Government officials are trying to determine how a genetically modified fungus was used outside of containment facilities at Lincoln University.
The fungus, Beauveria bassiana, was found in restricted access laboratories and greenhouses away from a designated containment area on the University’s campus near Christchurch on March 7.
It occurs naturally in soils and is often used as biological insecticide, as it infects a wide range of insect species. Researchers had genetically engineered a marker on the fungus so it could be tracked in plants.
The Ministry for Primary Industries (MPI) is investigating the leak, but are playing the incident down.
“Based on what we know at present, the potential biological risks from this discovery appear very low,” says MPI deputy director-general Roger Smith.
“We believe it is unlikely any potentially genetically modified Beauveria bassiana fungus has spread further.”
But the Green Party has slammed the unapproved release of the fungus, calling it a “massive wake up call” to environmental regulators.
“We deserve answers now about what has gone wrong here and how the Ministry are going to assure it doesn’t happen again,” the party’s genetic engineering spokesperson Steffan Browning says.
"The question is, how far has this unacceptable GE fungus spread? Either by insects, soil or water from the unapproved facility?”
Stefanie Rixecker, an assistant vice-chancellor at Lincoln University, says there is no evidence that the leak has increased heath risk to humans or animals.
“MPI and the university are confident that all of the known samples and plant materials containing the fungus are now contained,” she says.
University officials have said they will continue to co-operate with the MPI investigation.