Gene technology

Current CSIRO research

Page 9 of 11

Insect-resistant cotton

Cotton production is one of Australia's biggest agricultural industries, valued at more than A$1.5 billion per year.

By introducing two genes from a common soil bacterium into cotton DNA, CSIRO scientists have produced cotton varieties that are resistant to the Helicoverpa caterpillar, the main insect pest of cotton.

The genes produce proteins that kill the caterpillars, but do not affect other insects. The genetically modified cotton has reduced pesticide use by 80 per cent, increasing both the environmental sustainability and profitability of the Australian cotton industry.

Pest-resistant cowpeas

Cowpeas are an important food for over 200 million people in sub-Saharan Africa. The main pest of this crop is the legume pod borer, a moth that lays its eggs on the cowpea flowers.

Cotton in field

When the larvae hatch they damage not only the flowers, but also the young pods and seeds. Insecticides are not a practical option to control the pod borer because they are expensive and many small-scale farmers do not have the equipment and expertise to safely use them.

CSIRO scientists have used gene technology to transfer a gene into the cowpea DNA that gives the plant built-in resistance to this pest.

Omega-3 oils in grains

Omega-3 oils are 'healthy oils' that are vital for human health. One of these oils, DHA (Docosa-Hexaenoic Acid) is essential for healthy brain and eye development in infants.

It also reduces heart disease risk, Type 2 diabetes, Alzheimer’s disease and asthma. DHA is made in marine plants, such as algae.

DHA accumulates in fish that eat the algae, which is why fish are a good source of DHA for humans.

With fish stocks declining a new source of DHA is needed. CSIRO scientists are using gene technology to insert the DHA-producing gene from algae into crop plants so they can produce DHA.

This will reduce pressure on declining fish resources, improve human nutrition and also provide Australian grain growers with new high-value crops.

Chickens on a genome map.

Chickens on a genome map.

Influenza protected chickens

Avian influenza has the potential to affect the health and well-being of poultry and humans. In the event of a major pandemic it could also cause significant disruption to communities and the economy. One of the most effective ways to prevent a pandemic is to reduce the chance of infection with the virus in birds, particularly poultry.

CSIRO scientists are investigating whether a naturally occurring immune response, called RNA interference or gene silencing, can be boosted in poultry to prevent infection.

CSIRO and the GM field pea study

In 2005, CSIRO reported it had discontinued research into genetically modified field peas because the peas did not satisfy all the requirements of a risk assessment process.

The GM field peas were developed by CSIRO Plant Industry to protect Australia's A$100 million field pea industry from the pea weevil Bruchus pisorum, which can cause yield losses of up to 30 per cent each year if left uncontrolled.

Although this GM breed of field pea proved almost 100 per cent effective against pea weevil attacks, research led by immunologists at the John Curtin School of Medical Research (JCSMR), with CSIRO scientists, showed that the GM peas caused an immune response in a certain strain of mice.

The CSIRO research team had used a gene from beans to block the activity of alpha-amylase, an enzyme important for digestion of starch.

Weevil larvae feeding on starch in the developing pea seed are unable to digest the starch and starve.

Peas in pods

The scientists investigated why there was a reaction to the GM peas and not beans, which naturally contain the alpha-amylase inhibitor, and which humans have been eating for many thousands of years without evidence of any adverse effect.

The answer lay in subtle changes that occurred in the chemical structure of the bean alpha-amylase inhibitor when it was made in the field pea.

The change in structure is likely to be caused by a natural and commonly occurring process called glycosylation, which occurs when proteins are made via a particular pathway in cells.

Given the findings of this research, CSIRO made the decision to discontinue developing the alpha-amylase inhibitor GM peas. CSIRO is currently investigating the changes in the molecular structure of the alpha-amylase inhibitor GM pea protein that resulted in the immune response in mice.

The findings from the study highlight the importance of a careful case-by-case evaluation of GM crops, and the role science can play in decision-making around the introduction of GM crops.

Using gene silencing to influence sex ratios in chickens

Researchers from CSIRO Livestock Industries and the University of Melbourne's Murdoch Children's Research Institute (MCRI) have solved the long-standing mystery of what determines sex development in chickens.

Using CSIRO-developed RNA interference (RNAi technology) the scientific team successfully silenced a gene in chicken embryos, causing testis to become ovaries, bringing about a male to female sex reversal.

The research, which was published in Nature in 2009, could have significant benefits for animal welfare. In 2010 a new research project with industry was established with the aim of influencing sex ratios in poultry, particularly in the egg industry which does not require male chickens.

This discovery is not only a breakthrough in understanding sex determination in animals, it also has taken MCRI researchers closer to uncovering genetic causes of sex development disorders in humans.

Find out more about: