SMC Heads-Up: GM wheat, fighting viral hepatitis and ozone anniversary
Issue 198 14 - 20 September
New from the SMC
Safety of Aussie GM wheat questioned
Genetic modification continued to capture headlines this week, with media reports of potential safety concerns rejected by scientists scrutinising the claims.
At a press conference in Melbourne on Tuesday, Prof Jack Heinemann from the University of Canterbury and Assoc Prof Judy Carman from Flinders university, expressed concern over the potential health effects of GM variety of wheat the CSIRO is trialling in Western Australia.
The academics were commissioned by pressure group Safe Food Foundation to provide expert opinion on the safety of the GM crop. The wheat in question has been engineered to produce 'silencing' RNA molecules which prevent a particular gene from being expressed, leading to the wheat containing more hard-to-digest starch (roughage) with the aim of improving bowel health.
Prof Heinemann claimed: "The molecule created in this wheat - intended to silence wheat genes - can match human genes, and through ingestion these molecules can enter human beings and potentially silence our genes".
Assoc Prof Judy Carman further noted that if the RNA molecules also silenced a similar gene (GBE) in humans it would result in liver dysfunction, possibly leading to cirrhosis and liver cancer.
However, intellectual property concerns prevented the pair from accessing the actual RNA sequence used by CSIRO, forcing them to base their report on speculation as to what possible sequences might have been used.
Australian scientists fired back blistering responses, calling into question the motives and methods of the experts involved.
"Essentially we have two scientists who appear to be ideologically opposed to GM crops and who studiously ignore the majority of the scientific literature and data", said Prof Peter Langridge of the Australian Centre for Plant Functional Genomics, University of Adelaide.
"They have tried to give the appearance of credibility by writing a couple of scientifically flawed articles, rather than have these assessed through the normal process of peer review...This is not helping an informed discussion about the technology."
Closer to home, Assoc Prof Peter Dearden, Director of Genetics Otago dug in deeper on Heinemann's claims, telling the SMC, "small RNA molecules made in plants have been found to cross into humans via the digestive system, and may affect human genes. This effect is, however, sequence specific. So if the human genome has no DNA sequence similar to the small RNA, then nothing can happen."
Analysing the arguments raised in the report, he said CSIRO researchers could avoid any theoretical risk by targeting regions of the plant's gene that are clearly different from the human gene GBE. The chain of events required to cause disease was in his opinion, "easy to avoid and unlikely".
Elaborating further in a blog post, he said raising safety concerns via media statement alone cost the researchers some credibility.
"By not engaging with the decision-making process, but then releasing a scientifically-backed query about the plants, you make it look like your aim is to disrupt, rather than inform, Dearden said. "Now there is mistrust and anger, neither of which helps the general public get the high quality, safe products they deserve."
commentary from Australian and New Zealand scientists can be
found here. Video of the press conference and
the documentation behind the Safe Food Foundation's claims
is available here.
On the science radar...
Presidential psychopaths, new 'old' monkeys, boozing pigs, mammoth cloning effort, bird funerals and boil-free surfaces.
Ozone protection turns 25
This Sunday marks the 25th Anniversary of the Montreal Protocol, an international agreement which ended the use of CFC's and slowed destruction of earth's ozone layer.
Dubbed "the world's most successful environmental agreement", the Montreal Protocol was implemented in response to the discovery that certain commercially used gases, such as CFCs, were damaging the UV absorbing ozone layer.
The Montreal Protocol is the only treaty with universal ratification - all 197 member countries of the United Nations have now accepted legally binding obligations to phase out the production and consumption of ozone-depleting substances.
New Zealand plays a key role in monitoring the ozone layer, with NIWA's Lauder station specialising in measuring CFCs, Ozone and UV light levels. The Crown Research Institute drew criticism from the International Ozone Commission earlier in in the year when it announced plans to cut staff at the South Island station.
While the destruction of ozone has slowed, the hole has not disappeared. In fact, the largest hole ever recorded was seen in 2006. September sees it grow to its maximum extent each year, affecting UV exposure in lower latitudes including New Zealand. You can see regular updates and the latest images on NASA's Ozone Watch site.
to know more about the Montreal Protocol? The Australian
science commentary website, the Conversation, has produced a
five-part series exploring the science
and politics behind the treaty.
Experts target viral hepatitis
Leading health experts have warned that rates of liver cancer will soar over the next decade if urgent action isn't taken to curb the leading cause of the disease, viral hepatitis.
Experts from across Australia and New Zealand gathered in Auckland this week to issue a public statement calling on government, health departments and others to take immediate action.
"A substantial scaling up of resources and efforts is needed to stop these epidemics in their tracks - otherwise liver cancer will continue to be among the fastest increasing causes of cancer death in Australia and New Zealand," the 'Auckland Statement' reads. The statement was released on Monday night as part of the 8th Australasian Viral Hepatitis Conference.
Viral hepatitis is the No.1 cause of demand for liver transplants in Australia and NZ. Deaths from hepatitis-related liver cancer are growing at the same pace as deaths from melanoma and are likely to treble by 2030.
More than half a million people in Australia and New Zealand are thought to be living with chronic hepatitis B or C infections. These people may currently have no symptoms but without treatment, can progress to liver cancer or failure.
At its core, the statement has an ambitious goal to halve the rate of new hepatitis C infections by 2016. According to the statement, a focus on providing sterile injecting for equipment users of intravenous drugs will be critical to preventing the spread of viral hepatitis.
