Scion's genetic modification science

Scion’s genetic modification science 

Genetic modification is one of many techniques that can be used to improve the productivity and quality of commercially grown forestry species. Scientific opinion, based on years of research as well as commercial plantings world-wide, is that genetically modified products are safe. Scion's published research on environmental safety of genetically modified trees also indicates that they are safe.

Genetic modification techniques allow plant breeders to introduce a single, clearly identified desirable trait into a breeding population where it is not normally or readily available. For example, Scion’s previous genetic modification research, in containment, on insect resistance showed that the Bt toxin gene (derived from the bacterium Bacillus thuringiensis), which is specifically poisonous to caterpillars, was effective in preventing damage to pine plants by caterpillar feeding. This same toxin is currently available in powder form, often used by gardeners and commercial organic growers. Currently caterpillar pests are not a problem for radiata pine in New Zealand, but they cause problems for pine growers in other parts of the world. Scion’s technology allows New Zealand to be prepared for any future incursions of such insect pests.  Modifications like this have already led to huge reductions of pesticide use in agricultural crops overseas and have shown environmental benefits and safety over a period of more than 10 years.

Scion’s genetically modified tree research began in 1992. Initially, a genetic modification technology was developed for conifers such as radiata pine. In a second step, our first field trial provided proof of concept showing that genetically modified trees could grow normally and express the new gene. In a recent field trial (2003-08), genetically modified trees were assessed for their impacts on soil microbes and invertebrate organisms. No negative effects were detected.

In December 2010 the Environmental Protection Authority (EPA) granted approval, with controls, for Scion to field test genetically modified radiata pine in outdoor containment (Application ERMA200479/Approval GMF100001). These field trials have continued research into environmental impact assessments as well as studying commercially viable traits.

The trees to be tested in the field trials will initially be developed and grown in the laboratory using standard molecular biology techniques under Scion’s EPA development approvals. Then, the approved trees will be tested in the field, i.e. they will be planted outdoors and grown on a secure, contained 4 hectare site. Field trials like this are necessary to provide proof of concept for improvement of the wood quality trait of interest.

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. 

The 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 8 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. Scion has had a long history of isolating and preventing the escape of germplasm through its breeding programmes and its past field tests. 

Scion is in frequent communication with Mana Whenua, who support our research.  We believe that the future benefits of this research programme will be sustainable products, manufacturing processes and energy supplies to meet the needs of future generations. The benefits will be an increase in our understanding of this technology.

Scion is responsible for the overall operation and management of this field test. For many years, Scion has been at the forefront of research in plantation forestry and conifer biotechnology. We want to maintain and develop this position so that New Zealand has the opportunity to make pragmatic decisions on the use of gene technology in the future as well as develop new knowledge that can be used extensively through non-GM methods of tree improvement.