Expert Breakfast Report for 4 May 2022: Prof Peter Dearden, Genetics Aotearoa (Part 2)

As in Part 1, Prof Dearden talked about many significant issues in Part 2, which includes commentary on Genetic Modification, Treaty obligations, Genomics in Medicine, Ethical Issues and more, in a lucid, readily understood way.

Part 2

Prof Dearden was asked to comment further on his rather strange move from bees to Kakapo, apparently involving certain amount of coercion. He talked for a while on the complexities of politics (with a small ‘ p’) in science and in Universities, with some people using work with endangered species to further their personal careers. “So in some respects, dumping it on me was a good idea because I’m not in that space.“ The work was pushed in his direction because of the group’s work with Genomics Aotearoa.

One of the biggest efforts Genomics Aotearoa is involved with is the setting up of BioInformatics databases. One use of these is to collate data that would otherwise be lost to New Zealand, when scientists from overseas who are interested in New Zealand animals collect genetic data. Prior to the database establishment, such data tended to be lost to New Zealand, but is now added to the databases and used in the management of these rare animals. An essential piece of information in this, which previously tended to be completely overlooked, was where these sample were collected, and this is now included.

Science’s Obligations Under the Treaty

“Alongside that, one would argue that, under the Treaty of Waitangi, Maori have Kaitiakitanga over our native species . . . . we’ve been setting up a data repository where Maori groups . . . . get to say who can use it and how it’s used.” Because of Prof Dearden’s role in these databases, it was logical to ask him to take on the Kakapo work rather than others working more directly in the field, even though his previous experience was with insects. “What of course I did was immediately approach all the people who worked in the field and say, ‘Right, we‘re all going to work together on this.’” And so the necessary expertise was available for the project.

Asked about the issue of sharing this information, Peter discussed the paradox of, on the one hand, the sharing of genetic data which has generally been the norm, certainly in areas such as fruit flies, and enables science to proceed at a faster rate, while on the other hand the Treaty of Waitangi specifically stating Iwi have guardianship over native species. “I would rather put all that data [on Kakapo] out . . because someone pretty smart is going to say ‘Oh, have you thought about this . . . . .” He clearly feels this situation will move forward in the future, as Iwi understand that it is to their advantage to make the information public. Prof. Dearden also noted that human genetic data is frequently not made public, ostensibly for privacy reasons, but he observed that some scientists will assemble such data, claim they are not making it public for privacy reasons, then spend the rest of their working lives publishing papers based on that data.

The Dearden Smile — Image by: John Cross

“Any more questions? - you can’t go until I feel like you’ve asked enough questions,” he said, with that now familiar twinkle in his eye.

Genetic Counselling

Asked about genetic counselling, Peter noted he had a good friend who is such a counsellor, who said that a lot of the time it is pretty depressing because one often cannot really offer any constructive help. However, as knowledge of the genetics of human conditions improves, except in the case of rare conditions, treatments are becoming available. “On the other hand, I think it is a really noble profession. . .you are providing information, which is probably the most important thing to do in a medical situation - ‘this is what we know, this is what we don’t know’” . There are no Genetics Counselling courses in New Zealand, but there are in Australia.

Genetic Engineering

“This country’s response to genetic engineering has been remarkably silly1. In the face of climate change which is going to absolutely smash this country - and is already - . . . we need ways of producing better quantities of food . . . we are going to manage, on an ecosystem-wide scale, trying to maintain biodiversity in New Zealand. Do we have any tools to do that? - No. If we had started 20 years ago . . . “. Prof Dearden freely admitted that genetic engineering, like all technology, has good and bad sides. With regard to the pandemic, what has saved us is the vaccine. Chinese scientists had its genome within 24 hours, and made it immediately available on Twitter, and most of the resulting vaccines have been made using genetic modification. All went through clinical trials successfully. The mindset inNew Zealand appears to be to observe, rather than considering what can be done to change the situation.
“We talk about being involved in gene drives to get rid of mammalian pests. We can’t get funding to do that. In my career I’ve been involved in, from New Zealand and overseas, $81 million worth of funding. I have never got one red cent for doing gene drives, though we’ve asked since 2006. And that’s because no-one can see that we will actually be able to use them, so we can’t even do the science - in containment - to see whether they are going to be effective or not.

                            Spreading the Word

Scientists as Communicators

Stemming from the decision-making done by politicians on scientific matters, Prof. Dearden was asked to comment on whether those studying Arts should perhaps also be required to study some science. Peter clearly feels that the responsibility is more that of the scientist, and their ability to communicate. He noted that he himself had studied both Science and Arts subjects, and felt he had certainly benefited from exposure to the Arts in addition to his primary interest. He commented on how “it is really important to recognise that understanding how people think, and the history of situations really is going to give you that insight which enables you to communicate better. . . . I firmly believe that the most important thing I can teach my students is to communicate their work effectively - not to other scientists, but to the public, politicians, and Iwi groups.”

Taking Science to Rural Schools

Some years ago, in an effort to take science into schools more, his group developed “Lab in a Box”, which is parked by the Museum. (Having accidentally set fire to a classroom, they thought it best to take their own classroom!). ‘Lab in a Box’ opens out into a laboratory with its own generator. With groups from University departments already visiting schools around Dunedin, plus the almost complete lack of science facilities in many rural schools, ‘Lab in a Box targets the more distant schools in the countryside to spread the word. The main message is, to people who will be looking after our environment, that there is science that can help, asking about their concerns and discussing them. “Science can be seen as something that happens in Universities . . and doesn’t touch anyone else . . You have to be out there, and you have to talk.” But if you are doing Science, do some Arts papers - and if you are doing Arts, do some Science papers.

