Quarterly Update – Edition 19

  • Council Activity
  • Key Issues
  • In the Pipeline
  • Resources
  • For Information
  • Events


Welcome to the latest update from the Agricultural Biotechnology Council of Australia (ABCA).

It has been a very busy period of developments in the agricultural biotechnology sphere. Most notable in Australia, in a win for science, grain growers on mainland South Australian will now have access to genetically modified crops as the 16 year old moratorium was lifted. The result was achieved after negotiation between the main political parties and years of strong representation of the science and on-ground experiences by farmer-representative bodies and the wider agricultural and scientific community.

I would also draw your attention to the exciting results being achieved by commercial trials of the Australian-developed GM safflower, as an environmentally friendly alternative to petroleum-based engine oils. Not only is the crop performing in the field, it has been labelled as ‘more than promising’ by researchers comparing its performance under heat and pressure with conventional oil in the USA.

The reach of projects underway in Australia is exciting and extensive in this Update with crops including barley, rice, wheat and sorghum all featuring across research areas including disease resistance, stress tolerance in a changing climate, improved physiology and enhanced nutrition.

Overseas, the range of research in being highlighted recently is also extensive, ranging from cereals to legumes, vegetables, trees, and beyond. For example, scientists in the USA are trialling GM diamondback moths to find a sustainable solution to excessive populations of this damaging pest.

The many stories in this edition of the Update are inspiring accounts of great science promising big benefits to society, the environment, and humanity.  I hope you enjoy reading them.

Ken Matthews AO


Further information:



ABCA provides a weekly summary of biotechnology news developments for subscribers. More than 200 issues of this resource have been distributed. Contact ABCA to be added to the distribution list, or forward through any information you would like to see included.

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ABCA has issued a number of Alerts in recent months. The notifications have largely focused on the process underway in South Australia where efforts by industry and farmer organisations to deliver GM crop choice and access to the state’s growers for 2020 have yielded a positive outcome. See more in Key Issues.

Further information:



A Bill to lift the moratorium on genetically modified (GM) crops and allow them to be grown on mainland South Australia in time for the 2021 season passed through the state’s Parliament in May.

“After 16 years and millions of dollars in lost economic and research opportunities, it is a historic day for farmers in this state who can look forward to the choice in what they want to grow,” said Minister for Primary Industries and Regional Development Tim Whetstone.

“Now the legislation has passed Parliament our grain growers have the certainty they need to invest in GM seed and plant GM crops in time for the 2021 grain growing season,” he said.

Grain Producers SA (GPSA) welcomed the restoration of grower choice in South Australia after years of work behind the scenes with various governments, ministers and enquiries.

“This Bill establishes a level playing field for South Australian growers with their mainland interstate counterparts,” said GPSA CEO Caroline Rhodes.

“GPSA has been steadfast in its advocacy for freedom of choice and has worked tirelessly behind the scenes to reach this outcome and to support the political deliberations of both the Government and Opposition,” she said.

“While the amended Bill is not in absolute alignment with GPSA’s preferred policy position, we believe this compromise model was the best opportunity to provide certainty for the industry in time for the 2021 season,” she said.

“The plant science industry is delighted that science and evidence has finally prevailed on the GM cropping issue in South Australia,” said CropLife Australia CEO Matthew Cossey.

Mr Cossey commended the South Australian Government for their commitment to SA farmers; the Opposition for their support for modern, sustainable farming; and GPSA who has fought this battle for their members with passion and dedication.

“GM crops have been enabling farmers in other states and around the world to improve yields, reduce carbon emissions, use natural resources and pesticides more sustainably and protect the soil through no-till farming for decades. GM crops are beneficial for farmers and the environment. Now farmers on mainland South Australia will have access to this crucial agricultural technology,” he said.

“With challenging weather conditions and a changing climate only going to make farming harder, South Australian growers need access to every available safe and effective technology that can assist them to farm in a more environmentally sustainable way,” he said.

“GM crops being trialled and developed – including by teams working at the Waite Campus in Adelaide – could help South Australian farmers combat environmental stresses such as drought, acidic soils, salinity and frost, and provide health benefits to consumers with products such as fortified cereals, healthier starches and oils modified to be lower in saturated fats and with improved cooking qualities,” he concluded.

The Genetically Modified Crops Management (Designated Area) Amendment Bill passed through state Parliament following an agreement reached between the South Australian Government and Opposition.

Further information:


The latest report published by the International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-Biotech Applications (ISAAA) highlights the role of plant biotechnology in helping to meet the challenges of increased population and climate change.

Biotechnology, and more specifically, GM crops, can be used to develop stress-tolerant and more nutritious crop varieties to protect natural resources and human health; should be considered as a tool for improving crop yields; and, are responsible for obtaining larger income for food-insecure farmers according to ISAAA.

