November 27, 2004

Bio-Protection Priority at Top Lincoln Facility

The first experiment at Lincoln University's Biotron building is growing potatoes, pines, grass and wheat and has nothing to do with genetic manipulation, researchers say.

Researchers were downplaying this week the genetic modification (GM) connection suggested by the media when the facility was launched last March.

Instead, they underlined its importance as a base for studying ecological science and for developing bio-protection technologies.

The Biotron is a major research facility within the university's $3.5 million National Centre for Advanced Bio-Protection Technologies (NCABPT).

It is one of seven government- funded Centres of Research Excellence and the only one in the South Island.

Small groups of the four plant types are planted in four growth chambers at the aboveground and underground facility.

In each chamber, the plants receive the same light, temperature, humidity and water conditions.

This first experiment is designed to test the chambers.

Later research will focus on investigating the biological control of pests and diseases in agriculture.

The NCABPT's director, Professor Alison Stewart, said the Biotron was never promoted as a GM facility for high-risk biotech experiments, but that does not mean that GM studies would never take place.

"People have made the connection that because this is a contained facility that we must be doing GM work, but the focus of our research is on ecological science," she said.

"A lot of biosecurity research is an understanding of ecological principles and that includes some cutting-edge molecular research. The whole aim of that has to come within innovative and environmentally acceptable technologies to control pests and diseases."

Stewart said researchers are in the process of confirming that plant growth in the Biotron relates to field conditions.

Plants are grown in large steel cylinders. In order to mimic field conditions, the soil cylinders -- rhizotrons -- are located in a room below the growth chamber. This allows researchers to examine the plants' soil, root and micro-organism systems.

Soil scientist Dr Leo Condron said that a study of this scale was limited to possibly only three other facilities in the world.

The Biotron facility would allow researchers to eventually provide more answers to bioprotection questions, he said.

Research could look at new organisms to control plant pests and diseases, he said.

Condron said the first experiment would continue to February and be followed by a range of other experiments.

He said the focus of the facility was on understanding the biological system and learning more about the way pests and diseases impact on crops.

The plants chosen for the first experiment represent the range of plants likely to be grown.

There is room to expand to eight growth chambers and rhizotron rooms.