The Ministry for Primary Industries (MPI) is investigating how a genetically modified (GM) fungus came to be used outside approved containment facilities at Lincoln University’s campus.
All samples and plant materials known to contain the modified fungus have been secured. MPI is now checking if any other materials may have been inadvertently exposed to the fungus.
“Based on what we know at present, the potential biological risks from this discovery appear very low,” says Roger Smith, MPI Deputy Director General, Verification and Services.
“At this stage, we believe it is unlikely any potentially genetically modified Beauveria bassiana fungus has spread further. The fungus in question was found indoors in glass houses and laboratories with restricted access,” says Mr Smith.
“Wild strains of this fungus are widely spread in the environment, and are commonly found in plants. There is no evidence to suggest the genetic modifications made to the fungus in these labs have increased any health risk to humans or animals.”
The genetic modification of the fungus involved adding marker genes to indicate the presence of the strain in research plants and to allow researchers to isolate the GM fungus from mixed fungal cultures.
Lincoln University informed MPI and the Environmental Protection Authority on 7 March that it had evidence to suggest a fungus (Beauveria bassiana) it was researching was potentially a GM strain.
“MPI is treating the situation very seriously. MPI Inspectors visited the campus on Friday 8 March and immediately put in place controls to prevent further potential breaches,” says Mr Smith.
MPI is working closely with Lincoln University and AgResearch with the investigation.
“It is unclear how the breach occurred. Further investigative work is being undertaken to determine this,” says Mr Smith.
B. bassiana is a fungus that occurs naturally in soils throughout the world (including New Zealand) and infects a wide range of insect species.
It is used as a biological insecticide to control a number of insect pests.
The wild-type organism is not an unwanted organism under the Biosecurity Act, nor a new organism under the HSNO Act and, therefore, not required to be held in containment. However, in order to create GM strains (which are new organisms), the work needs to be done under an approval from the Environmental Protection Authority (EPA) within an approved containment facility.