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Australia continues to test drought-resistant GM wheat

(July 16, 2008) In Australia, the Victorian Department of Primary Industries has obtained approval for further limited and controlled field trials with drought-resistant genetically modified wheat.

Farmers in drought-plagued Australia have set their hopes on the development of new wheat lines that one day might deliver high yields under field conditions that are rain-fed and drought-prone. According to Joe Helper, Victorian Minister for Agriculture, some types of genetically modified wheat grown last year at Government sites produced up to 20 per cent higher yields than do conventional crops under similar circumstances. This year, his Department obtained approval for the trials of approximately 50 GM wheat lines under limited and controlled conditions. The releases will take place between now and March 2010 and will cover a maximum area of 0.4 hectares per growing season.

The purpose of the release is proof-of-concept experiments that evaluate the agronomic performance of the new wheat lines. These lines have been modified to contain one of fifteen genes originally isolated from maize (Zea mays), thale cress (Arabidopsis thaliana), the moss Physcomitrella patens and the yeast Saccharomyces cerevisae. The introduced genes encode proteins that are intended to improve the tolerance to drought. All wheat lines in question contain an antibiotic resistance gene (bla) and a herbicide tolerance gene (bar), which were used as selectable markers during initial plant development in the laboratory.

The decision to issue the trial licence is the responsibility of the Office of the Gene Technology Regulator's (OGTR). A Risk Assessment and Risk Management Plan (RARMP) forms part of this decision and concluded that the release poses negligible risks to people and the environment. Nevertheless, in order to restrict the dissemination or persistence of the modified plants, the approval is subject to strict safety conditions. Applicable measures include the establishment of a 10 m monitoring zone free of plants around each release site, as well as of an additional isolation zone that is free of Triticaceae species for at least 490 m in breadth. Release sites also will be surrounded with a wire fence that prohibits entry to animals such as rabbits and all plant material will be harvested by hand to minimise GM seed spillage. The GM wheat will not be permitted for use as human food or as animal feed and must be destroyed after analysis, with the exception of seeds that are kept for further research. Also, trial sites must be monitored for 24 months after harvesting.

The OGTR previously has issued licences to Victoria for the conduct of field trials of GM drought-tolerant wheat that involved six of the fifteen genes in the current application. In the past, the Regulator also has issued field-trial approvals for salt-tolerant GM wheat and for GM wheat with an altered starch content. According to the Regulator's Office, there have been no reports of adverse effects on human health or the environment resulting from any of these releases.


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