EXPERT REACTION: Genetic modification laws in Australia are getting a shake-up

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It has just been reported that Australia is set to reform how it regulates new genetic engineering techniques, which experts say will help to dramatically speed up health and agriculture research. Below, Australian researchers explain how this will affect our crops and our food.

Organisation/s: Monash University, ARC Centre of Excellence in Plant Energy Biology, The University of Adelaide, Australian Science Media Centre

Expert Reaction

These comments have been collated by the Science Media Centre to provide a variety of expert perspectives on this issue. Feel free to use these quotes in your stories. Views expressed are the personal opinions of the experts named. They do not represent the views of the SMC or any other organisation unless specifically stated.

Professor Michael Jones is Director, WA State Agricultural Biotechnology Centre, Murdoch University

All the food we eat (with the exception of ‘bush tucker’) has been genetically modified over time, first by early farmers then more systematically using Mendelian Genetics, cytogenetic transfer of chromosome segments, wide crosses, chemical and irradiation mutagenesis, molecular marker-assisted breeding and more recently by transgenic technologies.

It is a scientific paradox that we know less about what new genetic combinations occur in conventional plant breeding, which is unregulated, than we do for new breeding technologies, which are highly regulated.

With 20 years experience of the safe use of GM crops, which now account for 10% of the world’s food production, its time to bring gene technology regulations up-to-date. Varieties developed by harsh mutagenic treatments are grown without regulation and are often labelled as non-GM in organic stores.

Gene editing is a major advance which allows changes in specific genes to be made much more precisely than conventional mutagenesis. As a result, gene technology regulations are now out of date and no longer fit for purpose.

If there is no introduced DNA, or the changes are the same as those resulting from current unregulated breeding technologies, then the products should not be regulated as GMOs. That would be a real game changer for Australian crop improvement, which is being held back by red tape and excessive regulation at the moment.

Last updated: 19 Jan 2018 2:17pm
Dr Clovis Palmer is a Senior Monash University Fellow and head of the Immunometabolism and Inflammation Laboratory at the Burnet Institute

This dramatic proposal is expected to face fierce opposition and generate a robust debatable since technically removing a portion of a gene is still considered “genetic modification”. For example removal of a single genetic code from an otherwise non-pathogenic fungus could interfere with how that gene interacts with others, allowing it to become pathogenic.
Biological processes are a consequence of genes working together within a network, so modification of gene within that network are likely to have unintended and sometimes deleterious consequences.

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.

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.

Last updated: 19 Jan 2018 1:32pm
Dr Caitlin Byrt is an ARC DECRA Fellow from the ARC Centre of Excellence in Plant Energy Biology at the Waite Research Institute, University of Adelaide

The food our children eat in the future will have a different DNA sequence to the food we eat today.

We are on a trajectory for increases in drought frequency which will result in a decline in crop productivity. 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. 

The genome can be modified using the following methods:

  • Plant breeding; which involves crossing lines that each have different DNA sequences to create lines with a new combination of the genes from each different line
  • Genetic transformation; which involves directly adding new DNA into the genome to make sequence changes
  • Genome editing; which can be used to add or remove DNA or to change the sequence of the existing DNA sequence
  • Mutating the genome using chemicals or radiation to change the sequence of the DNA

The final result is a crop variety with a different in genome sequence relative to genome sequence of crop varieties that we currently have. 

We are more likely to achieve improvements in our crop varieties if we enable plant biologists to choose the most appropriate method to achieve the desired change in DNA sequence.

Last updated: 19 Jan 2018 1:31pm

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