The highlights from ISAAA’s 2018 stocktake include:

  • In the twenty-third year of their use, 191.7 million hectares of GM varieties were grown across 26 countries in 2018 – an increase of 1.9 million hectares.
  • The average GM crop adoption rate in the top five GM crop-growing countries increased in 2018 to reach close to saturation, with USA at 93.3% (average for soybeans, maize, and canola adoption), Brazil (93%), Argentina (~100%), Canada (92.5%), and India (95%).
  • A total of 70 countries adopted GM crops – farmer in 26 countries grew them and 44 additional countries imported GM products.
  • Of the 26 countries growing GM crops – 21 were developing and five were industrial countries and developing countries grew more than half (54%) of the global GM crop area.

Genetically modified crops provided more diverse options to consumers in 2018, expanding beyond maize, soybeans, cotton, and canola to now include lucerne, sugar beets, papaya, squash, eggplant, potatoes, and apples, all of which are already in the market. Specifically, two generations of Innate® potatoes with non-bruising, non-browning, reduced acrylamide, and late blight resistant traits as well as non-browning Arctic® apples were already planted in the USA. Brazil planted the first insect resistant (IR) sugarcane; Indonesia, the first drought tolerant sugarcane; and Australia planted the first high oleic acid safflower for R&D and seed propagation.

In the research pipeline, the report highlighted research underway involving rice, banana, potatoes, wheat, chickpea, pigeon pea, and mustard with various economically-important and nutritional quality traits beneficial to food producers and consumers in developing countries.

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Following recent commercial trials in NSW and Victoria, Australian scientists are excited about the potential of GM safflower as a plant-based alternative to petroleum-based engine oils, that can be recycled, reused and safely broken down in the environment.

According to the developers, initial studies show safflower oil to be a superior lubricant that has lower emissions than conventional petroleum-based products and reduces friction and wear on engine components.

The high oleic acid safflower was developed by CSIRO plant scientists over 18 years, and the result is a variety which yields up to 93 per cent oil, the highest level of purity in any currently available plant oils.

Oelic acid is a lubricating compound with a range of uses, from heart pacemakers to cosmetics.

Scientists at Melbourne’s La Trobe University are screening and assessing countless varieties of the crop in order to set up a new germplasm collection to generate varieties suitable to a range of conditions and climates.

Researchers at Montana State University’s Advanced Fuel Centre in the United States have been comparing the safflower oil’s performance under heat and pressure with conventional oil in a large diesel engine and have labelled the results as more than promising.

Go Resources, an Australian company, has the commercial rights to the hybrid safflower variety, with royalties also generated for CSIRO.

Michael Kleinig, the Chief Executive Officer of Go Resources is excited about future commercial possibilities for export, particularly given the focus in many countries, including the USA, to move away from oil-based lubricants and fuels.

In 2018, the Office of the Gene Technology Regulator approved the commercial release of the safflower genetically modified to have high oleic acid composition for use in industrial oil production and animal feed.

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An international team of scientists, including some from the Australian Research Council Centre of Excellence in Plant Energy Biology (PEB), have identified a naturally occurring gene variation that influences sodium content in barley crops. The finding could help to advance the development of barley varieties with greater yield and better resilience to varying salt conditions.

Salinity is a significant problem for the Australian cereals industry, with potential to negatively affect crop growth in nearly 70 per cent of cereal growing regions according to PEB researchers, who found evidence to suggest that the gene variant gives rise to enhanced yield potential in barley crop plants grown in non-saline environments.

The research was published in the Communications Biology journal in May.

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Scientists at the University of Adelaide and Shanghai Jiao Tong University in China have discovered two proteins involved in pollen aperture formation in rice which are essential in the successful pollination of flowering plants.

“Pollen apertures are portals on the surface of pollen which mark the site where the pollen tube emerges and allow water uptake, which are critical for pollen germination and agricultural yield,” said Professor Dabing Zhang, Head of the University of Adelaide and Shanghai Jiao Tong University Joint Lab for Plant Science and Breeding.

“Different plant species vary in the size, shape, position and number of pollen apertures, but little is known about how these species-specific apertures form and what controls this process.”

The first protein identified, OsDAF1, is essential for annulus formation and therefore for fertility. The second protein, OsINP1, was also found to be critical to aperture formation and pollen tube germination.

The research provides important new knowledge that will benefit cereal breeding and the agriculture sector.

“Manipulation of pollen aperture formation and male fertility will be useful for developing new hybrid rice plants with high yield and better quality,” he said.

This study was published in the Journal Nature Plants in April.

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Research underway in Australia at the ARC Centre of Excellence for Translational Photosynthesis (CoETP) focused on improving photosynthesis for food production was recently published in in a special issue on Food Security Innovations in Agriculture in the Journal of Experimental Botany.

“We are working on improving photosynthesis on different fronts, as the articles included in this special issue show, from finding crop varieties that need less water, to tweaking parts of the process in order to capture more carbon dioxide and sunlight. We know that there is a delay of at least a decade to get these solutions to the breeders and farmers, so we need to start developing new opportunities now before we run out of options,” said Professor John Evans, CoETP Chief Investigator, and Co-editor of the special issue.

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Researchers from CSIRO, with colleagues in the US and South Africa, have solved the mystery of how the devastating Ug99 strain of the wheat stem rust fungus was created, observing that different rust strains simply fused to create a new hybrid strain.

