Vic agbiotech centre opens its doors

By Graeme O'Neill
Wednesday, 15 February, 2006

Victoria took another step towards its biotechnology future today, with the opening of the new AUD$20 million Victorian Agribiosciences Centre (VABC) at La Trobe University's R&D Park in Bundoora.

Premier Steve Bracks officially opened the new centre, which was developed with $12 million in funding from the university, and $7.8 million from the state government -- $2.8 million from the Department of Primary Industries (DPI), and $5 million from the Department of Innovation, Industry and Regional Development (DIIRD).

RMIT University, Monash University, Victorian novelty flower company Florigene -- a subsidiary of giant Japanese brewer Suntory -- and GE Healthcare are also partners in the VABC consortium.

The centre will focus on new plant and animal-derived agrifoods, including nutraceuticals -- foods that provide both nutritional and direct health benefits.

The Cooperative Research Centre for Molecular Plant Breeding (CRCMPB) is one of the foundation tenants of the new centre, and at this morning's ceremony, Victorian innovation minister John Brumby officially launched a new trans-Tasman agbiotech company, Gramina, spun out from the CRC.

A joint venture between the CR and New Zealand company Wrightson Genomics, Gramina was established to commercialise new genetically modified pasture grasses developed by the CRC. CRC researchers have already developed a low-lignin GM line of annual ryegrass containing a gene-knockout that reduces its content of indigestible lignin.

The grass is both highly palatable and highly digestible for sheep, cattle and other ruminants, and has been developed to boost productivity in the Australian and New Zealand dairy, wool and fat-lamb industries.

Ryegrass (Lolium) can be hybridised with other grass genera, such as fescues, to transfer the low-lignin trait to other pasture grasses without the requiement for further genetic modification. But all of the new pasture grasses are likely to contain an RNAi 'knockdown' gene that will suppress production of a protein, LolP1, that is the main allergen causing hayfever and asthma attacks.

Victoria has one of the highest incidences of hayfever and asthma in the world, and Melbourne is effectively the world hayfever and asthma capital, because of the extensive grasslands on the basalt plains west of the city, and the predominant west-to-east movement of weather systems across the state in spring.

Brumby said asthma and hayfever had been estimated to cost the Victorian economy $50 to $100 million a year, and that Gramina was set to become a significant global player in new temperate grass and pasture technologies over the next decade.

VABC director Prof German Spangenberg, who holds a joint appointment with the DPI and La Trobe University, has been one of the key movers behind establishing the new centre.

The centre also houses advanced facilities for genomic research and discovery, including microarray and microchannel technology demonstration and teaching centres.

The facilities give the centre strong capabilities in bioinformatics, and Spangenberg said the DPI's $3 million Bioinformatics Advanced Scientific Computing (BASC) system, has been established to store and analyse the huge amounts of data already being generated by the new technologies.

The BASC system is focused on plant genetic and genomic data analysis, and will provide plant breeders with information about the agronomic traits associated with specific plant genes, to accelerate breeding programs and develop improved crops and pastures. It will integrate DNA sequence data with data on gene expression patterns, molecular genetic markers, phenotypic traits and population data.

The centre will update release BASC data on particular crops every three months, as an aid to breeding programs. The initial release contains data on canola and other brassica crops.

None of the speakers at this morning's ceremony mentioned that the current moratorium on GM canola in Victoria means there is virtually no prospect that new GM crop or pasture grass developed by Gramina or the VABC will be grown commercially before 2008, when the moratorium is due for review.

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