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Those “illegal” school science kits and our illogical Hazardous Substances and New Organisms Act Siouxsie Wiles Apr 08

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The Dominion Post recently ran an article about “Glowing GE bacteria” which were “produced illegally in New Zealand using mail-order kits from America”. Perhaps unsurprisingly given that the phrase ‘genetically engineered’ was mentioned, Green MP Stefan Browning and GE Free New Zealand spokesperson Jon Carapiet chimed in to share their dismay that people/kids were fiddling with complex natural systems and things that posed a threat to our GE-free status (which we aren’t). I’m paraphrasing here, but I think that was the sum of it. The usual GE = evil sort of stuff. Let’s look at what happened and if it posed any risk to anyone.

Who made what and why was it illegal?

A global biotech company originally founded in the USA, and which makes lots of laboratory reagents scientists like me commonly use, make a kit for school kids to teach them about genes. The kit includes a piece of DNA called a plasmid*, and a harmless strain of the bacterium E. coli. Heat the bacteria up a little and they will take up the plasmid DNA, technically creating a genetically engineered strain of E. coli. In this case, the plasmid carries the gene for an amazing jellyfish protein called Green Fluorescent Protein (GFP). When you shine light of a particular wavelength at GFP, it emits a beautiful green light. so once the E. coli have the plasmid and the GFP gene is turned on, the bacteria glow green.

So it turns out that two educational facilities in NZ imported the kits from the USA (which is allowed) and then presumably used them to teach people (presumably kids or undergraduates?) how bacteria can be manipulated to express different genes, and how genes can be turned on and off. The problem is that in NZ, thanks to the Hazardous Substances and New Organisms Act**, such genetic modification can only be done with approval from the Ministry for Primary Industries and in suitable containment facilities, like the one I work in. Because this is what my team and I do for a living. We use genes from other glowing creatures like fireflies. Only we put them into nasty bacteria, not harmless strains of E. coli. And we have all the relevant paperwork. Reams and reams of it.

My guess is that in this case, the kit was perhaps used without the proper approvals, or outside of a proper containment lab, or someone who made the modified bacteria in a containment lab thought it was so cool they took it home. Any of those scenarios would be illegal. But let’s be clear. The bacteria ‘created’ is harmless and highly unlikely to pose any threat to NZ’s environment. In the USA (with the exception of California, I’m told, who are as hysterical about genetic engineering as NZ), you can buy pet fish which express GFP and other fluorescent proteins. They are beautiful.

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NZ needs to have a rational discussion about genetic engineering

All around the world, the evidence shows that genetic engineering as a technique is safe. The hysteria and fear-mongering of people like Browning and Carapiet isn’t helpful. NZ needs to have a rational discussion about the technology. If we decide to be GE free, it won’t be because the science is dangerous, it isn’t, it’ll be so that we can appeal to markets that want GE free products. That’s economics.

New Zealand’s ludicrous New Organism designation

As a final comment, the Act’s definition of a New Organism is problematic, especially for microbiologists. Here’s the definition:

A new organism is—
(a)an organism belonging to a species that was not present in New Zealand immediately before 29 July 1998:
(b)an organism belonging to a species, subspecies, infrasubspecies, variety, strain, or cultivar prescribed as a risk species, where that organism was not present in New Zealand at the time of promulgation of the relevant regulation:
(c)an organism for which a containment approval has been given under this Act:
(ca)an organism for which a conditional release approval has been given:
(cb)a qualifying organism approved for release with controls:
(d)a genetically modified organism:
(e)an organism that belongs to a species, subspecies, infrasubspecies, variety, strain, or cultivar that has been eradicated from New Zealand.

Read part (a) again. If an organism is not on any database or listed in a paper as showing it was present in NZ before 29 July 1998, its considered a new organism. I’m told the first time NZ researchers sequenced the gut microbiome of a person in NZ, they came across a whole heap of microbes that according to the law didn’t exist in NZ. Seriously. The flip side to this of course, is that each time anyone comes here from overseas, be it a holiday-maker or NZ resident returning from a trip, they are likely bringing in a whole heap of new (micro)organisms in or on their person. And there’s not much the government can do about that!

*A plasmid is a piece of DNA that exists outside of an organisms chromosome and can replicate itself independently. The wikipedia page for plasmids uses a nice analogy – think of the chromosome of the organism as its hard drive; a plasmid is like a USB drive that contains extra information.

**According to the Hazardous Substances and New Organisms Act, its purpose is “to protect the environment, and the health and safety of people and communities, by preventing or managing the adverse effects of hazardous substances and new organisms”.

Biolumination II: Meet Gareth Baston! Siouxsie Wiles Apr 07

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On Saturday the 14th March I organised Biolumination II as part of thinkScience day at the 2015 Auckland Arts Festival. I challenged a group of artists and illustrators to each come up with a work of art using just a solution of harmless bioluminescent bacteria and a collection of 25 x 25 cm square petri-dishes. I’ve introduced you to all the artists but now want to introduce you chief petri dish wrangler Gareth Baston. Gareth took the Vault at Q Theatre and turned it into a gallery space, and spent many hours getting all the petridishes up on the walls.

Meet Gareth Baston!

gareth

Since graduating from Rose Bruford College with a BA(hons) Technical Theatre, many moons ago, Gareth has stage and production managed for various companies around the UK and toured the world. Highlights include The Royal Shakespeare Company, Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, The Queens Diamond Jubilee, Brighton Festival and Auckland Arts Festival as well as The Royal Opera House, Oman. He has worked at the Royal Albert Hall, Queens Wharf, on The London Eye and at Butlins. It is commonly agreed he is the best in his price range.

Glowing fun at the MOTAT Science Street Fair Siouxsie Wiles Apr 02

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Thanks to Heather Hendrickson for the photos!

