February 19, 2024

Paving the way for sustainable solutions

From 2024 we may see greater opportunities for sustainable economic impact with increased biotech research. For example, the new Government has signalled a liberalisation of New Zealand’s regulations of genetic technologies. This will create new possibilities for advanced research across a range of sectors, explains AgResearch’s Dr Linda Johnson.

Biotechnology including genetic modification or gene editing may be able to achieve sustainable economic impacts not currently possible within existing methods. This offers the potential to be transformative for agriculture, delivering the outcomes our sector needs, such as reducing methane emissions and improving animal health/welfare and productivity.

Reducing environmental impact

Perennial ryegrass is the backbone of our pastoral sector, so for New Zealand to meet our emissions reductions targets, particularly the reduction in methane, we need perennial ryegrass varieties that can reduce the amount of methane produced on-farm.

Our HME ryegrass programme with commercial partners uses genetic technology to add and modify two plant genes to increase and stabilise oil content in the ryegrass leaf.

The purpose is to increase the nutritional quality of ryegrass to drive greater productivity, but the research also suggests environmental benefits such as reduced nitrogen loss that can contribute to waterway contamination, and reduced emissions of greenhouse gases, methane and nitrous oxide. Successful field trials have been completed in the US, showing that the primary traits for HME ryegrass that increase fat and gross energy are stable as we move from the lab out into the field.

Likewise, research by AgResearch and partners shows promise for modifying white clover (another important livestock feed) to boost the level of condensed tannins.

The increased condensed tannin content in the white clover suggests reductions in methane emissions and nitrogen leaching, while we also expect benefits animal health benefits such as a reduction in a condition known as bloat and the internal parasite burden for livestock.

The modified white clover is now being field tested in Australia.

Improving animal health and welfare

Endophytes are symbiotic microorganisms (either fungi or bacteria) in perennial ryegrass, which protect the plant from pests and diseases. They’ve been shown to be of high value to our agriculture sector, with one strain, AR37, having an estimated economic impact of $3.6 billion across the life of its patent. Certain strains of endophyte can harm grazing animals by causing ryegrass staggers or heat stress.

Our scientists are looking at natural variations of endophytes to find those with beneficial chemistry, using genetic technology to edit the toxic compounds out of the endophyte, but allowing it to continue to express the compounds that provide pest protection.

We know that the toxic compounds are expressed at a higher level in warmer temperatures. So, with climate change happening, there’s a higher chance of our animals becoming sick and the importance of animal-safe endophyte strains is growing.

Gene editing technology can enable this, whilst still maintaining that pest resistance. We’re designing these endophytes to be of benefit to New Zealand agriculture but currently, the work here must be done in containment, and outdoor field trials are currently taking place in Australia.

Would you like to know more? Join us at our Life Sciences Summit 2024 – True science, real change, 11-12 March in Wellington. Register now.

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