Find­ing an ac­cept­able way to ster­ilise trees

New Zealand Logger - - Nzif Conference 2017 -

IN THE FIGHT AGAINST WILD­ING PINES, THE fo­cus is go­ing on find­ing an ac­cept­able way of mod­i­fy­ing trees to stop them pro­duc­ing fer­tile seeds or cones.

Cur­rently the use of ge­netic mod­i­fi­ca­tion (GM or GMO) in trees is not ac­cept­able to a num­ber of or­gan­i­sa­tions in New Zealand, in­clud­ing cer­ti­fiers FSC and PEFC, and has not yet won govern­ment ap­proval. Green­peace and other en­vi­ron­men­tal groups are ve­he­mently op­posed.

But a plant molec­u­lar ge­neti­cist be­lieves there may be a vi­able op­tion that is ac­cept­able to of­fi­cials, which would not threaten New Zealand’s clean and green im­age.

Dr Glenn Thorlby told the New Zealand In­sti­tute of Forestry an­nual con­fer­ence in Ro­torua last month that gene edit­ing may sup­ply a pos­si­ble so­lu­tion to pro­duc­ing ster­ile plan­ta­tion trees, such as Dou­glas-fir and Ra­di­ata Pine.

“Edit­ing a gene that is al­ready there means that you are not adding any new genes,” says Dr Thorlby, ex­plain­ing that this tech­nique is con­sid­ered non-GMO in many ju­ris­dic­tions be­cause it can be done with­out adding any DNA.

He says the changes made through gene edit­ing are the same type as found us­ing tra­di­tional mu­ta­ge­n­e­sis, mean­ing they can­not be dis­tin­guished from a nat­u­ral change.

How­ever, even if the method is ruled ac­cept­able, ac­tu­ally achiev­ing gene edit­ing in a com­plex or­gan­ism like a Dou­glas-fir tree is in­cred­i­bly dif­fi­cult, he says.

Dr Thorlby says two projects funded by the Min­istry of Busi­ness, In­no­va­tion and Em­ploy­ment (MBIE) that were be­gun by Scion sci­en­tists last Oc­to­ber are aimed at find­ing bio-tech­ni­cal so­lu­tions to the wild­ing pine prob­lem.

The first project, called ‘Mak­ing Wood, Not Love’ is about pro­duc­ing a rapid pro­to­type of a ster­ile tree us­ing Ja­panese Red Pine to de­liver a proof of con­cept. It pro­duces cones when only three years old, so changes that have been made can be seen much ear­lier than with other pine species. And be­cause the project can be car­ried out in­side, any risks are eas­ier to con­tain than with trees planted out­side.

The sec­ond, much larger project is called ‘Win­ning Against Wild­ings’ and in ad­di­tion to MBIE fund­ing, it is sup­ported by the NZ For­est Grow­ers Levy. The project looks at all as­pects of the fight against the spread of wild­ings, in­clud­ing con­trol, the nat­u­ral ecol­ogy of wild­ings, as well as de­vel­op­ing ster­ile trees with a view to com­mer­cial­is­ing the tech­nol­ogy.

Dr Thorlby says that although the projects are only one year old, the Scion teams are al­ready mak­ing good progress in de­vel­op­ing tis­sue cul­ture sys­tems that could pro­duce ster­ile trees. This in­cludes mass prop­a­ga­tion of Dou­glas-fir and test­ing to see which conifer genes are in­volved in re­pro­duc­tion and how th­ese can be edited.

The first en­gi­neered plants have just been pot­ted and it will be at least three years be­fore sci­en­tists can see the first re­sults of their ef­forts.


The first en­gi­neered conifer seedlings be­ing grown by Scion with the aim of pro­duc­ing ster­ile trees.

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