Thanks to Heather Hendrickson for the photos!

Last weekend the Bioluminescent Superbugs Lab took part in this year’s Science Street Fair at MOTAT in Auckland. We had the GlowBooth up and running again (at least until the camera’s battery died!) and 262 people joined us to make some bioluminescent art. There were lots of smiley faces drawn this time!

GlowBooth photos are up on Flickr here.

Glowing art photos are up on Flickr here.

petridishes

Biolumination II: Meet the artists! Katherine Yang Siouxsie Wiles Apr 01

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Biolumination - Katherine

Photo taken by Benj Brooking.

On Saturday the 14th March I organised Biolumination II as part of thinkScience day at the 2015 Auckland Arts Festival. I challenged a group of artists and illustrators to each come up with a work of art using just a solution of harmless bioluminescent bacteria and a collection of 25 x 25 cm square petri-dishes. I want to introduce you to each of the artists and show off their amazing pieces.

Meet Katherine Yang!

Katherine low res

Katherine is a renegade high school student. Seeking release from the traditional brush and canvas, she veers toward the intersection between Art and Technology. Watch out for this one. In her piece, Decay, she illustrates the eventual exchange from order to disorder. Though a virtual slave to the austerity of the straight line, Katherine concedes the emergence of wibbly bacterial forms in her work. Only when nature takes over, though.

Biolumination II: Meet the artists! Helen Beech Siouxsie Wiles Mar 31

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Biolumination - Helen

On Saturday the 14th March I organised Biolumination II as part of thinkScience day at the 2015 Auckland Arts Festival. I challenged a group of artists and illustrators to each come up with a work of art using just a solution of harmless bioluminescent bacteria and a collection of 25 x 25 cm square petri-dishes. I want to introduce you to each of the artists and show off their amazing pieces.

Meet Helen Beech (@beechworks)!

Helen low res

Born Morecambe England 1972
Currently living in a lovely cottage beside the
Puhoi River, surrounded by birds and trees.
Painting her heart out.
And selling it online.

Biolumination II: Meet the artists! Julia Marchwicka Siouxsie Wiles Mar 30

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Biolumination - Julia

Photo taken by Benj Brooking.

On Saturday the 14th March I organised Biolumination II as part of thinkScience day at the 2015 Auckland Arts Festival. I challenged a group of artists and illustrators to each come up with a work of art using just a solution of harmless bioluminescent bacteria and a collection of 25 x 25 cm square petri-dishes. I want to introduce you to each of the artists and show off their amazing pieces.

Meet Julia Marchwicka!

Julia low res

Julia is currently finishing her BA/BSc at the University of Auckland, majoring in English and Biology. Just like in her study, she enjoys exploring the links between art and science on a daily basis. Whenever Julia is not writing last minute assignments or cramming for tests, she spends her time working with black ink and watercolours.

Biolumination II: Meet the artists! Laura Ward Siouxsie Wiles Mar 28

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Biolumination - Laura

Photo taken by Benj Brooking.

On Saturday the 14th March I organised Biolumination II as part of thinkScience day at the 2015 Auckland Arts Festival. I challenged a group of artists and illustrators to each come up with a work of art using just a solution of harmless bioluminescent bacteria and a collection of 25 x 25 cm square petri-dishes. I want to introduce you to each of the artists and show off their amazing pieces.

Meet Laura Ward!

Laura Ward

Laura is a research associate at the New Zealand Institute for Plant and Food Research. Her current work involves using genetic barcoding techniques to monitor the ecology of insects in fruit orchards and other productive landscapes. Laura is also an avid self-taught face painter and body artist on the weekends.

Glow Booth at the Auckland Arts Festival Siouxsie Wiles Mar 27

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Sticky TV

Jahmaine & Walter from kids TV show Sticky TV on FOUR experience the Glow Booth

The Glow Booth, where people are photographed illuminated only by the light of glowing bacteria, made an appearance at thinkScience day as part of the 2015 Auckland Arts Festival. A huge thanks to Benj Brooking for help taking the photos. During the 4 hours the booth was open, 205 people came to be photographed. We’ve loaded their portraits on Flickr here.

Biolumination II: Meet the artists! Rodrigo Vidal Siouxsie Wiles Mar 26

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Biolumination - Rodrigo

Photo taken by Benj Brooking.

On Saturday the 14th March I organised Biolumination II as part of thinkScience day at the 2015 Auckland Arts Festival. I challenged a group of artists and illustrators to each come up with a work of art using just a solution of harmless bioluminescent bacteria and a collection of 25 x 25 cm square petri-dishes. I want to introduce you to each of the artists and show off their amazing pieces.

Meet Rodrigo Vidal!

pic

Rodrigo finished his interior design studies in 2007 in Santiago, Chile. After spending 4 great years learning from a beautiful team and developing his passion for furniture and interior design, he decided a change was needed and went traveling. While in India Rodrigo developed his love of illustration, which he is continuing to develop working as part of the design team at TILE SPACE – ELLERSLIE. Rodrigo draws his own life, his own stories and points of view about the here and now.

instagram.com/rodrigxs

Petri dish art at the Auckland Arts Festival Siouxsie Wiles Mar 26

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petridish art

As part of the thinkScience day at the 2015 Auckland Art Festival, we spent 2 hours letting kids and their families make their own bioluminescent bacterial art using just a cotton bud, a petri dish and a solution of harmless bioluminescent bacteria. Many thanks to James Dalton, Claire Honney, Hannah Read, Simon Swift and Benedict Uy for their help running this activity. Almost 200 children took part. The next day I photographed their glowing art works and put them up on Flickr for them to see.

If you are in Auckland this weekend and want to come have a try, we’ll be at the MOTAT Science Street Fair on Sunday!

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