December 1, 2008
The Australian scientist John Lowenthal and his research team at the Australian Animal Health Laboratory in Victoria may just have the technology to breed an avian influenza-resistant chicken.
He told his audience at last week's 10th International Symposium on the Biosafety of Genetically Modified Organisms in Wellington, New Zealand that there is proof from concept projects that GM poultry can be a success.
If it works, the avian influenza virus - which in its H5N1 strain has led to 240 reported human deaths in 15 countries - could be stopped in its tracks.
But New Zealand suffers from a further disadvantage - widespread public disapproval of the concept of GM.
GM (Genetic modification) in animals works by taking DNA code from one species and putting it into another. Hence it can be used to combat bird flu. The GM intervention that Lowenthal proposes could be used across a range of animals to breed disease resistance.
However in New Zealand, the legislation - the Hazardous Substances and New Organisms (HSNO) Act overseen by the Environmental Risk Management Authority (Erma) - is seen by many as a defacto moratorium on genetic modification. Since provisions relating to new organisms took effect in July 1998, just 16 GM contained field tests have been approved. Prior to this 50 GM field tests had been approved by the Minister for the Environment.
Among the 16 allowed were approvals to test GM cows modified to express the human lactoferrin protein in milk, GM onions modified for resistance to the herbicide glyphosate and GM brassicas (cabbages) for resistance to insects. None of the field tests have proceeded to commercial application.
The symposium argued that the New Zealand government is too risk averse and only companies with deep pockets could afford to do research on GM projects.