Called somatic hybridisation, this fusion process enables the fungi to merge their cells together and exchange genetic material without the complex sexual reproduction cycle.

The study found half of Ug99’s genetic material came from a strain that has been in southern Africa for more than a century and occurs in Australia, and that other crop-destroying rust strains could hybridise in other parts of the world. Scientists found evidence of this in their study.

“Ug99 is considered one of the most threatening of all rusts as it has managed to overcome many of the stem rust resistance genes used in wheat varieties and has evolved many variants,” said Dr Melania Figueroa, CSIRO Group Leader.

“While outbreaks of Ug99 have so far been restricted to Africa and the Middle East, it has been estimated that a nationwide outbreak here could cost Australia up to $500 million in lost production and fungicide use in the first year,” Dr Figueroa said.

“There is some good news, however, as the more you know your enemy, the more equipped you are to fight against it.

“Knowing how these pathogens come about means we can better predict how they are likely to change in the future and better determine which resistance genes can be bred into wheat varieties to give long-lasting protection,” she concluded.

The findings have been published in Nature Communications.

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Scientists from around the world, including Australia, are looking to the emerging field of synthetic biology for potential solutions to climate change impacts. Synthetic biology is the process of bio-engineering organisms, usually plants, to make them more useful by giving them new properties or abilities.

According to the article, the CSIRO has already applied synthetic biology to produce energy-rich feed for livestock, by “switching on” oil production in the whole structure of plants such as canola, soybean, sunflower, coconut and oil palm, whereas previously the oil was only in the plants’ seeds.

This research “Revolutionising agriculture with synthetic biology” was published in Nature Plants in November.

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An international team of researchers, including some from the University of Adelaide’s Davies Research Centre, have found that it is possible to breed cattle to reduce their methane emissions. The researchers showed that the genetics of an individual cow strongly influenced the make-up of the microorganisms in its rumen (the first stomach in the digestive system of ruminant animals which include cattle and sheep). This research means that It is now possible to select for low methane production.

The research, ‘A heritable subset of the core rumen microbiome dictates dairy cow productivity and emissions’ was published in the Science Advances journal in July 2019.

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Researchers from the University of Queensland, with their colleagues from the UK, have developed speed breeding protocols which promise to change the face of agriculture and play an integral role in feeding a growing world population.

The techniques being used, include genome editing, growing crops indoors and extending day length, enhanced LED lighting and controlled temperatures and they have resulted in reduced generation times in key crops such as wheat, barley, chickpea and canola by more than a half.

The research, ‘Breeding crops to feed 10 billion’, was published in Nature Biotechnology in June.

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Australian wheat breeders, as part of a global consortium, have traced the genetic origins of bread wheat back to 8000 BC in a development that has profound implications for safeguarding this important staple crop against climate change.

Having access to the genetic family tree will allow growers to develop wheat varieties suited to the changing global climate faster and more accurately.

“This research enables wheat breeders to accelerate precision breeding of wheat varieties that are better adapted to a changed climate, which is critical to the future success of the grains industry,” said Dr Matthew Hayden, an Agriculture Victoria scientist who co-authored the paper.

“We can now pinpoint, with an extremely high level of confidence, areas of the wheat genome that affect climate-related traits such as heat-tolerance, water-use and fertiliser use.

“Researchers and breeders can use this information to develop new bread wheat varieties with more adaptive genes and improved heat stress tolerance, water use efficiency and nutrient use efficiency.”

The paper, ‘Exome sequencing highlights the role of historic wild relative introgression in shaping the adaptive landscape of the wheat genome,’ has been published in Nature Genetics.

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The Australian Academy of Science has launched an extensive Q&A booklet on genetic modification to raise awareness and clarify misconceptions about the technology. The booklet covers the science, regulation, products available, research underway, and the potential benefits of the technology such as environmental and health safety, reduced use of pesticides, improved nutritional value from enriched crops, and increased farm yields.

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Researchers from the John Innes Centre, and The Sainsbury Laboratory, in the United Kingdom, have published an article in the journal Science, about the development of a GM wheat that they hope will be resistant to fusarium.

Every year, infection of wheat by the fungus Fusarium graminearum results in losses of approximately 28 million metric tons of wheat grain valued at $5.6 billion.

The molecular identity of the Fusarium head blight 7 (Fhb7) gene was recently revealed after the gene was found through a “natural” fungus-to-plant gene transfer in a wild wheat relative. This naturally occurring genetically modified (GM) wheat strain is therefore exempt from regulation and can be grown directly by farmers.

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Scientists working in Africa have outlined research underway which illustrates how genome editing technology has the potential to revolutionise crop development in Africa, especially in sub-Saharan Africa, in a scientific paper published in the Frontiers in Plant Science journal.

The paper presents case studies where CRISPR-Cas9 is already being used to improve major staple foods in Africa. For example, the technology is being used to develop maize improve resistant to maize lethal necrosis, a devastating viral disease in plants. In banana, CRISPR/Cas9-based genome editing is being used to defeat endogenous banana streak virus (eBSV), bacterial wilt and fusarium wilt. And, in cassava, the technology is being used to develop cassava varieties with enhanced resistance to the cassava brown streak disease (CBSD), a viral disease that has caused extensive crop failures in Africa.

