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GM Field Trials Without A Field

7 November 2001

The Claytons Option: GM Field Trials Without A Field

Special laboratory space became available today. Government may have made decisions about what can be done with GM organisms and where, but actual field trials will be conducted under an increased, time- consuming, and expensive layer of bureaucracy, amid continuing protests from opposed groups. The Claytons option, growing a small trial crop indoors, just became very attractive.

The PC2 containment facility was opened by Jill White, chair of ERMA, at HortResearch in Palmerston North. Part of the NZ Controlled Environment Laboratory (NZCEL), where horticultural work has been done for over 30 years, this is an ideal place for bio-secure research to take place. A lot of scientific experience can be brought to bear on research done in this sensitive and developing area.

PC2, properly known as “Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries Biosecurity Standard-compliant Level Two Physical Containment”, involves the provision of quarantine processes not unlike what happens when imported farm animals are kept in a secure area until it’s confirmed they aren’t carriers of any infection. The five room PC2 facility has a contained potting area and systems for the supply and control of soil, air, water, and vegetable material; not only during a plant trial. Everything that goes in will be able to be sterilised before being removed from the building.

Most of the area inside the NZCEL hasn’t changed. It’s a little model of the earth, where all climatic variables can be recreated. All 24 of its 3 metre cubic rooms are separated by over-thick walls and roofed with heat lamp-topped glass. It is especially famous for providing two rooms operating as low as –25ºC, with an accuracy of at least 0.5ºC. These rooms attract international research into such unexpected things as how irrigation equipment copes with frost. The other rooms operate at between 2º - 48º C, to meet the usual demands associated with plant physiology, and offer a complex of variable growing conditions.

For small-scale plant trials this means conditions can be not merely as good as field trials, they can be better, removing the dangers of a late frost, creating perfect sunny days, or whatever is desired. So the laboratory has had its $68,000 upgrade to provide PC2 containment and it’s science as usual. Neat potted plants will be lined up and left to grow. New Zealand is fortunate to have such scientific facilities.


7th November 2001

If You Can’t Stand The Heat, Get Into The Laboratory

Golfer Claire Dury trained at 37ºC in high humidity, when most New Zealanders were experiencing a bracing 9º, before competing in the 2001 Saujana Open in Malaysia in August, where she placed third.

Looking for a competitive edge but not able to go to the venue weeks in advance, she was able to train in a controlled environment in her home town of Palmerston North. Being in the heat meant she could improve her relative cardiovascular efficiency and monitor how much fluid she was losing, she said, but since a room 3m x 3m is too small for energetic golfing she worked out on an exercycle, with no grass in sight. And of course she wasn’t worrying about the borrow of the green.

Time constraints meant Claire had only seven sessions in the laboratory although ten at least are recommended. Fitness trainer Darryl Cochrane comments, ‘If an athlete has prepared themselves for the heat then they can solely concentrate on their event or tournament.’ In the laboratory, he explained, an individual gains an understanding of how they react to physiological stress which is an incalculably valuable addition to their usual work.

Athletes lucky enough to follow Claire’s example and take advantage of climate-controlled training facilities should remember to bring sunglasses – bright lighting set up for plant growth can only be reduced in some of the rooms – and a walkman for mental stimulation. These comments aside, there is little that can’t be done to create any necessary environment.

Other sports people who have used the laboratory to prepare to take the heat overseas include cricketer Glen Sulzberger, preparing for the NZ "A" cricket tour to India; local NZ representative lawn bowler Peter Shaw; and the Silver Ferns, who needed three of the 24 rooms. There is less demand for a recreation of other environments, although Antarctic explorers preparing for minus 25ºC are welcome to call, and when any mountaineers needing to develop their lung capacity want some rarefied atmosphere that can be provided too.

It is anticipated that a widening variety of professionals such as Medical and Peacekeeping Forces will choose to do pre-emptive fitness and acclimatisation programmes. This, with the increasing trend for sporting folk to utilise the special environments, means that a hot – and cold – time will continue to be had in the labs.

7 November 2001

Four years’ work on Peonies is about to pay off

A four year peony study by HortResearch scientists is nearing completion, and it’s all smiles from those involved. As increasing numbers of New Zealand grown cut flowers go to markets overseas, any advances in predicting or influencing factors such as when they will be ready to ship can provide growers with a competitive edge.

To achieve such an edge, a study is being carried out on the way peonies react to a range of temperatures in each stage of their annual growth cycle. At the Controlled Environment Laboratory (formerly the National Climate Laboratory) in Palmerston North, a state of the art facility where every significant climate variable can be separately controlled, peonies were put through a series of different growing conditions, mimicking the outside world but without its unpredictability. Meanwhile on properties in Hawkes Bay and four South Island locations peonies are growing under natural conditions to provide comparison data for the controlled studies.

For several peony cultivars, the project has identified the temperature requirements of three critical stages in the annual growth cycle: the chilling required to adequately break dormancy, threshold temperatures for bud sprouting, and the effects of temperature on the growth and development of flowering stems. The field data currently being collected will enable models describing these processes to be tested and extended to a broader range of cultivars.

The final data from the project will offer growers the opportunity to lengthen the flowering season, and will make it easier to schedule flowering and to predict when flowers will be ready for transport to markets. This will mean better returns for their produce. With these comparisons in the final stages and expected to be completed by next June, this is all good news for New Zealand growers, and their smiles are expected to be shared by flower lovers in a number of other countries.

7th November 2001

Pinus radiata in pots

We know growers and exporters have reason to be happy about cut flowers. They are longer flowering, available in more colours, and just plain prettier, partly because of research done for clients at the NZ Controlled Environment Laboratory at HortResearch in Palmerston North. But we need basics as well as beauty - homes to put the flowers in - and the backbone of the New Zealand forestry industry is Pinus radiata, which has been a familiar sight around the laboratory for most of its existence.

It might be thought that we’d know everything there is to know about pines after so many years of studying and growing them, but there continue to be needs for information. Will micropropagules – little cuttings – produce roots at lowered temperatures? Are different pine families more frost tolerant? How do needle sugar levels affect frost hardiness? When do frosts most effect floral buds? (How many scientists does it take to study pines? Breeding a hardwood pine or perhaps a softer pulp pine is also on the long-term plan.)

After each batch of data emerges from the potted pines in the laboratory and the facts gathered are applied to production, a casual glance at the new perky dark green seedlings would reveal nothing. Since we don’t want to get pines to grow in a choice of prettier pink or gold variegated, this is fine. But as the trees develop, and then deliver a higher proportion of better wood product per hectare in a shorter time, the benefits of all the meticulous planning and daily sheer hard work can be seen.

Much of the knowledge gained from these studies carries over to the conservation of native trees, where the payoff is partly cultural, but not entirely traditional. Cuttings may even be collected from treetops by someone hanging from a helicopter. Thirty-odd years after pines first marched in regimented but tiny rows through a 3m cubic room in Palmerston North, Birnam wood may not be going to Dunsinane and neither are Kauri marching down the main street of Ruatoria, but the trees are on the move and their future looks interesting.


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