What is genetic modification?

Genetic modification, or genetic engineering, is one of many breeding techniques that can be used to improve the productivity and quality of commercially grown species. For these questions, we’ll assume the genetically modified organism is a plant such as a radiata pine tree. Genetic modification allows plant breeders to introduce a single, clearly identified desirable trait into a breeding population where it is not normally available.

Genetic modification involves the insertion of genes by techniques applied in the laboratory. When genes are inserted, they can come from a different species or from the same species. A similar process takes place in natural genetic modification where some bacteria have the ability to transfer some of their genes into plants and establish those genes in the plant’s genome.

Why is Scion involved in this work?

As a Crown Research Institute, Scion has a responsibility to pursue areas of science and technology that offer opportunities for the forestry sector in New Zealand, including gene technologies. The impetus from the industry and Government is to develop trees that grow faster, have higher value products, require lower inputs (such as herbicides and insecticides) and can mitigate climate change. Scion is at the forefront internationally in applying these genetic modification techniques to radiata pine and other conifers.

What is the purpose of the trial approved by ERMA in 2010?

In July 2010, Scion filed an application with ERMA to further study genetic modification of Pinus radiata. This application was for new research that was not covered in Scion's previous approval (granted in 2000). These field trials in containment will provide proof of concept by demonstrating how particular genes affect particular traits when grown under simulated production conditions. Field tests will involve radiata pine 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.

ERMA granted approval of this application, with controls, in December 2010.

Does Scion currently have genetically modified trees growing in field trials?  

In late August 2011, Scion planted a number of genetically modified trees as part of an existing field trial approved by ERMA in 2000 and as part of the 2010 ERMA approval. These trees will be grown outdoors for a maximum of six years and will be destroyed no later than 2018.

What genes are involved in this research – are there any animal or human genes?

The introduced genes and other relevant DNA sequences will be obtained or synthesised as a copy from naturally-occurring bacteria, fungi, and plants (including pine). There are no genes involved in this research that are of animal or human origin. No genes will be used that are from indigenous flora and fauna.

What are these genes expected to do?

These genes are expected to influence the development of the trait of interest. For example, some of our experiments include genes that may influence pulping characteristics. Softwoods require more energy and bleach for pulping because their lignin (part of the cell wall that provides structural strength to the tree) is less chemically reactive than hardwood lignin. Specifically, genes would be introduced that influence the chemical structure of lignin, which we predict will make the wood easier to pulp without affecting the structural strength of the tree. If successful, this should increase the competitiveness of New Zealand pulp mills, with increased throughput and higher pulp yields.

Where exactly will the research be conducted?

The research will be conducted in containment laboratories and on a 4 hectare field test site within the Scion campus, Rotorua. Not all of this field test site will be planted at any one time.  

How long will the trial last?

The total duration of the proposed field test is 25 years. Individual trees will only be grown to a maximum of eight years of age or until they begin to develop reproductive structures (whichever occurs first).

How many genetically modified trees will be grown?

The number of trees needed to obtain scientifically valid results is currently under review. The maximum number of plants in the field test at any one time is constrained by the size of the field test site.

Will Scion move these genetically modified trees to other sites?  

No, all trees will remain in containment. However, for research purposes some material, such as stems, branches, roots or pine needles may be transferred to certified containment facilities at Scion or other institutions.  Any such transfers will be in accordance with MAF Biosecurity certification, approval and oversight.

How safe are neighbouring plants? For instance can pollen from these GM trees drift to pollinate nearby pine trees or other plant species?

No pollen or seed will be allowed to develop. The trees will not be grown to the age where they usually develop reproductive structures. In the highly unlikely event they do, our monitoring regime will provide ample time to detect this. If a tree starts to develop male or female cones it will be cut down and destroyed. Immature male cones are present and easily identified for several months before they are able to produce pollen and the female cones require three years before seed is produced. Scion staff have several decades of experience operating field tests with radiata pine. This species does not spread through vegetative propagation (such as from needles, branches, cuttings or root stocks) without human intervention. The field test site will be managed in accordance with MAF Biosecurity and ERMA standards.

What about the immediate neighbouring soil and plant community – how safe are they from contamination?

The likelihood of transfer of genetic material from decaying plant material into the natural environment (e.g. into soil microorganisms) is highly unlikely. Our results from earlier trials have confirmed that there is no transfer of GM radiata pine genes into soil microorganisms. Further, all genetic elements used in this field test already exist in the natural environment, and the addition of a small amount of the same elements through gene transfer would be of negligible effect. Because of natural selection, any transferred genes would need to confer a selection advantage in the organism they were transferred in to, otherwise they will decrease in frequency and die out.

