GM in Australia: Proposed changes to gene-editing rules likely to receive 'fierce opposition'

By Gary Scattergood

- Last updated on GMT

The plans will lead to a 'robust debate', one acadmic predicted. ©iStock
The plans will lead to a 'robust debate', one acadmic predicted. ©iStock

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Proposals to shake-up Australia’s GM rules are likely to face “fierce opposition” according to a leading academic, while another said that it would undoubtedly result “in the food our children eat in the future having a different DNA sequence to the food we eat today".

The proposals, put forward by Australia’s gene technology regulator Dr Raj Bhula, recommends reducing the restrictions and regulations around the use of gene editing, which she believes will lead to higher crop yields and potentially improve health outcomes.

According to Dr Caitlin Byrt from the ARC Centre of Excellence in Plant Energy Biology at the Waite Research Institute, University of Adelaide, there are four methods to modify genomes.

There is plant breeding, which involves crossing lines that each have different DNA sequences to create a new combination of genes; genetic transformation, which involves directly adding new DNA into the genome to make sequence changes; mutating the genome using chemicals or radiation to change the sequence of the DNA; and finally, the issue that is applicable here, gene editing; which can be used to add or remove DNA or to change the  existing DNA sequence.

Dr Bhula is recommending that gene editing does not need to be viewed as ‘genetic modification’.

"With gene editing you don't always have to use genetic material from another organism, it is just editing the [existing] material within the organism,"​ Dr Bhula said.

"All of our regulatory frameworks and laws have been established based on people putting unrelated genetic material into another organism.

"Whereas this process is just manipulation within the organism and not introducing anything foreign."

She believes the technology essentially speeds-up what would otherwise happen naturally over a longer period of time and that “If these technologies lead to outcomes no different to the processes people have been using for thousands of years, then there is no need to regulate them, because of their safe history of use.”

Robust debate

Dr Bhula is particularly keen to harness the technology to enhance research into disease or drought-resistant and high-yield crops.

However, there is likely to be intense debate around her view that genetic editing isn’t necessarily GM.

This was a point raised by Dr Clovis Palmer, a senior Monash University fellow and head of the Immunometabolism and Inflammation Laboratory at the Burnet Institute, who urged caution and stressed the technology was still in its infancy.

"This dramatic proposal is expected to face fierce opposition and generate a robust debate since technically removing a portion of a gene is still considered “genetic modification”.

“The gene editing technology in question is a process that allows laboratory researchers to “cut out” portions of a gene from cells grown in the lab or in some cases completely removing a particular gene and then observing the consequences,” ​he said.

“The technology is likely to have significant long-term benefits in medicine and agriculture but current claimed benefits are perhaps overemphasized​. The technology is still in its infancy and should continue to be highly scrutinized under rigorous federal authorities that govern GMOs."

Dr Byrt at Adelaide, however, appears more optimistic about the benefits of gene editing.

“We are on a trajectory for increases in drought frequency which will result in a decline in crop productivity,”​ she said.

To protect future food security we require crop varieties that can maintain productivity in a climate with limited rainfall and higher temperatures. The development of crop varieties with improved performance in hot and dry conditions can only be achieved by modifying the genome.

However, this will mean "the food our children eat in the future will have a different DNA sequence to the food we eat today,”​ she added.

Dr Bhula’s recommendations are currently open for consultation. Before becoming law, they will need to be approved by commonwealth, state and federal governments.


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