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Key Water Blog

CRISPR has done for gene editing what the ‘cut and paste’ function did for word processing

Australia’s gene technology regulator is set to review how new genetic engineering techniques are regulated

Experts say the proposed changes will help to dramatically speed up health and agriculture research.

Head of the Office of Gene Technology Regulator, Raj Bhula, has proposed reducing regulations around gene editing techniques such as CRISPR,following a twelve month technical review into the current regulations.

The most radical change put forward by the regulator is that some of the more efficient and newer genetic technologies, known as gene editing, would not be considered “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. All of our regulatory frameworks and laws have been established based on people putting unrelated genetic material into another organism. However, gene editing is just manipulation within the organism and does not involve introducing anything foreign.

Under current legislation, a genetically modified organism (GMO) is broadly defined as an organism that has been modified by gene technology, and is subject to heavy regulation.

Genetically modified crops have been available for decades and some are already widely used in Australian agriculture, particularly cotton and canola.

GM cotton varieties, such as BT cotton, use the DNA from a common soil bacterium to repel insects. Rather than inserting a foreign gene, newer technologies involve editing an existing gene to speed up the development of an organism that would usually happen over time.

In other words, these technologies are essentially no different to the processes that occur in nature, and which people have been using for thousands of years. It is clear that using these new technologies pose no risk in terms of impact on human health and safety for the environment. The case for deregulation is therefore very strong.

If approved, the reforms will have wide ranging benefits for agriculture research, and could speed up the research and commercialisation of disease, salt or drought-resistant crops, or high yielding varieties.

The changes are currently open for consultation, and will ultimately need to be signed off by Commonwealth and state and territory governments, and passed by the federal Parliament.

Tim Burrow CEO Agribusiness Australia

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