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Farm-scale studies and actual experiences confirm that coexistence of different production systems is achievable according to the latest report on the topic by the International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-biotech Applications (ISAAA).

Case studies from North America, Germany, Spain and Italy are considered by the authors.

Coexistence will continue to be successful as long as farmers with different preferences also continue to be flexible and exhibit mutual respect for each other’s practices and needs the report concluded.

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A study from Cornell University has reported on results from the first open-field release of a self-limiting, GM diamondback moth, stating that it paves the way for an effective and sustainable approach to pest control. This new strain of diamondback moth, developed by Oxitec Ltd, is modified to control pest diamondback moth in a targeted manner.

The diamondback moth, also known as Plutella xylostella, is highly damaging to brassica crops such as cabbage, broccoli, cauliflower and canola.

The paper, “First Field Release of a Genetically Engineered, Self-Limiting Agricultural Pest Insect: Evaluating Its Potential for Future Crop Protection,” was published in Frontiers in Bioengineering and Biotechnology in January.

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Researchers from the University of Cambridge’s Sainsbury Laboratory (SLCU) and Department of Plant Sciences have discovered that drought stress triggers the activity of a family of ‘jumping genes’ (Rider retrotransposons) previously known to contribute to fruit shape and colour in tomatoes.

Published in the journal PLOS Genetics, the research results revealed that the Rider family is also present and potentially active in other plants, including economically important crops such as canola, beetroot and quinoa.

This highlights their potential as a source of new traits that could help plants better cope with more extreme conditions.

Also looking at genes from the tomato, molecular biologist Simon Ruiz from the University of Talca, looked to the intense desert regions for plants with traits of use for the changing climate.

“Many plant species cannot survive salinity, drought and constant temperature changes. We [are beginning] to test Chilean native plants that can withstand these conditions and produce transgenic seeds,” he said.

The team is working with a tomato variety that grows in the Atacama Desert, which only receives water from the Bolivian winter rains – if they come. They have isolated 78 genes that confer tolerance to drought, salinity and cold and have developed a GM corn that can go almost two months without water in field trials. 



Plant scientists at the universities of Cambridge in the UK and Bordeaux in France have discovered a gene they hope can be used to widen a nutrient trafficking bottleneck and potentially increase crop yields.

The newly discovered gene, called the Phloem Unloading Modulator (PLM), affects nutrient trafficking by altering the channels connecting neighbouring plant cells called plasmodesmata.

“We found that mutating PLM relieves a trafficking bottleneck, that was previously reducing the outward movement of nutrients from the vascular system to the rapidly growing tissues in the roots,” said Dr Dawei Yan, lead author from Cambridge’s Sainsbury Laboratory in the UK.

The roots in the test plants grew faster and longer under field trial conditions.

The research ‘Sphingolipid biosynthesis modulates plasmodesmal ultrastructure and phloem unloading’, was published in Nature Plants in June 2019.

Further information:



The latest applications to amend the Food Standards Code relating to GM commodities in Australia and New Zealand are in the table below.

Reference Commodity Applicant Modification Details


Potato SPS International Inc Lower reducing sugars, low acrylamide potential, reduced browning (black spot) and late blight protection.


FSANZ concluded, “food derived from potato lines V11 and Z6 is considered to be as safe for human consumption as food derived from conventional potato varieties.”

Submissions closed on 09 July.

A1192 Corn Bayer Australia Ltd Herbicide tolerant. FSANZ concluded, “food derived from MON87429 is considered to be as safe for human consumption as food derived from conventional corn varieties.”

Submissions closed for public comment on 21 May.

A1202 Corn Corteva Agriscience Insect resistant (corn rootworm) and herbicide tolerant. An application has been received for FSANZ’s approval. Public consultation is scheduled between August and October.
A1196 Soybean BASF Agricultural Solutions US LLC Nematode resistant and herbicide tolerant. FSANZ concluded, “food derived from GMB151 is considered to be as safe for human consumption as food derived from conventional soybean varieties.”

Submissions closed for public comment on 09 June.

A1156 Safflower GO Resources Pty Ltd High levels of high oleic acid in the seed. Approved November 2019.

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This table provides a summary of recent licence applications and approvals granted by the Office of the Gene Technology Regulator (OGTR) in relation to agricultural biotechnology.

Reference Commodity Developer Modification Status
DIR 173 Cotton Monsanto Australia Herbicide tolerance – dicamba and glufosinate Commercial release sought. Risk Assessment Risk Management Plan (RARMP) released for public consultation by 24 August.
DIR 169 Microalgae University of Queensland Increased production of fatty acids. Field trial approved in January 2020.

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The latest survey results mapping community attitudes towards gene technology in Australia were released in December. They highlighted a move towards more neutral positions about the technology and an increase in those who aren’t sure or don’t know what to think about it.

According to the report, support for GMOs is more varied and cannot be given just one figure because it is so often conditional, based on regulation and safety being ensured, and the type of modification and its purpose. For example, there is a wide difference in support for GMOs in medical (58 per cent), industrial (53 per cent), and food and crops (35 per cent).

