‘Evolution-bending’ gene editing technology—do the potential benefits outweigh the risks?

May 02, 2017

With new gene-editing technologies that override natural selection set to come into use in the next 3-5 years, now is the time for Australia to have a national discussion about the implications of the new technology, according to a new report released today by the Australian Academy of Science.

The technology could wipe out malaria-carrying mosquitos, cane toads or other pests and plant diseases within years, but like any new technology, has potential risks.

‘Gene-Drive’ technology allows scientists to manipulate the DNA of small plants or animals in a way that forces or ‘drives’ inheritance of particular genetic traits and characteristics to successive generations.

According to the report’s lead author and Academy Fellow Professor Ary Hoffman of Melbourne’s Bio21 Institute, these traits could include resistance to particular plant diseases or parasites, or they could target fertility.

“The idea of forcing genetic traits into populations has been around for a long time, but it is only in the last two or three years that advances in gene editing technology have made gene drives possible,” Professor Hoffman said.

“The technology, which will only work on small organisms with rapid cycles of sexual reproduction, has enormous potential to control disease, increase agricultural productivity and to improve quality of life, particularly for those living in developing countries,’’ Professor Hoffman said.

“However, as with any new technology, there are also uncertainties and risks. Before gene drives are used in Australia, and before they start being used at scale elsewhere in the world, it’s going to be critical to consider the applications that are of most benefit, and the risks associated with those applications,” Professor Hoffman said.

“The research and regulatory environment will define what is possible, and it is important that we anticipate and adjust to the impacts of the technology.”

Academy of Science President, Professor Andrew Holmes, said that once gene drives are released into wild populations in other countries, they will inevitably reach Australia, so it is important for Australian governments and communities to have the discussions now.

“The Academy has produced this report to initiate a discussion of the ethical, regulatory and scientific issues that will need be considered by the community and addressed by government and regulators, before this technology comes into use over the next 3-5 years,” Professor Holmes said.

“Australia’s unique environment raises a number of issues specific to our country. For example, if a gene drive released in New Zealand to control feral possums were to reach Australia, it could have devastating consequences for our native species. Likewise, we’d need to be very careful about the potential for unintended environmental and agricultural consequences of altered crop characteristics, or ecological niches that might be filled by new pests or diseases,” Professor Holmes said.

The Academy’s report, which includes six recommendations, was developed by an expert working group chaired by Professor Hoffman and involved broad consultation with ethicists, scientists, state and federal biosecurity and agricultural authorities, and the Australian Gene Technology Regulator.

Read the report

Media note: The Australian Science Media Centre will hold a media briefing with a panel of experts regarding ‘Gene-Drive’ technology and the Academy’s report at 10am AEST, Monday 1 May 2017. The expert panel includes: Professor Ary Hoffman, Bio21 Institute, Professor Rachel Ankeny, University of Adelaide and Professor Ian Small, University of Western Australia.

Media contact: Dan Wheelahan. dan.wheelahan@science.org.au ph: 0435 930 465

© 2017 Australian Academy of Science

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