GM pines on conference agenda

07 October 2010

Scion Senior Scientist and Leader of its Future Forests team, Christian Walter, will speak about the Crown Research Institute’s trials with genetically modified (GM) Pinus radiata at a major forestry industry gathering in Wellington next week. The institute’s research into GM pine has found no evidence of environmental harm.

Overseas trials have shown that GM technologies can be used to introduce desirable characteristics into timber species that could not have been achieved using conventional tree breeding techniques.

Walter will speak about the Scion research and its potential benefits to the forestry industry at 2.30pm-3pm on Monday, October 11 at the Forest Owners Association conference at Te Papa. His talk titled, Assessing the Risks and Benefits of GM organisms for the Forest Industry, will present the latest scientific evidence around GM organisms.

Prime Minister John Key will open the ForestWood 2010 Conference on Tuesday, October 12 at Te Papa. The key players in the forestry industry - growers, processors, manufacturers and contractors – have joined forces to host this, their first ever joint conference.

Walter holds a PhD in molecular biology and biochemistry from the University of Bielefeld, Germany. Over the past17 years he has been working on the development of genetic engineering technology and has published widely on this topic.

In July 2010, Scion filed an application with ERMA to further study genetic modification of Pinus Radiata. This application is for new research that is not covered in the institute’s current approval (granted in 2000).

According to Scion, the proposed field trials will involve Pinus Radiata with genetic modifications to traits such as growth rate/biomass acquisition, reproductive development, herbicide tolerance, biomass utilisation, wood density and wood stability. This technology offers future growth opportunities for the forestry sector for fibre-based products, bio-fuels, chemical extractives from trees and mitigation of climate change by increasing carbon capture.

The introduced genes and other relevant DNA sequences will be obtained or synthesised as copies from naturally occurring organisms such as bacteria, fungi, and plants (including pine).  No genetic elements from humans, or New Zealand indigenous flora and fauna, have been or will be used.

In a major trial designed to see whether modified genes would be transferred into other organisms (one of the major concerns raised by the Royal Commission into GM), it was found:

  • No evidence of the modified genes having transferred to other organisms.
  • No evidence of detrimental impact on insect diversity by the genetically modified pine.
  • No evidence of impacts on the microorganism populations that live in close association with the pine roots.
  • The expression of introduced genes is stable over several years.
The proposed field test will last for 25 years. However, each tree will only be grown for a few years. Some may grow to a maximum age of eight years or until they begin to develop reproductive structures (whichever occurs first). The development of reproductive material (pollen or seeds) in the field trial is excluded.

Trees will be assessed for expression of the new genes, herbicide tolerance, improved growth rate and wood quality traits.  Environmental impacts will also be assessed by monitoring the microorganisms and insects living in association with pines.  

Here’s a link for more information about the Scion GM pine research.