The support for growing GM crops overall was similar to previous years, with 36 per cent in favour and 32 per cent opposed. However, there has been an increase in the proportion of ‘don’t know’ responses from 26 per cent in 2015 to 32 per cent in 2019. The data also indicates a reduction in those who are opposed to growing GM crops in their state or territory, from 36 per cent in 2017 to 32 per cent in 2019, with more now in favour than opposed.

Awareness of the Office of the Gene Technology Regulator (OGTR) as an organisation remains on par with previous years at 13 per cent. The issues that most people want to hear about from the regulator relate to the health effects, transparency, proper testing and evidence of no long-term impacts on people or the environment.

As far as information sources about gene technology go, television remains very popular, with TV documentaries and friends and family ranking the highest as trusted sources. This is followed by specific news website, Wikipedia and current affairs shows. Social media and Facebook rated very poorly for both information and trust.

Other key findings presented in the report include:

  • Knowledge about what foods in Australia were genetically modified is generally poor.
  • Over time the trend is that those opposed to GM foods and to modifying the genes of plants to produce food is diminishing.
  • People have different attitudes towards different genetic modifications, and there is more support for modifications that are perceived to be less radical.
  • Awareness of whether GM crops were grown in a respondent’s state was generally not high, varying between 13 per cent and 35 per cent correctly stating whether or not GM crops were grown in their state.
  • Most respondents (62 per cent) felt that biotechnology would improve our way of life in the future, while only 45 per cent felt that GMOs would improve our way of life in the future.
  • Although only 41 per cent of people had any awareness or knowledge of synthetic biology, there was moderate to strong support for it (once given a definition) with 48 per cent of respondents stating they felt it would improve our way of life in the future. This was, however, a significant drop from the strong 2017 response of 62 per cent.
  • Significantly more than half the respondents (61 per cent) stated they were aware of gene editing and 52 per cent thought it might improve our way of life in the future, but 19 per cent thought it might make things worse. Gene editing received quite high acceptance (36 per cent) relative to other techniques, when asked about making a small change to an existing gene within a plant, as is done in gene editing, despite a drop from the 2017 level of 42 per cent acceptance.

The survey was commissioned by The Office of the Gene Technology Regulator. Community attitudes are crucial to the development of the Australian biotechnology sector. There have been a number of surveys of community attitudes towards biotechnology that have helped gauge the state of Australian public awareness, identify knowledge gaps and track changes in awareness and attitudes over time.

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The development of non-genetically modified frost-tolerant wheat for Western Australian growers has received funding from the Council of Grain Grower Organisations. The frost tolerance project was allocated $150,000 over two years and is set to be led by agricultural biotechnology professor Michael Jones at Murdoch University.

Professor Jones said they planned to use new breeding technologies, mainly gene editing, to try to increase frost tolerance.

“The Office of the Gene Technology Regulator is going to make this form of gene editing not classified as GM, so it’s just the same as any other breeding.”

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The ABC recently reported on GM cows resulting from research developed in the USA by Recombinetics. The cows’ DNA includes a mistake. DNA from a type of bacteria, which was part of the gene-editing tools themselves, was accidentally inserted into the cattle’s DNA during the editing process.

Dr Mark Tizard, a leading molecular biologist at CSIRO who works on gene editing animals said in the report that the technology has come a long way since 2014 when Recombinetics did its original, flawed gene editing on the cattle.

“In the five years since this was conducted, a whole new set of tools [in gene technology] have come along.”

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Researchers from CSIRO are part of a global consortium which saw a GM insect-resistant cowpea registered and released to smallholder farmers in Nigeria late last year to help reduce food shortages in the region.

More than 200 million people rely on the cowpea, also known as the black-eyed pea, as a food staple in Sub-Saharan Africa. Not only is the cowpea an important protein source, it is drought-tolerant, can cope with poor soils, and the leaves and green pods can be eaten before crop maturity, providing a ‘hunger gap’ between harvests.

However, the crop is often devastated by the cowpea pod borer, Maruca vitrata, with yield losses up to 90 per cent some seasons. With insecticide use in the region not viable due do cost and handling issues, an affordable and practical solution was sought.

CSIRO was approached by the African Agricultural Technology Foundation (AATF) to develop a system for genetically engineering the cowpea for in-built insect protection, similar to insect-resistant GM cotton.

The result is Sampea 20-T, a new GM cowpea variety which carries a microbial insecticidal gene making it resistant to the pod borer pest. Trials were conducted in Australian greenhouses and the variety performed exceptionally under field trial conditions over several years in Puerto Rico, Burkina Faso, Ghana, Malawi, and, of course, Nigeria.

The GM cowpea is the first GM food crop to be approved in Nigeria, however it follows the successful introduction of GM insect-resistant cotton into the country in 2018.

According to CSIRO scientists, Drs TJ Higgins and Jose Maria Barrero, the release of a GM crop in Africa is particularly noteworthy as many countries on the continent are still wary of biotechnology.

