Gene editing

Gene editing is a tool with many possible applications including in research, medicine, agriculture, and pest management. The scientific community, government, and New Zealand public are having discussions about how this technology should be used and governed.

Gene editing occurs when humans make changes to the DNA of a living organism by inserting, deleting or replacing sections of genetic material, which can change the characteristics of the organism. The last few decades have seen massive advances in the field of genetics, including gene editing, which has become more precise, easy, and rapid with the development of new techniques like the CRISPR-Cas9 system.

The real world applications of gene editing are no longer theoretical. For example:

  • In human health, these tools are being used in an increasing number of clinical trials, including a trial that began in Aotearoa in July, where it is hoped that a one-off CRISPR treatment will provide a new way to support individuals with hypercholesterolaemia to control their LDL cholesterol levels.
  • Agricultural applications are widespread, including the development of disease-resistant plants and animals and produce with modified properties – like GABA-enriched tomatoes that can be purchased Japan and soybean oil that’s free from trans-fat in the US. Gene editing can be part of the response to climate change. For example, it offers a way to develop crops that are more heat tolerant or able to withstand droughts and other extreme weather events, which are becoming increasingly common.
  • Gene drives, a specific application of CRISPR which leads to selected genes spreading through a population more rapidly than by chance alone, have applications in pest management and the control of vector-borne disease. Again, this technology has moved beyond the lab, with a biotech company using gene drives to control mosquito population sizes in multiple countries.

In 2016, the Royal Society Te Apārangi published an evidence update outlining the science and history of gene editing, new techniques, and possible applications. In 2019, the Royal Society Te Apārangi developed a series of gene editing scenarios in healthcare, pest control, and the primary industries, which it used to explore scientific, ethical, social, and legal questions associated with gene editing and its applications. The subsequent report on gene editing included a section on New Zealand’s regulatory framework, arguing that Aotearoa to develop its own perspective on gene editing, informed by public engagement, and should ensure our regulatory frameworks are fit for purpose.

In a briefing to the Prime Minister in 2019 in response to the Royal Society Te Apārangi report, the Prime Minister’s Chief Science Advisor agreed that Aotearoa New Zealand lacks a clear regulatory and legal framework on gene editing, and that current frameworks need modernising. She also endorsed the panel’s observation that the gene editing debate requires widespread public engagement. In particular, she noted the importance of substantive engagement with Māori.

In response to the Royal Society Te Apārangi report, Environment Minister Hon David Parker asked his officials to advise him “of where lower regulatory hurdles ought to be considered to enable medical uses that would result in no inheritable traits, or laboratory tests where any risk is mitigated by containment,” and noted that “the recommendation to clarify conflicting or inconsistent definitions across the regulatory framework will also be considered.”

Timeline of events

  • Thousands of years ago – Selective breeding used to increase the prevalence of plants and animals with desirable characteristics, especially in agriculture.
  • 1930s – Chemical techniques and ionising radiation start to be used to accelerate the rate of genetic change.
  • 1970s and 1980s – Genetic engineering techniques developed that enable genetic material to be inserted into genomes, but often with limited precision.
  • 1996 – HSNO Act introduced in New Zealand, where a genetically modified organism is defined as any organism in which the genes or genetic material have been modified by in vitro techniques, or a related organism.
  • 1998 – Regulations under the HSNO Act specify that organisms resulting from the use of chemical or radiation treatments in use before 1998 are not genetically modified.
  • 2001 – Royal Commission on genetic modification finds that the basic institutional structures and regulatory framework for dealing with genetic modification technologies is appropriate, needing only ‘fine tuning,’ which takes place in 2003.
  • 2005-2012 – Three main precision gene editing tools developed (ZFNs in 2005, TALENs in 2010, and CRISPR in 2012).
  • 2014 – Sustainability Council vs EPA case in the High Court classifies the gene editing tools as covered by HSNO Act
  • 2016 – Royal Society Te Apārangi publishes gene editing evidence update, detailing the emergence of gene editing tools and their increasing use in research and practice.
  • 2019 – Royal Society Te Apārangi publishes report on gene editing scenarios and regulations, highlighting varying public perspectives on gene editing across a range of scenarios, and highlighting the need to review the way genetic modification is regulated so that regulation is proportionate to risk, and legal definitions are consistent across legislation and match scientific reality.
  • 2019 – PMCSA provides briefing to the Prime Minister on the Royal Society Te Apārangi report, agreeing that Aotearoa lacks a clear regulatory and legal framework on gene editing, and that current frameworks need modernising.
  • 2019 – Government response to Royal Society Te Apārangi report, with Minister Parker asking officials to advise him of where “lower regulatory hurdles ought to be considered to enable medical uses that would result in no heritable traits, or laboratory tests where any risks are mitigated by containment” and noting the intention to consider clarifying “conflicting or inconsistent definitions across the regulatory framework.”
  • 2021 – Climate Change Commission provides advice to government on its first three emissions budgets, including the observation that “several submissions proposed genetic engineering (GE) as an approach to reducing emissions, while others were very wary about the market and environmental consequences of using GE in Aotearoa.”
  • 2021 – Productivity Commission calls for the regulatory settings governing genetic modification to be reviewed, to reflect advances in gene technology and enable New Zealanders to access opportunities for “boosting productivity, improving health outcomes, reducing biosecurity risks, and responding to climate-change risks and other environmental problems effectively and efficiently.”

Last updated: 23 August 2022