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Science Must Answer Public Concerns

Science Must Answer Public Concerns, Says Zonta Award Winner

Scientists working in genetic engineering have a social responsibility to investigate the risks that go hand and hand with a scientific breakthrough, according to Zonta Science Award winner Dr Julia Charity.

Dr Charity, who received the award at a special reception at Government House, is a scientist with Forest Research in Rotorua and has had a key role in the development of biotechnologies in the New Zealand forest industry.

The Zonta Science award was established by the Wellington Zonta Club in 1990. Awarded every two years, its aim is to acknowledge the valuable contribution of women scientists as well as actively promote science as a career for young women.

Dr Charity and her team at Forest Research have spent the last five years developing a way to apply the genetic engineering methods often used for crops research to forestry.

She says their work is a significant step forward for the forest industry as it will allow scientists to develop new traits in the forest plantation species, radiata pine, far quicker than nature allows. About 95% of New Zealand’s forest plantations are planted in radiata pine and this species is the group’s focus.

“Forestry has much to gain from gene technologies, probably more so than any other land-based industries. With pine trees, it takes decades to introduce new traits because trees take six to eight years to reach sexual maturity. Genetic engineering could significantly speed up that process.

“By comparison, with wheat or potatoes new traits can be introduced fairly rapidly because of the short generation time.”

Dr Charity says application of biotechnology to forest trees is “not necessarily for bigger, better, faster, more” because genetic engineering allows the introduction of new characteristics not already in the breeding population.

“We use wood today for its obvious purposes of building and for pulp and paper. But in the future it may be possible to introduce novel characteristics into forest trees that allow wood extracts to be used for pharmaceutical or medicinal purposes.”

And Dr Charity says the genetic engineering technique developed at Forest Research will not only benefit the forest industry, but will be an important tool for scientists to learn more about the function of individual genes.

While new discoveries are exciting, Dr Charity says scientists have a responsibility to respond to public concerns about genetic engineering by designing experiments to better understand the effects.

“I think people in the community want an assurance that scientists are taking responsibility and that we are asking the right types of questions. Although it is tempting to keep forging ahead to make new discoveries, I think we can learn a lot by investigating and understanding the technology better, including associated risks.”

That’s why Dr Charity is using her Zonta Science Award prize of round-the-world airfares and $5000 cash to work in Quebec for three months with the Canadian Forestry Service, which has been carrying out similar work with other species of forestry trees.

“Our work to date here in New Zealand has been a scientific breakthrough. With the Canadian Forestry Service, I will investigate the effects of that breakthrough to quantify some of the risks associated with it.”

Dr Charity describes her trip in September as a chance to forge links with a “prestigious” overseas laboratory, and a fantastic opportunity for herself, Forest Research and for New Zealand science. “It will also provide factual data to contribute to the public debate on gene technologies.”

“Forest Research have supported the science behind this project and I believe Zonta has shown great strength as an organisation in supporting my research proposal. The New Zealand Government’s ratification of the Royal Commission wants biotechnology to proceed with caution and Zonta is giving me the opportunity for science to do just that.”

[ends]

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