“By controlling one of the major pests – the cowpea pod-borer – the country could become self-sufficient. It could also potentially help reduce rural poverty and hunger. Nigeria has a massive poverty problem – more than 91 million people are estimated to live without enough food to eat,” they wrote in a recent article for The Conversation.

This research is managed by the AATF with financial support from US Agency for International Development and the Rockefeller Foundation, and CSIRO hopes to transfer knowledge of the technology to other parts of Africa.

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Researchers from the Queensland Alliance for Agriculture and Food Innovation have announced a major breakthrough in boosting the protein content of sorghum using gene editing.

The research team have improved the digestibility of the crop and boosted the protein levels to 15-16 per cent, up from the usual nine to 10 per cent.

Professor Ian Godwin outlined the research at the TropAg conference held in Brisbane in November and its potential to reduce costs for the poultry, pig and beef feedlot industries.

For example, the increase in protein is expected to result in about a 50c/head reduction in the cost of producing a two- kilogram meat bird.

“The genes of the sorghum plant had been edited to unlock the digestibility level of the available protein,” he said.

“Gene editing has enabled us to knock out some of the existing genes,” said Professor Godwin. “That has increased the digestibility of the crop.”

“The breakthrough is also expected to generate big interest in the 46 Sub-Saharan African countries, where an estimated 500 million people rely on sorghum as a food source,” said Professor Godwin.

According to the International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics, sorghum is a highly reliable crop that grows well in hot, dry environments. It is “climate change-ready” and provides food security and income for millions of low-income farmers living in such locations.

This new high yielding sorghum is being developed in partnership with Pacific Seeds. The first outdoor trial crop has been planted at the University of Queensland’s St Lucia Campus in Brisbane with further development work expected to be carried out in the USA.

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International researchers have released significant data about plant evolution and the genetic map of peas in two recent announcements involving researchers from Western Australia.

In September, an international team of researchers, including Professors David Edwards and Jacqueline Batley from The University of Western Australia’s School of Biological Sciences and Institute of Agriculture announced they had assembled the first genome of the field pea. This is an important development for global nutrition and sustainability of crops as the pea is the second most important grain legume in the world after the common bean. It is an important protein source for food and feed.

“With the pea genome sequenced, we can now start to understand the basis for the variation which has evolved,” said Professor Batley.

This research was supported by GRDC and by the Australian Research Council.

Most recently, a global consortium of almost 200 plant scientists mapped the genome sequences of 1,100 plants over a nine-year period. Associate Professor Patrick Finnegan, Associate Professor Martha Ludwig, and Dr Matthew Nelson from the UWA were all part of the international team.

“From this information, key gene sets underlying plant innovations such as living on land, producing seed, flowering, growing tall, occupying challenging environments and interacting harmoniously with beneficial bacteria and fungi can be identified in plants that, among other things, provide us with essential food, fuel and fibre,” said Associate Professor Finnegan.

“This will contribute to our understanding of how biochemical pathways, such as photosynthesis, stress avoidance and tolerance, and nutrient uptake have been built over evolutionary time,” said Associate Professor Ludwig.

“We will be able to see commonalities and differences, which will inform future strategies in protecting biodiversity as well as improving crop performance.”



Scientists at the University of Adelaide have been growing GM wheat lines in greenhouse trials as part of ‘proof-of-concept’ research. They aim to identify genes which produce beneficial traits when they are overexpressed for use in conventional breeding strategies.

In greenhouse studies, yield gains from the best performing lines were in the range of 32 to 50 per cent, compared to the same germplasm lacking the GM trait.

Further information:



The Australian Academy of Science has elected Dr Surinder Singh as a fellow for his ground-breaking work at CSIRO laboratories to develop a vegetable oil that offers the same health benefits we get from eating fish. The CSIRO research team genetically modified the canola plant so it produces oil which contains omega-3 fatty acids. Dr Singh extracted the omega-3 DNA from tiny algae and modified the canola plant with it.  The genetic modification could help preserve threatened fish stocks. At the moment, farmed fish like salmon and trout get their omega-3 fatty acids from smaller fish like anchovies which get it from the algae.

Further information:



Trials of genetically modified wheat with boosted nutrient content will be undertaken at sites in Victoria, NSW and Western Australia following a field trial licence approval granted to University of Melbourne researchers as part of a five-year project.

The Victorian researchers have modified wheat to produce white grain with extra iron and zinc. Wheat grains usually contain about 30 parts per million of iron, with researchers wanting to increase that to 40 to 50ppm to address iron deficiencies in humans.

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An international team of almost 50 experts have identified 75 emerging innovations and eight action points that can help speed up the transition to a sustainable and healthy food system to feed a growing population and help mitigate impacts such as land-use changes, biodiversity losses and greenhouse gas emissions. The emerging innovations presented include genome editing, vertical agriculture, nitrogen-fixing crops that do not need fertiliser, and the use of insects for food and feed.

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Field trials of Camelina sativa, a relative of oilseed rape, genetically modified to produce omega-3 normally sourced from fish oil, have shown that it is a stable, robust and economically viable alternative source of omega-3. The trials were successfully undertaken in the UK, Canada and the United States.

