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Plant gene scientists awarded PM's Prize for -

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Reporter: Karen Barlow

TONY EASTLEY: Two CSIRO scientists who discovered how to control the inner workings of plants have
been awarded the Prime Minister's Prize for Science.

Dr Peter Waterhouse and Dr Ming-Bo Wang's pioneering research in the 1990s on plant viruses led to
the discovery that they could deactivate or silence plant genes.

While their work in genetic modification has its critics, Dr Waterhouse and Dr Wang say their gene
silencing research may help feed and fuel the world.

They spoke to AM's Karen Barlow.

PETER WATERHOUSE: We really are thrilled. It's been a really exciting time, the research, and it's
had its rewards just in the research and what we've found out from it and the applications of the
research, but this is just icing on the cake.

KAREN BARLOW: You've won for your work on plant genes. You worked out how to control the genes. Is
that what you actually set out to do?

MING-BO WANG: What we tried to do is to get a technology which we can use to produce virus
resistant plants, but then we hit a very fundamental mechanism which you can exploit to use for
instance turn off genes and things like that in plants.

KAREN BARLOW: What plant genes are you looking to silence?

PETER WATERHOUSE: The first genes that we knocked out were sort of test genes and so we knocked out
flowering time, so we made plants flower earlier than normal. We changed the colour of the seed, we
changed seeds from brown to yellow. And we changed oil compositions from unhealthy oils for human
consumption to healthier oils.

KAREN BARLOW: Are there unintended consequences of silencing a gene?

PETER WATERHOUSE: Well I think it's quite interesting because we've been looking at some pathways.
So one of the applications has been in modifying the morphine pathway in poppies so that, the idea
was to make a more efficient poppy so it made more morphine for the pharmaceutical industry. And by
manipulating some of the enzymes that make morphine, instead of actually making more you ended up
with a different product being made, something that was very useful but it's actually given us a
better picture of what's going on than we had before.

And some of the pathways that we knew, we thought we knew what they were in plants are now having
to readjust our thinking in some of these cases because of the results of using our technology.

KAREN BARLOW: How do you see it benefiting human survival?

PETER WATERHOUSE: Well, one of the things I'm a bit passionate about is the use of plants for solar
reactors as it were, that it's a really green technology. If we're using plants to make things that
we used to make in factories, then this is direct use of the solar energy and the carbon dioxide
from the atmosphere. The plant does it, we don't have to do it with by-products and so on in
factories.

And similarly it's going to help us produce better bio-fuels, bio-diesels that we can use. And I
really hope that this technology will help us to meet some of the challenges we're surely going to
have in getting sustainable agriculture and in reducing our emissions.

TONY EASTLEY: The Prime Minister's Science Prize recipients, Dr Peter Waterhouse and Ming-Bo Wang
speaking with Karen Barlow.