies such as Monsanto and John Deere, verifying products as sustainable has meant working with a US company called Field To Market.

This organisation provides a free online tool, the Fieldprint® calculator, in which growers enter their management information, including cropping inputs. This information is analysed and converted into a ‘fieldprint’ that graphically represents a farming system’s efficiencies and environmental impact, and allows US growers to compare the sustainability of their farm business with local, state and national averages.

Portrait of Mark Macrander

Mark Macrander from US-based company Ingredion outlined market opportunities for the Australian maize industry.

“We started using Field to Market last year with our grower base to allow us to compare our growers’ sustainability practices with national averages, as well as to meet the growing requests from companies to supply this type of data.”

Mr Macrander urged non-GM grain growers generally to explore the marketing benefits of the Australian Sustainable Agriculture Initiative Platform, which is a member-based organisation that aims to improve the sustainability of Australian agriculture as part of an international initiative.

Competitive edge

In a presentation covering maize marketing strategies and opportunities, Lachlan Commodities trading manager Andrew Cogswell also said the non-GM profile of Australian maize provided a competitive advantage in international markets.

Portrait of Andrew Cogswell

Andrew Cogswell from Lachlan Commodities examined marketing strategies and opportunities for Australian maize growers in a presentation at the Australian Summer Grains Conference.

PHOTO: Clarisa Collis

“Being 100 per cent non-GM gives us an advantage over several other countries that produce maize,” Mr Cogswell said. “It’s a benefit that we can control what we sell and guarantee what we sell is non-GM.”

However, Mr Cogswell emphasised the importance of lifting Australia’s total maize production to achieve a “critical mass” that would improve the reliability of supply and, in turn, increase opportunities in domestic and global markets.

For the past five years, Australian maize production has averaged about 450,000 tonnes per year and the industry goal is to double this volume.

“If we can reach a million tonnes per annum that’s going to give us the critical mass needed to create more confidence in the market,” Mr Cogswell said.

“South Korean and Japanese markets love our corn – it grinds better, it mills better and they’re quite impressed with it. They would be happy to use more, but the problem is there is no confidence in its supply.

“Because of the small size of the national crop, we haven’t been able to create good liquidity in the market.”

However, he said there was potential to increase production across a range of markets, including wet and dry milling, stockfeed and specialty maize commodities.

Australian growers could produce an extra 200,000t of maize per year in the maize stockfeed market, Mr Cogswell estimated.

“The stockfeed market, particularly high-moisture corn, is an exciting space at the moment.”

For example, stockfeed market development to meet demand from the chicken broiler industry has seen white maize production in the New South Wales Riverina region increase by 50,000t per year in the past three years.

He said there is further scope to double total production of specialty maize commodities, such as popcorn, and free trade agreements have also improved the competitiveness of wet milling and dry milling maize in South Korean and Japanese markets. “The dry milling market in Japan alone is twice the size of the Australian market,” he said.

More information:

Dr Karl Kruszelnicki,
drkarl.com;

Steve Wilson, DuPont Pioneer,
stephen.wilson@pioneer.com;

Mark Macrander, Ingredion,
mark.macrander@ingredion.com;

Andrew Cogswell, Lachlan Commodities,
andrew@lachlancommodities.com

More reports from the 2016 Australian Summer Grains Conference will feature in the July–August issue of Ground Cover.

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