The BSc programme ‘Arts and Science’ is run by Prof James Maclaurin of the Philosophy Department, and Prof Dearden works with him, and likes - and benefits - from the discussions they have.

Biological Complexity

In answer to a query about questions he was most interested in, regarding Conservation: “I’m deeply interested in solving some problems for people, but there isn’t a scientific question necessarily there. I’m trying to write a book at the moment . . . on biological complexity. I think the way we think about the complexity in Biology really wrong - there’s a whole lot of things that show that complexity isn’t as simple as we think it is. For example, . . . humans, who are complex, and have these fantastic brains . . have less genes than an apple.” He went on to say that, while bees have 10-fold fewer, a pine tree has 10 times as many genes as humans, and there are lilies that have a hundred times as many. “If DNA is the carrier of all this information, how is it that these have massive genomes? - I would not say a lily is more complex than me. So, I am interested in what that means. Also, . . how do we build complexity in terms of cell types and things? So that’s what I‘m writing a book about - science complexity is hard; it needs some theory, some ideas about what might work. The other thing I really care about is how do you get change - how do you get the differences between different breeds of dogs? - How do you get diversity of organisms, particularly animals? But the best thing for me is hanging out in my lab with like-minded people, and we do science, and we enjoy it. We drink a lot of coffee, shout at each other. . . . . . . Science picks out weird people. They all are interesting. One of the things I really love is people think in completely different ways. That diversity . . means that every day’s a joy, because you are coming in and being challenged by people. I Iove it when they come up to me and say, ’I think you are thinking about this wrongly, Peter - and I prove them wrong. Or they prove I’m wrong. I’m having fun - apart from the politics and organising stuff!”

Genomics and Medical Diagnosis in the Future

“We know economically, particularly in cancer and failure to thrive, that DNA sequencing is a cost-effective way to provide solutions. The problem with cancer in New Zealand is that we don’t have the money or infrastructure to sequence the genomes of the tumours we get - but we know that is a cost-effective way to produce diagnosis. That’s a Health System problem. . . . We need to have a bit of a change around that. The same with children that have developmental difficulties.” Prof Dearden believes the cost of sequencing will go down, and the speed of doing it improve, but the infrastructure needs to be built up, and that includes people who can interpret the sequencing results, which is no easy task. Work is being done by his group on software solutions to aid in this.

Genetic Engineering Part 2

Asked what he felt could be solutions about the impasse between those who feel Genetic Engineering is a necessary thing and those who believe it to be dangerous, Peter noted that “we are not helped by our own institutions. The Royal Society, for example, some years ago got all its members to sign up to a statement that genetic modification was as dangerous as nuclear technology. “No-one has ever dropped a genetically modified fruit fly on Nagasaki’, said Peter (The Royal Society in the UK now accepts GM can be a positive). “There are lots of fake stories, such as weeds that can’t be killed, but none of that stands up to scrutiny, and the one I like most is BT cotton. This is cotton that has been modified to produce a bacterial toxin, that kills cotton boll worm.” Prior. to that, farmers had to spray insecticide to do the job, and they became ill, and the biodiversity of the fields was diminished. So genetically modified BT cotton is better for human health and biodiversity. Genetic modification could be used to control wasps, which are a real problem in New Zealand, but “we can’t even get funding to do that in the lab so we could say whether it works.” But that kind of activity, developed in New Zealand to solve a New Zealand problem is what might sway the opposers to reconsider. “I try and talk with anti-GM people as much as I can, they’re usually interesting people. They are shocked when I say I am a scientist, and I like that look in their eye that says, ‘I’ve been talking to you for twenty minutes and you’re the Devil! But when you say to them, ‘what if we are actually dealing with Wilding pines or wasps or something that is an environmental problem in New Zealand?’ and you can see them rethinking their ideas.”

In countries with rice as a staple diet, intake of Vitamin A is often low, and this causes blindness in children. ‘Golden rice’ was developed through genetic modification which contained good amounts of the vitamin, but Greenpeace put a stop to it, saying it was genetically modified and therefore risky. Their solution was a spoonful of palm oil - never mind the massively negative environmental impact palm oil production causes.

Ethical Issues and “How can we help?”

On this topic Prof Dearden said he tended to avoid working with mammalian systems because of the ethical issues, while acknowledging the need to use them in Medical research. A further problem was that the number of individual animals one could use was limited which could shape the experiment, rather than designing it to use the necessary number for good science. He has worked in Human genetics, where there are other ethical issues, such as people maintaining agency over their own biology. Other issues come in when working with indigenous communities in a respectful way. He feels science is changing, and people are more likely to ask how they can help to solve problems instead of the older, rather paternalistic approach: ‘I’m a scientist, I do science.”

1 Prof Dearden is not alone in thinking this way about Genetic Engineering: /

And - after this report was first written, the Chief Scientist to the Prime Minister has stated the GE laws are ‘old and tired’:

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Posted: Monday May 16, 2022