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New Zealanders urged to learn about gene editing techniques

The Royal Society of New Zealand has issued a carefully researched paper explaining the new genetic editing techniques, such as CRISPR-Cas9, which represent a true leap forward in biology. The technique uses nature’s own DNA “scissors” and is so precise and simple to use that scientists themselves are still processing the astounding possibilities and potential risks.

NZ Genomics Ltd (NZGL) supports the Royal Society’s efforts to educate New Zealanders about how CRISPR-Cas9 works, what is happening now and what could happen in the very near future. NZGL Chief Executive Sandy Baines says, “We all need to have some idea of what the technology involves and the essential differences between this and genetic modification or selective breeding, which takes advantage of random DNA mutations that occur in nature.

“Some decisions about applying the new technology, especially those involving advances in medicine, will be readily understood and embraced from the outset. The prospect of being able to cure genetic diseases, is incredibly exciting. The carriage of infectious diseases by particular insects could also be reduced (e.g. Malaria and Zika virus on particular mosquitos).

“In agriculture, we could generate crops with desired characteristics, such as improved nutritional content, drought tolerance and pest resistance, rather than waiting for nature to make a DNA copying error that happens to confer these advantages. Crown Research Institute Scion is immediately thinking about producing a sterile pine tree that can’t spread its seed and go wild in places like the McKenzie Basin. Wilding pines are becoming a huge and unsightly problem.

“Other potential applications, such as de-extinction or rendering a pest species infertile – I stress that neither of these is an immediate possibility - will be much more complex and require deep, community-wide consideration.”

So far, the use of CRISPR editing is limited to research laboratories. There are many kits for this kind of work available commercially from major scientific companies (Origene, Thermo Fisher, Genescript etc.). It is relatively simple to use. The ready availability of the technology, and the difficulties of detecting the difference between natural mutations and gene edits, raise concerns about control over its use. Scientists are giving a lot of thought to its responsible use and risk assessment, as well as the opportunities.

Rutherford Discovery Fellow, Associate Professor Peter Fineran (University of Otago), a user of NZGL services, has been following the development of these techniques from the outset. He says, “We are the only lab in New Zealand whose main research focus is on biological function of CRISPR-Cas systems and have been working in this area since 2008.

“The scientific community is incredibly excited about gene editing and CRISPR-Cas9 in particular. There are 40-50 research publications weekly on CRISPR-Cas9 with people applying it to new questions. I strongly feel that the wider public needs to be aware of what these technologies can offer New Zealand’s environment, economy and health. It is necessary to have a basic understanding of what these tools can do and only then can we have an informed discussion about the benefits vs the risks.”

NZGL is taking responsibility, along with other trusted science organisations like the Royal Society of NZ and the National Science Challenge for NZ’s Biological Heritage, for educating the public and media about this extremely fast-moving area of science and technology.

For more information: 
Sandy Baines 
NewZealandGenomicsLimited (NZGL) 
Tel: 03470 3495 
Mob: 027 293 8090 
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