The GM camelina was developed at the UK’s Rothamsted Institute by adding biosynthetic genes that enable it to produce the non‐native omega‐3 long chain polyunsaturated fatty acids – EPA and DHA.

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Ugandan scientists are using the CRISPR-Cas9 gene editing tool to develop cassava varieties that can resist cassava brown streak disease (CBSD).

The work is underway at the National Crop Resources Research Institute (NaCRRI) and also includes research to study genes that control flowering in the root vegetable to speed up breeding.

Cassava is a staple food for most households in sub-Saharan Africa, but yields have not increased in the last 25 years, partly because of plant viruses.

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A group of scientists from the Department of Biotechnology at the National Institute of Plant Genome Research in New Delhi, the University of Hyderabad and Indian Institute of Pulses Research have developed a GM chickpea variety that shows high drought tolerance and high iron and zinc content in seeds by reducing the level of a plant growth substance called cytokinin in the root. Chickpea is a major source of protein for the people in India and there is a serious need to develop high-yielding chickpea varieties that can tolerate periodic water-deficit conditions and possess higher seed mineral content for nutritional benefit.

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A recent study of poplar tree field trials in Oregon and Arizona has shown that the trees can be genetically modified to not harm the quality of the air, and that these modifications do not impact their growth potential.

The research, “High productivity in hybrid-poplar plantations without isoprene emission to the atmosphere,” was published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America in January.

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Argentinean biotechnology firm Bioceres has recently reported that drought-tolerant wheat yielded from eight to 22 per cent more than conventional varieties in the most recent harvested trials conducted across 395 hectares.

This variety is not yet authorised to be marketed in Argentina, because worldwide there is no country where the entry of GM wheat is allowed into the food or feed chain.

Genetically modified soybeans with the same technology, HB4, and known as “Eco Soy”, is progressing faster with seed production underway for commercialisation and marketing in the future. This GM variety has been approved for commercial release in Argentina, Brazil, the United States and Paraguay.

“It is expected that the seeds produced will allow planting of up to 90,000 hectares during the sowing season next summer in the southern hemisphere, bringing the company closer to wide commercialisation,” said Bioceres.

The HB4 wheat and soy varieties contain a gene (Helianthus annuus homeobox 4 or HaHB4) from the sunflower which was discovered to confer drought tolerance when introduced into these crops.

Researchers have conducted compositional analysis of the GM wheat, considering 41 nutrients and 2 anti-nutrients in the grain and 10 nutrients in forage, and they have found that it is compositionally equivalent to non-GM wheat.

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A consortium of rice researchers has secured $15 million in funding from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to further progress the “C4 Rice Project” which aims to produce a high yielding genetically modified rice that is more resistant to harsher environmental conditions than current varieties.

“This is an extremely challenging long-term project and we are grateful to the foundation for backing the team for a further five years. This new award will get us closer to delivering rice lines that will have real impact for smallholder farmers,” said Professor Jane Langdale, from the Department of Plant Sciences, University of Oxford, who leads the consortium.

Rice uses the C3 photosynthetic pathway, which in hot dry environments is much less efficient than the C4 pathway used in other plants such as maize and sorghum. The C4 Rice project aims to ‘switch’ rice to use C4 photosynthesis.

“The C4 rice team have made outstanding progress toward cracking the code as to how to make a C4 crop. This will bring the world one step closer to obtaining C4 rice, and to gaining extra productivity without needing more water or nitrogen,” said Professor Steve Long, who runs the Gates Foundation-funded RIPE Project from the University of Illinois.

By the end of the next phase of research in 2024 scientists hope to have experimental field plots up and running in Taiwan.

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A new approach using genetic modification to protect some of the world’s most important crop species against the common crop bacteria Pseudomonas syringea (Ps) has been developed by researchers at the University of Glasgow.

Plant diseases are responsible for the loss of about 15 per cent of world crops of which a third is caused by bacteria such as Ps. The Ps species complex consists of over 50 known variants, which are responsible for diseases like blight, spot and bacterial speck.

According to a media release, using genetic modification, the team were able to make plants express a targeted protein antibiotic, or bacteriocin. These plants then successfully fought off the bacterial infection without any damage to the plants themselves or the surrounding environment.

“All major bacterial species produce bacteriocins, so we should be able to use our research as a blueprint to tackle a wide variety of important bacterial diseases in crops like potato, rice and a variety of fruits,” said lead co-author Dr Will Rooney.

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Genetically modified (GM) reduced-lignin alfalfa (lucerne) has been available to growers in the USA for four years.  Kim Cassida, an extension forage specialist with Michigan State University, recently offered a detailed review of what has been learned about the performance of the GM varieties based on published university research and farmer experience.

Lignin is virtually indigestible by ruminants, so it impedes digestion of cellulose and hemicellulose, reducing fibre digestibility and ultimately feed intake. Researchers inhibited one of the pathways for lignin production by turning off a gene.

Lignin is needed in the plant for structural support, plays a role in water movement and acts as a defence against pests and pathogens, so it remains a vital component of the plant.