Quoted: New Zealand Herald
"Why can't we do it? Is it just inertia again? Do we need better science training for people who run businesses? Should we do more at university level to help people appreciate science? I'm not sure what the answer is."
Dr David Krofcheck on NZ companies' lack of investment in R & D
New from the SMC
Experts respond: GM Wheat:
In the News:
GM Wheat:Two scientists, working in conjunction with the Safe Food Foundation in Australia, claim CSIRO-developed genetically modified wheat may have unintended effects on humans. However other experts disagree with their assessment of the risks associated with the modified crop.
Hepatitis conference: In Auckland this week experts called on government, health departments and others to take immediate action to prevent increasing rates of viral hepatitis and subsequent liver cancer.
Smart ideas: Gels to stop bleeding, heat reflecting paints and nanomaterials made from fish eyes and are just a few of the high-tech ventures receiving funding in the latest government investment round.
Reflections on Science:
Medical spin: Don't just blame the media when it comes to hyped coverage, new research puts some of the blame on the scientists themselves.
Some of the highlights from this week's
An angel lines up in books' corner - Peter Kerr looks at some literary evangelists set to go viral - because every one loves to share a good read.
Tim Minchin explains ENCODE - Science
savvy comedian Minchin breaks down the latest genomic
breakthrough in a clip highlighted by Aimee
Does eating transgenic wheat destroy your
liver? Peter Dearden picks apart the headlines regarding
this week's Aussie GM stoush.
Antibiotic myths -Siouxsie Wiles
mythbusts some mythbusting on the matter of antibiotics.
Please note: hyperlinks point, where possible, to the relevant abstract or paper.
Moa Meals: New Zealand
researchers studying moa remains from several significant
13th-15th century CE archaeological deposits across the east
coast of the South Island, have found new evidence of how
the birds were hunted to extinction. DNA analysis of remains
revealed that humans commonly ate moa eggs (over 50 of the
giant birds eggs' were identified at one site) and were more
than twice as likely to catch male birds as females.
Quaternary Science Reviews
Cross-cultural comparisons of plants used in traditional
medicine should guide future drug discovery efforts, says a
new study. Researchers analysed 1,500 medicinal plant
species from three distant parts of the globe: Nepal, New
Zealand, and the Cape of South Africa. They found that the
same species of plants were being used to treat similar
conditions in separate regions despite a lack of cultural
overlap. Future studies could help focus bioprospecting
efforts on traditionally used plants that are most likely to
Preventing falls in the
elderly - what works?: Some interventions can go
along way to preventing falls in older people who are living
in their own homes, but others might be a waste of time and
money - or even increase the likelihood of a fall. A new
comprehensive analysis has attempted to identify which is
which. Working in New Zealand, the UK and Australia, a team
of seven researchers considered evidence from 159 trials
involving 79,193 participants, to identify the most
effective ways of preventing falls. Exercises, safety
equipment, better drug management and vision improvement
were among those interventions which were backed up by
The Cochrane Library
heart benefits found lacking: Greek researchers
have performed a large-scale systematic review and
meta-analysis to determine the association between omega-3
polyunsaturated fatty acid (PUFA) supplementation and major
cardiovascular outcomes. The study, which included data from
over 70,000 patients, found no statistically significant
association with all-cause mortality, cardiac death, sudden
death, heart attack, and stroke when all supplement studies
hear: A cell-based therapy that restores responses
to sounds in deaf gerbils is presented in Nature this week.
The study reports the generation of ear-like cells from
human embryonic stem cells, and shows that these progenitor
cells can differentiate into functional cells involved in
auditory response. The ability to reinstate auditory neuron
functionality may pave the way for a future cell-based
treatment for some forms of deafness. Image available.
Some of the policy highlights from this
ETS slammed: Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment Dr Jan Wright says planned changes to the Emissions Trading Scheme will be a costly and environmentally damaging mistake. The changes are part of the ETS amendment Bill currently before select committee. Dr Wright made a submission on the bill this week.
PGP applications open: The Ministry for Primary Industries is calling for applications for its co-investment fund, the Primary Growth Partnership (PGP). The fund invests in programmes of research and innovation that will boost the economic growth and sustainability of New Zealand's primary, forestry and food sectors.
Conservation projects: The Department on Conservation has announced the 66 new projects to be funded in the latest round of government biodiversity funding to enhance management of indigenous biodiversity on private land.
Upcoming sci-tech events
• New Zealand Applied Neurosciences
Conference - 14-16 September, Auckland.
• Forums for the Future: Between Rich and Poor - Political columnist Colin James, health researcher Philippa Howden-Chapman, and Stephanie McIntyre, Downtown Community Ministry Director, discuss the effects of inequality - 13 September, Wellington.
• Examining the future of alternative fuels: Tauranga Cafe Scientifique - 17 September, Tauranga.
• Agriculture, Science and the Arts - Professor Jacqueline Rowarth, Inaugural Professorial Lecture - 18 September, Hamilton.
• Adolescent brain development: implications for policy, practice and pastoral care - Nordmeyer Lecture given by Professor Harlene Hayne - 19 September, Wellington.
• Wellington Rocks! Earthquake briefings for Wellington residents - a joint project from GNS Science and the Wellington City Council - At various locations throughout Wellington, September - October.
For these and more upcoming events, and more details about them, visit the SMC's Events Calendar.