Some of the speakers at the Biosafety Symposium. From the left: Johan Burger of Stellenbosch University; Victoria Maloney of the University of Pretoria and Hennie Groenewald of Biosafety South Africa.

Biosafety South Africa hosted their second Biosafety Symposium at Diep in die Berg in Pretoria on 14 March. The symposium brought together various role-players in the biotechnology industry. Topics under discussion ranged from human genomics to agricultural applications of biotechnology. Agricultural topics included CRISPR technology, Bt maize and soya beans and the use of climate modelling to monitor the spread of fall armyworm. Other topics focused on genome editing regulations in South Africa, intellectual property rights and patents, and improving engagement between members of the public and the science community to advance the public understanding of biotechnology.

CRISPR in South Africa

Victoria Maloney of the University of Pretoria discussed trends in targeted genome editing emerging globally and locally. Maloney said that since 2012, when CRISPR was used as a Site Directed Nucleases (SDN) technique, there have been far more papers published on this topic than on other techniques such as Zinc-Finger Nucleases (ZFNs) and Transcription Activator Like Effector Nucleases (TALENs). She said there are several ongoing research projects focusing on CRISPR in South Africa, listing various research areas that focused mainly on crop production. Plants currently important include cassava, wheat and the grapevine. Maloney is also working with Sappi to engineer trees to improve properties in wood that are valuable to the forestry industry.

Climate modelling

Hannalene du Plessis from the North West University introduced symposium-goers to a climate modelling system that helps predict the invasion potential of the fall armyworm (FAW) in South Africa. Du Plessis’ studies have shown that through the Climex model, that uses climate variables, it can be determined into which areas the FAW will spread as the weather changes throughout the year. FAW does well in warmer regions moving toward warmer regions as winter approaches since it does not overwinter. By using climate variables stretching over a designated time period the programme can give producers an idea of where FAW will relocate during colder months. According to Schutte, FAW can survive mild winters with temperatures up to 15⁰C.

Bt soya research

Bt maize has led to increased maize production in South Africa by making the plant more resistant to a major pest, namely the bollworm. Nadine Schutte shared some of the findings of her research project that evaluates whether non-target insect species are adversely affected by Bt soya. Her studies thus far indicate that there is no noticeable difference between the insect biodiversity in fields of Bt soya or non-Bt soya. –Ursula Human, AgriOrbit