“I got asked recently why we have to call it ‘reduced lignin’ instead of ‘low lignin,’” said Cassida. “The reason behind that terminology is that it’s really not low. Only a small amount of lignin has been taken out, but it’s enough to make a difference in how it will perform in cow diets.

“There is also research to suggest that lignin is positively related to yield, probably because of its beneficial attributes,” Cassida said.

“The theoretical reduced-lignin advantage is equal annual yield and quality in fewer harvests and with better persistence,” Cassida noted.

According to her presentation, results from several university trials comparing a reduced-lignin variety with conventional varieties, some of which were bred for either high forage yield or high quality, “essentially confirmed that the reduced-lignin trait does what it was developed to do — provide higher quality forage at any given point in time compared to standard varieties, allowing for a delayed harvest to obtain the same quality yet higher yields.”

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Researchers at New York state’s College of Environmental Science and Forestry are seeking federal clearance to distribute thousands of modified trees as part of a restoration effort – a closely-watched move that could expand the frontier for genetically engineered plants beyond farms and into forests.

The researchers want the U.S. Department of Agriculture to assess an American chestnut tree with a gene from wheat that helps it tolerate cryphonectria parasitica, a fungus unwittingly imported to the United States over 100 years ago. The blight decimated a towering tree species once dominant in forests from Maine to Georgia.

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Researchers at Clemson University College of Science have received a $500,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture National Institute of Food and Agriculture to develop genetically modified economically important plants – including switchgrass, soybeans and cotton.

The research both looks for genes in the plants that regulate traits to help them flourish; and for genes that improve the plants’ ability to perform better under adverse environmental conditions.

One project focuses on grasses used on golf courses which represent a multibillion-dollar segment of the U.S. agricultural economy. They require large amounts of water to remain healthy, which leaves them particularly vulnerable to extreme heat and drought, so modifications to make them more drought resistant are being investigated.

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Researchers from Virginia Tech are collaborating with their colleagues at the University of Tennessee to study the transport of pollen from GM switchgrass and hemp using drones and mathematical models after receiving a $500,000 grant from the US Government.

According to a media release, the project will provide vital predictions for farmers, whose crops are often plagued by drifting unwanted substances (including fungicide and herbicide drift), and allergy sufferers, who are curious to know what weather conditions will cause allergy season to hit the hardest.

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Genetically modified insect-resistant eggplant (Bt brinjal) has successfully reduced inputs and improved livelihoods among the Bangladeshi farmers who grow it according to a study by the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) with support from BARI and Cornell University.

Conventionally grown brinjal is one of the most heavily sprayed crops in South Asia. This prompted scientists at the Bangladesh Agricultural Research Institute (BARI) to develop a pest-resistant variety. It documented a 39 per cent reduction in the quantity of pesticides used, and as a result of this, a boost in profits for the growers.

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Forage scientists from New Zealand’s Crown Research Institute, AgResearch, have been conducting field trials of GM High Metabolisable Energy (HME) ryegrass in the USA.

According to AgResearch, the field trials of this new potentially environmentally sustainable grass – one that strikes a balance between reductions in greenhouse gas emissions, greater tolerance to drought and farm productivity – aimed to test if its performance in the field was similar to its promising performance in controlled environment studies.

“The HME ryegrass has performed well in controlled growing conditions and I’ve recently returned from the United States where we are growing the plants in field trials in competition with one another, just as they would in pasture and the plants are doing well,” said Dr Greg Bryan, AgResearch Principal Scientist.

In AgResearch’s laboratories, the HME ryegrass:

  • grew up to 50 per cent faster than conventional ryegrass;
  • stored more energy for better animal growth;
  • was more resistant to drought; and
  • produced up to 23 per cent less methane (the largest single contributor to New Zealand’s greenhouse gas emissions) from livestock.

This research has funding from the NZ Government and industry partners, including DairyNZ.

Further information:

Due to COVID-19 many of the events of 2020 have been cancelled or remain postponed. 

AusBiotech & Invest 2020

Date: 28-30 October 2020

Location: Online live and interactive

Details: The annual AusBiotech conference brings together Australian and International biotech leaders and stakeholders creating a forum to reflect on the sector’s achievements and exchange ideas to further advance the sector’s standing both nationally and globally.

Further information: www.ausbiotech.org


** Save The Date **

The 16th International Society for Biosafety Research (ISBR) Symposium

Date: 31 October – 04 November 2021

Location: St Louis, Missouri, USA

Details: ISBR promotes scientifically sound research that supports biosafety assessment by improving communication among scientists who study plants, animals, and microbes with new characteristics due to altered DNA and produced using modern biotechnology.

ISPR’s international symposium addresses the biosafety and sustainability of applied biotechnology bringing together researchers, technology developers, regulatory authorities, policy makers, non-government organisations and other key stakeholders.

Further information: http://isbr.info

Disclaimer: The Agricultural Biotechnology Council of Australia Limited (ABCA) gives no warranty and makes no representation that the information contained in these sections is suitable for any purpose or is free from error. ABCA accepts no responsibility for any person acting or relying upon the information contained in these sections, and disclaims all liability.