[ASC-media] Media release: alternative to GM crops developed

JCA Media jcamedia at starclass.com.au
Sun Nov 27 22:14:23 EST 2005

Sir Mark Oliphant Conferences 2005
Epigenetic Regulation of Development & Disease



Australian scientists have developed a major alternative to standard GM (gene modification), by harnessing the natural defense mechanisms of plants to create safer, cheaper and more productive food crops - without adding foreign proteins.

"The potential of RNA interference technology is huge," says CSIRO's Dr Peter Waterhouse. "Hopefully, it will make a big difference in agriculture and in certain pharmaceutical productions."

Dr. Waterhouse is among the leading international scientists taking part in the Sir Mark Oliphant Conference on Epigenetic Regulation in Canberra.

RNA interference technology depends on a natural 'seek and destroy' mechanism which plants use to protect themselves against viral infection.

A group of proteins called 'dicers' detect replicating RNA strands, which are a sure sign of a viral attack. After the intruders are detected by the dicers they tell another set of proteins called "argonauts" to search for, and destroy, the virus RNA molecules. 

The system serves the same sort of function as our immune system. Where we used antibodies to fight viruses, plants use argonauts. Just as we can help our immune system by prior vaccination with bits of a virus protein, we can also help plants by prior vaccination with bits of virus-like RNA. 

Dr Waterhouse and his colleagues Ming Bo Wang and Neil Smith worked out a world-first method for using this natural defense system to stop, not just viruses, but also undesirable genes. 

This can be achieved by priming the plant's security system. "We trick it into thinking that the messenger RNA of the gene we want to silence is a virus, so the Argonauts deactivate them," says Dr Waterhouse. "

Genes control virtually every aspect of a plant's growth, function and characteristics, from flowering time to seed colour. If an unwanted trait is identified then silencing the gene that causes it will result in an improved crop.

RNA interference technology is likely to have a profound impact on cropping industries, which today earn Australia more than $20 billion a year. 

Crops could become healthier, more productive, more nutritious, quicker to grow or tailored to make particular foods that combat human ill-health. Natural pharmaceutical products could be produced more efficiently and in larger quantities. Even the colour and appearance of a flower could be modified to order.
Through RNA interference, any identifiable gene that limits a cultivated plant's productivity can be silenced - without the addition of new proteins from other plants or lifeforms.

"The risk of unknown allergies is eliminated in crops that have been through RNA interference since no new proteins are added. It's the same plant, only some genes have been told to stay quiet," says Dr Waterhouse.

RNA interference is a major topic at the Sir Mark Oliphant Conference on Epigenetic Regulation of Development & Disease, at the CSIRO Discovery Centre in Canberra, Australia from November 29-December 2, 2005.

Media are invited to attend and interview participants.

More information:
Peter Waterhouse, CSIRO, ph 0408 476 955 or 02 6246 5365
peter.waterhouse at csiro.au
Alex Pelvin, CSIRO, ph 02 6246 5485 or 0409 937 124
Dr Jean Finnegan, CSIRO via 0422 208 068
Prof. Julian Cribb, 0418 639 245


Date: November 28, 2005

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