Environmental impact data demonstrate that genetically modified trees can be deployed safely in a commercial context. (See Papers published by Scion scientists and the NZ Herald article, 2 May 2008 : GM pines cleared of risk to the environment).

How can Scion be sure that no GM material escapes from the field trial site?

All plants that show reproductive structures or that meet the age of eight years will be destroyed using scientifically validated methods. The field test site is secure (as much as practicably possible) to prevent entry by unauthorised users.  

What could happen if live GM material got out of the site?

Scion has conducted a successful field test of genetically modified trees for over 10 years, and most of this research has been devoted to the assessment of operational and environmental risk related to genetically modified conifers. The research completed to date has not detected any negative effect of genetically modified trees on either the environment or organisms living in the environment. The possibility that any escaped material could establish in the wild is extremely remote since new radiata pine cannot grow from roots, branches or pine needles without human intervention and no seed or pollen will be allowed to form on the trees in the field trial.

Scion field trials have been breached in the past. Could this happen again?

This is always a possibility. One trial was disturbed in 2008 when the site was broken into by anti-GM protestors and some trees were destroyed.

 In April 2012, during the long Easter weekend, a field trial of genetically modified radiata pine trees planted in a secure site at Scion’s Rotorua campus was deliberately destroyed. The field trial which contained 375 young radiata pine trees was approved under one of the strictest regulatory regimes in the world, and was in full compliance with the containment controls.

Set inside Scion’s perimeter fence, the 1-hectare field trial site was secured by a double fence, one of which was electrified and monitored. The offenders cut through the perimeter fence elsewhere on the campus, then dug under the security fencing and attacked the trees by cutting them at root level and pulling them out of the ground.

The perimeter fence is designed to prevent unauthorised access to the site but it is very difficult to prevent an individual or group from accessing the site and behaving with criminal intent.

13 April 2012 Press Release:Scion's Field Trial Deliberately Destroyed.

What are the anticipated benefits to the forestry industry and to New Zealand’s economy?

Because this is a field test, the direct benefits will be knowledge-based rather than economic. However, one of the main purposes of the field test is to establish the potential of the trait modifications tested to provide economic benefit to the New Zealand economy.

Commercial forestry is currently Zealand’s third largest export earner, at $3.7 billion per year and radiata pine makes up nearly 90 percent of the forestry estate. If commercialised and adopted by the forestry industry these trait modifications are expected to add hundreds of millions of dollars in annual export revenue.

How will people find out about the results of the research?

The results will be published in publicly available peer-reviewed scientific journals. Scion will issue media releases for significant results related to this research.

Is Scion working with other partners on this research and, if so, what is their involvement?

ArborGen has been supporting Scion’s research programme that aims to discover the genes that control important processes in radiata pine since 2006. ArborGen will also be supplying genes and plant material to Scion for inclusion in the proposed trial. Scion is responsible for the overall operation and management of the field trial.

ArborGen has been operating in New Zealand for many years, employing people locally. The company is aligned with and supports our forestry sector, and supplies trees to the majority of forest owners/operators in New Zealand.

Also Scion aims to continue ongoing work looking at the environmental impacts of genetically modified organisms on the environment. This work will take place in collaboration with other crown research institutes and universities.

Will the research results be commercially valuable and if so who will own the intellectual property?

If the trial proves that a gene, or genes under evaluation, positively influences a trait then the research results will be commercially valuable. Scion and / or its partners will own the intellectual property.

Will wood or wood-products from genetically modified trees be used in paper products or timber?

No, all wood from genetically modified trees in the field trial will be destroyed.

What does this mean for FSC Certification and what impact will there be on New Zealand’s environmental and sustainable forestry reputation?

The Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) currently prohibits the use of genetically modified organisms in FSC-certified forests. Scion takes care to ensure that the industry’s FSC status will not be compromised by research activities, which are conducted in containment.

Opponents say that research shows that genetically modified crops are failing around the world and that there are no sound ways to anticipate adverse effects. Why should New Zealanders continue to allow this research to occur in their country?

There is little truth that genetically modified crops are failing. In 2009 14 million farmers in 25 countries grew genetically modified crops commercially, and over 90% of them were small farmers in developing countries. Numerous studies confirm that these crops provide significant economic and environmental benefit. Decisions on whether or not to use genetically modified (or conventionally bred) plants should be based on a scientific evaluation of possible risks associated with a particular new trait and the degree of novelty of the genes encoding it. Such decisions should be made by governments based on scientific evidence around the application of genetic modification in various fields such as medicine, research, industry, agriculture and forestry.