Coming to grips with gene technology

Up close with DNA: Grower Tom Schreurs examines the cells (stained blue) from which he is about to extract some DNA.

THE PROCESS of extracting DNA from bean cells and using it to modify a pea plant thoroughly engaged a group of Victorian growers recently at a gene technology workshop in Canberra.

At CSIRO Plant Industry's Discovery Centre, workshop convenor and Division Assistant Chief TJ Higgins said fbe experience gives participants a hands-on feel for the technology involved in creating GM crops. "We look at the technology involved and how it complements conventional breeding programs.

"At the end of the workshop these growers will take home a deeper knowledge of the technology, so they have a balanced view of the benefits and the risks," said Dr Higgins. He said the workshop provides real information and can dispel fears and misinformation.

Fast track to a genetically modified plant

Typically offered to decision makers, the two-day workshop gave these growers the opportunity to experience fbe technical hurdles throughout the years of hard work required to develop a new plant variety using gene technology.

In three laboratory sessions, participants discover how to isolate a bean gene, how to insert it into a pea plant, and how to test the new plant after making it.

"We actually give them some pea seed that has come back from field trials and they can examine the GM plants for themselves."

Dr Higgins said participants appeared relaxed about the technology but that some concerns arise about market access and other trade issues. Unfortunately, "that is something that we cannot cover in a practical, technology-focused course like this."

During the course participants also discuss intellectual property rights, consumer awareness and have a question-and-answer session with the regulatory bodies that oversee fbe research, the release of the plants into the environment, and fbe food made from the GM plants.

The CSIRO Industry Link Gene Technology Course was started in the Cooperative Research Centre for Plant Science in 1992 as ajoint venture between the Australian National University and CSIRO. The aim is to inform decision makers about genetically modified organisms.

The continuing Industry Link Gene Technology Course at CSIRO Plant Industry was coordinated by Agrifood Awareness Australia Limited, and hosted by Partners in Grain, a national program funded by fbe GRDC, with the Grain Growers Association providing additional funding in Victoria, Tasmania and NSW.