health & science

The story of genetics and Mt Albert’s forbidden fruit

A controversial new apple created by New Zealand scientists has to be seen to be believed – and has to be eaten offshore. Farah Hancock reports.

The red-fleshed apples developed by Plant and Food Research’s scientist Professor Andrew Allan and his team are so contentious they're not allowed to eat them in New Zealand.

“In the end we had to take them to America.”

The cores were removed from the apples so no seeds were present. They were triple-bagged and sealed. Phytosanitary certificates were gained to get approval to move the apples from their glasshouse in Auckland's Mount Albert to the airport, and then on to the United States. Allan and the science team flew the precious cargo to San Francisco where a taste-testing panel of 50 people waited.

Plant and Food Research’s Mount Albert glasshouse is a contained facility, with regulatory and logistical hurdles, because Allan’s apples are genetically modified.

“The best way to test that is to eat it.”

After six years of working on the apple he was keen to understand whether the apple was a winner or a fizzer.

“We had measured everything on a machine. We measured volatiles, we measured compounds and we measured vitamin C levels. We measured everything we could.”

Eating is banned within the glasshouse – even sipping a cup of coffee is a no-no. So taking a bite of the apples within the greenhouse was out of the question. Two years spent trying to gain approval to taste-test them outside the glasshouse were unsuccessful. The only solution was to take the apples to a country where eating fresh genetically modified foods was permissible.

The apples have high levels of anthocyanin in them which causes the red-flesh, and Allan wanted to know if this might make the apples bitter.

“The best way to test that is to eat it.”

The apples tasted like winners, according to Allan. The blind-folded taste-testers identified them as Royal Gala apples and rated them favourably on flavour.

“They took the blindfold off and they went, ‘Wow, that's amazing’. They were absolutely shocked by how wonderful it looked.

“One of them said, ‘You must be rich’, and one said, ‘Where can we get these from? We want them.’”

New Zealand’s apple and pear exports totalled $700 million in 2017 and the industry has a target to increase this to $1 billion by 2022.

New types of apples such as Jazz, which appeal to European markets, have played a part in growing sales. In late-December a new apple variety bred by Plant and Food Research was announced. A 20-year breeding programme has produced Dazzle, a large-sized, sweet apple. It’s hoped these qualities will make it popular in Asia.

Professor Andrew Allan with one of the trees bearing red-fleshed apples. Photo: Farah Hancock

Allan’s apples are stunning and it’s easy to see how their appearance and novelty value could be a big seller. With their maroon-skin, and red-tinged flesh, they look different to any commercially grown apple.

The genetic modification which has created them combined two different apples.

The Royal Gala was chosen for flavour, and a small red-fleshed wild crab apple, which originated in Kazakhstan, for its high-levels of anthocyanin, an antioxidant. Allan describes the Kazakh apple as a tiny, terrible-tasting thing.

It’s possible to create what Allan has created with conventional breeding, but it takes much longer. Genetic modification isolates the “red gene” and shortens what might be a 60-year breeding cycle to combine the red-coloured flesh with a Royal Gala’s size and sweetness.

His trees of knowledge help conventional breeding programmes know what might work and what won’t. If his red-fleshed apples tasted bitter, conventional breeders would know not to embark on a lengthy programme that would only bear bitter fruit.

Concrete-block base

Apple trees normally grow outdoors. However, Allan is not allowed to grow the genetically modified trees in the open. He describes the glasshouse as an “orchard in a box” and boxing a normally outdoor crop makes simple things hard.

Unusually the glasshouse sits perched atop a concrete-block building, rather than on the ground.

This base building is essential. Apples prefer temperatures under 30 degrees and need cool temperatures to flower. Opening a window to cool the glasshouse is banned and air-conditioning would be extremely expensive.

“Underneath [the glasshouse] there is a jet engine just about, it pushes air through and it goes back out through filters. We just do big air changes.”

The air changes keep the heat down in summer but it never gets cool enough to encourage flowering. Periodically the potted trees are transported by elevator from the glasshouse above to the bunker below to chill them for long enough to simulate the cool weather needed for flowering to occur.

Once in flower there’s there task of pollinating the flowers. Insects, including bees, are banned from the glasshouse. Instead swarms of Plant and Food Research employees armed with paintbrushes painstakingly pollinate each blossom.

Even entering the glasshouse is a task. Forms must be filled-in and smocks and shoe covers worn. Anything leaving the glasshouse is sterilised. A cut apple is double-bagged before being placed in a special bin.

“Everything is autoclaved that leaves here. Even the soil. That’s the rule.”

"It's a shame that I can't get four million people through this greenhouse and explain to them how wonderful the stuff we're doing is."

Allan is working within the regulations of the Hazardous Substances and New Organisms Act, a 23-year-old piece of legislation which regulates genetically modified or edited organisms. Since the act was written science has advanced.

Techniques like Crispr have emerged, where it is possible to edit DNA without inserting genetic material from another species.

In New Zealand, Sir Peter Gluckman, the former chief science advisor to the Prime Minister, finished his term with a discussion about genetic modification on TVNZ’s Q+A show. “The science is as settled as it will be. That is, it's safe, that there are no significant ecological or health concerns associated with the use of advanced genetic technologies.” However he told the interviewer he thought New Zealand society would not automatically accept these technologies.

It's an emotional issue where suspicion of industry motives plays a part. There’s no escaping Monsanto’s introduction of GM plants coupled with its own herbicide.

Allan said he is sometimes accused of being captured by big industry. He’s been a civil servant at Plant and Food Research for 20 years and also lectures at the University of Auckland. Patents are sometimes issued under his name, but belong to his institute and he doesn’t earn anything above his salary from them. He said while industry does part-fund his research, there’s also Government funding.

“The research belongs to the New Zealand people and it's not Monsanto. They have nothing to do with it.”

It would be easier to do his trials outdoors but Allan thinks the public’s perception of risks would be a problem.

“I would likely get an ulcer and I'd spend my whole life getting really nasty comments directed at me.”

In the meantime, glasshouse-bound Allan is looking into ways to improve the red-fleshed apples. The taste-testing panel rated them highly for flavour, but not so high for crispness. Allan suspects the gene which makes them red also switched on ethylene production sooner, which makes the flesh softer.

He doesn’t know when he’ll next get to taste the apples or when the regulations that forced the team onto a flight to San Francisco will change.

“It's a shame that I can't get four million people through this greenhouse and explain to them how wonderful the stuff we're doing is. It's so exciting. Some people see my excitement as captured by whatever, but it's not. I'm not captured by anything. I'm just a biologist who loves what he does.”

Newsroom is powered by the generosity of readers like you, who support our mission to produce fearless, independent and provocative journalism.

Comments

Newsroom does not allow comments directly on this website. We invite all readers who wish to discuss a story or leave a comment to visit us on Twitter or Facebook. We also welcome your news tips and feedback via email: contact@newsroom.co.nz. Thank you.

PARTNERS

#}