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.
The changes will enable agricultural scientists to breed higher yielding crops faster and cheaper, or ones resistant to drought and disease.
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,” Dr Bhula said.
“All of our regulatory frameworks and laws have been established based on people putting unrelated genetic material into another organism.
“Whereas this process is just manipulation within the organism and not introducing anything foreign.”
Case for deregulation when there is no risk
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.
Dr Bhula said the newer technologies, rather than inserting a foreign gene, involve editing an existing gene to speed up the development of an organism that would usually happen over time.
“If these technologies lead to outcomes no different to the processes people have been using for thousands of years, then there is no need to regulate them, because of their safe history of use,” she said.
“If there is no risk case to be made when using these new technologies, in terms of impact on human health and safety for the environment, then there is a case for deregulation.”
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 in federal Parliament.
What gene editing can deliver for agriculture
The most promising form of gene editing is known as CRISPR, which has been called a game changer in the medical and agriculture world.
The process works by finding a gene that could cause a particular disease in an organism, then disabling it by delivering an enzyme that cuts the DNA.
Chinese researchers have used the technology to make barley resistant to a fungal disease known as powdery mildew, and the results are now being replicated in wheat.
The University of Queensland is using gene editing to breed bananas resistant to Panama Tropical Race 4, a fungus that is deadly to the world’s most eaten banana, the Cavendish.
Meanwhile, CSIRO researchers in Australia are trying to alter a gene in wheat, so the wheat fibre resembles the fibre content of oats, which is clinically proven to reduce cholesterol.
“A single base pair change could convert wheat to look more like oats, and the fibre would be healthier and beneficial,” agriculture and food director John Manners said.
Globally, CRISPR has been used in other major crops such as rice, soybeans, potatoes, sorghum, oranges and tomatoes, and it could even help to eliminate certain diseases from livestock.
It has also been used delete up to 60 viruses from pig genes, meaning pig organs could one day be used in transplants to replace human organs.
Dr Manners said there was a lot of potential for new crop varieties to be developed in Australia using CRISPR technology, if the regulations changed.
Organic farmers oppose reforms
The Office of Gene Technology Regulator said it did not expect consumers to be upset with any decision, provided any food produced with new methods was labelled as such in supermarkets.
“We have conducted a community awareness survey and what we found is some of the opponents were more worried about not having choice when buying GM products,” Dr Bhula said.
“If the technology is used, consumers wanted to know that some form of GM product had been used in the food.”
The National Association for Sustainable Agriculture Australia, which represents organic farmers, has strongly opposed the reforms, saying it could damage the reputation of the sector.
“The Australian standard is very clear from our perspective — GMOs of any kind and organics simply don’t mix,” general manager Mark Anderson said.
“New types of genetic modification coming about now should be included and regulated in the same way the old GM organisms have been.
“Genetically modified organisms are not included in the organic standards for Australia, the world, or the countries we export to.
“Creating another class of GM organisms that aren’t regulated in the same way puts a lot of risk on Australian organic farmers.”
Feeding a growing world
University of Western Australian professor of plant biology Dave Edwards argued gene editing would help to solve food shortage problems in the future.
In a paper titled Genome editors take on crops, he said the technology was better than traditional genetic modification.
“If we can’t get better varieties and more climate tolerant varieties out quicker, you’re going to see children starving in developing countries,” Professor Edwards said.
“We do need to be able to accelerate food production, and to be able to do that we need to apply new methods.
“Genome editing allows us to more rapidly breed crops, compared with traditional breeding or even GM.
“The growing human population and climate change are really going to create a perfect storm, with more droughts and more extreme weather events, and this is going to present challenges for reliable crop productivity.”
The change in regulation will also have big ramifications for the medical research sector, which Dr Bhula said had also been considered in the review.
“Under our regulatory scheme we have to look at protection of human health and protection of the environment,” she said.
“That’s not so easy to do that with humans.”
This means that while many agriculture products made using CRISPR technology are close to commercialisation, its applications for solving human health problems are far off.
They are highly anticipated nonetheless, given CRISPR has the potential to disable the genes that help cancers and HIV dodge the immune system.
However, genetic differences between patients mean the technology is not yet foolproof.
“There’s a lot of potential but people still don’t really understand how far and wide the technology can go,” Dr Buhla said.
Marco Herold is a laboratory head at the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute of Medical Research in Melbourne, which aims to improve the treatment of diseases that affect Australia and the world.
He said he was closely watching trials overseas where CRISPR was being used to help destroy cancer cells.
“It is used for immunotherapy approaches. In a cancer patient the T cells are inactivated by the cancer cells,” he said.
“But in this trial the T cells will be taken out of the patient. The break induced by the cancer cells will be removed through CRISPR technology, then the T cells put back in.
“The hope is they will attack the cancer and eradicate it.”