With the emergence of innovative gene editing tools such as CRISPR, scientists worldwide have been able to produce different breeds of plants and animals at a faster rate than ever before.

Now, in Australia, the use of the CRISPR gene editing tool on plants and animals has been allowed without the oversight of a governmental body, officials said.

Deregulating The Use Of CRISPR Gene Editing Tool In Australia

The CRISPR gene editing tool works by targeting DNA at a specific target site and snipping away whatever part is intended to be removed.

Biotechnology law expert Karinne Ludlow from Monash University explained that most plants and animals that have undergone gene editing have no new DNA inserted into them.

"The argument is: should we treat this type of gene editing more as a type of mutation and therefore not regulate, or treat it as a deliberate modification and therefore regulate?" Ludlow said.

The result is that the Australian government has decided not to regulate the CRISPR gene editing tool, which is classified under the site-directed or SDN-1 techniques.

In fact, on April 10, the Australian government announced that it has approved the use of the CRISPR gene editing tool on plants, animals, and human cell lines under the condition that new genetic material is not created. This decision is the result of a massive review of the country's regulation regarding gene editing technology.

The use of CRISPR was previously restricted because these techniques were still governed by regulations applied on conventional genetic modifications, which required the approval of a biosafety committee accredited by Australia's Office of the Gene Technology Regulator.

The new regulations have removed this past requirement as long as the CRISPR gene editing tool allows the host cell to repair the break naturally instead of using a template that contains genetic material to direct the repairing process.

Meanwhile, more complex forms of gene editing such as those that use a template to direct the repair or those that insert foreign DNA into the genome would still be regulated in Australia under the regulation laws.

Australia's Decision Is A 'Middle-ground' But Others Remain Unconvinced

Experts believe Australia's deregulation of CRISPR is considered a middle ground compared to the stricter and tighter regulations of New Zealand and the European Union, as well as the more relaxed approach of countries such as Brazil and the United States.

Ludlow explained that Australia's decision made sense because scientists have already accepted that humans mutate DNA, although it is done in several different ways. She said that with 80 years of scientific research regarding mutation breeding in plants, there has not been anything dangerous involved with it.

Still, other scientists are unconvinced and unimpressed with Australia's decision to deregulate the use of CRISPR on plants and animals.

Jack Heinemann, a geneticist from Canterbury University in New Zealand, argued that the deregulation of CRISPR could inspire more do-it-yourself gene editing experiments with dubious consequences.

For instance, in 2017, a biohacker attempted to inject himself with CRISPR to make himself more muscular. This was likely triggered by research that aimed to created more muscly pigs.

Heinemann said faster gene editing techniques could introduce cumulative unintended changes that may not be picked up by scientists before the plant or animal gets commercialized. Furthermore, the nature of gene editing may cause changes in genomes that are unlikely to occur in nature, he added.

Photo: Nick Saltmarsh | Flickr

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