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Potential of gene-editing for conserving biological heritage

Media statement by the National Science Challenge for NZ’s Biological Heritage

17 November 2016

For immediate release

The potential of gene-editing for conserving NZ’s biological heritage

The Royal Society of NZ has issued an information paper (www.royalsociety.org.nz/gene-editing) on gene-editing techniques. The New Zealand’s Biological Heritage National Science Challenge, representing all 8 Universities and 7 Crown Research Institutes, welcomes this initiative.

This technology means that it is now possible to make precise changes to a plant or animal genome for predetermined outcomes, such as drought resistance.

As a priority, New Zealand’s science community is assessing the potential of gene technologies as tools to reduce or eliminate damaging pests, weeds and diseases. For example, a gene could be edited to interfere with pest fertility and thus remove pests like rats or possums, with the population dying out naturally over time. Scientists refer to this sort of application as “gene-drive”. We need to proceed with cautious optimism. All possibilities will need to be thoroughly tested in contained laboratory environments, and simulated using computer models before they are applied. Removing one species can allow another population to grow, so the knock-on effects will need to be very carefully considered.

“Although the techniques are available now, much work remains to be done,” emphasises Director of the Challenge, Dr Andrea Byrom. “The public should be widely consulted on any proposed applications outside the lab. People will need to be in possession of all the facts.”

“A huge advantage of gene-editing technologies is that they enable us to figure out what certain genes or bits of DNA actually do by seeing what happens if you “silence” or change them. The potential for reducing the impact of invasive species is huge – and the technology has generated enormous interest worldwide. Our knowledge is going to increase exponentially, but public engagement and discussion will be vital.”

The Biological Heritage Challenge is funding an extensive evaluation of genomics and gene-editing potential for conservation and biosecurity, and is working together with the Royal Society of NZ, Crown Research Institutes, universities, and government departments, to ensure that we tap the potential benefits for New Zealand, carefully assess and manage any risks, and keep the public informed. “These technologies are years away from being deployed in the field, so we have plenty of time to discuss and debate the pros and cons”, says Dr Byrom.

For more information about the National Science Challenge for NZ’s Biological Heritage, go to

www.biologicalheritage.nz

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