With an economy based on primary production, and a range of unique and sometimes endangered plants and animals, New Zealand is vulnerable to biosecurity threats and environmental contamination.
Biotechnology may help address these threats through a range of biological control and monitoring technologies, and reduce environmental damage through bioremediation (the use of bacteria or fungi to detoxify or degrade waste).
Biological control is the use of one organism to control the numbers of another (pest) organism. More modern methods of biological control also can involve interfering with a biological system of the pest organism, for example some species of pest flies (such as screw worm and Mediterranean fruit fly) are controlled by the 'sterile insect technique' (SIT).
Males of the target species are mass reared, irradiated to make them sterile, then released in huge numbers (millions of flies per day) to overwhelm the wild male population and mate with females. However, this technique only works for a limited number of species, and the mass rearing, irradiation, and distribution methods can be lengthy and very expensive.
Another biological control strategy that is being investigated is the development of immunocontraceptives that can be introduced into wild mammalian populations (using baits, bacteria, viruses, or parastic worms) to make members of the target species sterile. In New Zealand, genetic modification of sheep blowflies as a method of control is also being considered by researchers.
The New Zealand company BioDiscovery is undertaking large-scale screening of microorganisms for their ability to destroy plant pests and crop diseases. The firm is also looking for bioactives, in particular peptides and proteins for use in organic pesticides.
Genetic techniques have been used for many years to identify and classify species. Improved technology makes this classification easier to do in the field, without the need for advanced laboratory facilities.
Because closely related species, or even subspecies, can have quite different health or environmental impacts, improved methods of identifying suspected pest species can enable more efficient and effective management.
Bioremediation is the use of microorganisms (like bacteria) or enzymes to reduce hazardous wastes. This is not 'new technology' - sewerage treatment of household wastes is based on the use of microorganisms to catalyse the break-down of waste products.
Certain microorganisms can process the toxic metals (like arsenic and mercury) and organic compounds (like PCPs and PCBs) in soils. Some plants have also been found to reduce the contamination in soils (this is called phytoremediation).
There is increasing interest in converting biological wastes into valuable products. This can mean that waste from one industrial process is used as the raw material for a different process.
- 12 November 2007