Could gene editing boost NZ primary industries?

Friday 12 Oct 2018

Removing allergens from milk, making manuka disease-resistant and preventing wilding pines are some potential future uses of gene editing in New Zealand. The possibilities are explored in the Royal Society Te Aparangi's new discussion paper The use of gene editing in the primary industries.

The paper outlines the relevant considerations, risks and potential benefits for five scenarios of how gene editing could be used for primary production sectors including agriculture, forestry and horticulture. The Royal Society Te Aparangi said in a statement it was part of its larger Gene Editing in Aotearoa project.

A multidisciplinary expert panel and reference group had been brought together to explore the wider social, cultural, legal and economic implications of gene editing in New Zealand, incorporating Maori perspectives and broader cultural contexts, the society said.

"It's a good time for New Zealanders to consider what gene editing could offer our primary industries and how they'd feel about its use" said Professor of Molecular Genetics at Massey University and co-chair of the expert panel, Barry Scott. The society is holding three workshops around the country to discuss the potential use of gene editing in the primary industries with the panel and reference group members, and gauge New Zealanders' views.

A scenario the paper discusses is using gene editing to make manuka resistant to disease. Lawyer and panel member Irene Kereama-Royal said myrtle rust and kauri dieback disease had started people thinking about what could be done to conserve native taonga species.

"Extracts of leaves and bark from manuka have been used for centuries by Maori and, with the growth in the manuka honey industry, manuka is now an important plant for New Zealand both culturally and economically. Should we use gene-editing to create new varieties of manuka that are resistant to disease?"

Massey University agronomist Dr James Millner said if gene editing was able to help protect manuka it should be evaluated. "Manuka is very valuable as a pioneer species after disturbance caused by erosion or fire. More recently, the high value of manuka honey is driving a lot of investment in the honey industry, ranging from the establishment of manuka plantations for honey production to the acquisition of hives so that apiarists can increase collection of nectar."

He said recent planting of thousands of hectares, mostly on steep erosion-prone hill country, would result in benefits for the environment and allow landowners to generate income from land which is generally unproductive.

There were a number of examples of self-introducing pests and diseases (blown in on the wind) which had affected or potentially could affect manuka.

"Myrtle rust is the latest example. Prior to that there have been a number of scale insects which also arrived from Australia. Leptospermum Scoparium is present in Australia so there is considerable potential for more pest and disease arrivals and a risk that one or more of these new organisms could threaten manuka.

Another scenario is to use gene editing to make exotic conifer trees, such as Douglas fir, sterile. Panel member Dr Phil Wilcox said wilding trees were a big problem in New Zealand. "Not only do they outcompete native species, they invade and modify unique natural ecosystems, are costly to remove and can contribute to pollen allergies."

Wilcox, who has more than 30 years' experience in forestry research, said gene editing could halt the production of cones and pollen in these species, "which would mean that when these trees are planted for forestry, shelter belts, or to help prevent erosion or climate change, they wouldn't escape into places where they are not wanted".

"There are risks, however," said Wilcox. "For example, the prospect of artificially modified sterile pine or Douglas Fir forests does not sit comfortably with some New Zealanders, who may perceive such forests as unnatural and inconsistent with New Zealand's clean, green image.

"Widespread use of such sterile conifers could exacerbate some of the other issues associated with commercial forestry, including perceived loss of biodiversity and in some cases, poor environmental management."

Dr Elspeth MacRae, Chief Innovation and Science Officer at Crown research institute Scion, said an added advantage to creating sterile trees was a boost to reaching New Zealand's zero carbon by 2050 and low emissions economy targets. "Faster-growing sterile trees take more carbon out of the atmosphere in any unit of time because they use energy to grow rather than to reproduce.

"Achieving sterile Douglas fir and other plantation conifers will also benefit the 1 billion trees planting initiative of the current government by preventing unmanaged spread of wilding trees."

The discussion paper is the third in a series, which includes papers exploring the potential use of gene editing for human health and pest control in New Zealand. All resources are available online at

Source: NZ Herald

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