Now that easy, inexpensive and accurate techniques are a reality for researchers, New Zealand is entering into a new discussion about how it should approach the research and application of genetic modification.
This year, the Royal Society Te Apārangi, a statutory body that provides scientific funding and advice, has put the subject on the anvil through a series of discussions that state how genetic editing could bring a range of benefits for agriculture, horticulture and forestry sectors, zoning in on apples, manuka honey, ryegrass, wildling pines and dairy cows.
The society has sought public feedback and it held workshops around New Zealand last month to discuss the findings.
The country emerged as an outlier in this field of research back in 2012 when Daisy, a genetically engineered dairy calf, made headlines around the world. Researchers at AgResearch, New Zealand’s biggest public research institute, used a genetic intervention called RNA interference to target a particular cow milk protein known to be allergenic.
The team were able to prove they could knock down beta-lactoglobulin (BLG), which is a significant cause of the allergic reactions to cow’s milk that affect 2-3% of infants.
The same institute is now able to answer a crucial follow-up question: would the same genetic trait continue through Daisy’s offspring? They believe that it has, after monitoring 12 of her female calves and observing no detectable levels of BLG in their milk.
Given the importance of milk in the healthy development of children, this finding has potentially huge ramifications, both commercially and in public health.
AgResearch senior scientist Götz Laible says the achievement of using genome editing to “knock out” this major milk allergen raises possibilities around the future production of speciality milk for those with allergies, particularly infants. Symptoms of allergic reactions to cow milk can range from mild to life-threatening.
“What we have demonstrated is that we can eliminate a major allergen like beta-lactoglobulin from the cow’s milk, and do so safely,” Dr Laible told DairyReporter.
“We have achieved this by making a change in the genome that mimics what is potentially a naturally-occurring mutation. We’ve also done it in a way that avoids the risk of introducing a new allergen to the milk in the process.”
Dr Laible says more research is still needed around other allergens in milk that may affect people, aside from BLG, and how they could also be addressed.
“There is also research happening elsewhere in the world in relation to the knock-out of milk allergens and we are keen to see how our work lines up alongside what is being done by other scientists.”
Yet New Zealanders are reticent to embrace gene editing, and public opinion staunchly favors remaining GE-free. The government has resisted allowing modified foods into the food chain, though there are some exclusions for processed foods that have imported modified ingredients like soy and cornflour, though these must be approved by a local authority and clearly labeled.
This frosty attitude may be thawing, however, nearly 20 years since genetic engineering was last debated at a national level. While it is unlikely that New Zealand will change its cautious approach to genetic modification, at least the subject is being reopened little by little.
One of the key figures in scientific research in the country, the recently outgoing former science advisor to the prime minister, Sir Peter Gluckman, has declared genetic modification to be safe and called for renewed discussions on the subject.
“What we need is a conversation which we've not had in a long time, and it needs to be, I think, more constructive and less polarised than in the past,” he said in a television interview after stepping down from his role after nine years.
“We are, fundamentally, a biologically based economy. Now the science is pretty secure, and science can never be absolute… But the uncertainty here is minimal to nil; very, very low. I think it's a conversation we need to have.”
This is an opinion shared by Barry Scott, professor of molecular genetics at Massey University and co-chair of a multidisciplinary expert panel brought together by the Royal Society Te Apārangi to explore the wider social, cultural, legal and economic implications of gene editing in New Zealand.
“Gene editing techniques will allow more targeted and precise genetic changes than what has been possible before in crop and livestock breeding,” said Professor Scott.
“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.”
It will be interesting to read the public submissions sought by the Royal Society’s expert panel, once they are released, to gauge opinion on gene editing, especially after all the publicity generated by the development of CRISPR technology, which was used to remove the BLG from milk produced by Daisy’s offspring.
The debate is particularly pressing, given New Zealand’s status as a food producing nation and the potential for it to be left behind in a field that it leads, says Dr Tony Conner, science group leader at AgResearch.
“The difficulty with public perceptions of any genetic technology is that it tends to be skewed in favor of the worst-case scenario, even when there is no real evidence of harm. It puts the onus on us as scientists to communicate what the evidence actually shows,” he said.
“My colleagues at AgResearch have already demonstrated what is possible with gene editing… and proven that they can use CRISPR technology to remove a major allergen from cow’s milk. This shows one path to enhancing our food supply and human health.”
Potential for improvements
To this end, it is worth looking at what has already been achieved over the decades in selective breeding of plants to make Kiwi pastures perform better and help farms flourish.
Billions of dollars have been saved through the targeted use of endophytes, a fungus that lives within grasses to deter pasture pests, though there is also an issue with some endophytes being harmful to livestock.
Gene editing has the potential to remove this harm to livestock, while maintaining the huge benefits the endophytes offer.
“My hope is that [renewed debate] will not only provoke discussion about gene editing, but also help lift the general understanding of this technology, with the evidence at the heart of the discussion,” Dr Conner added.