Gene technology and biosecurity research

CSIRO uses a range of scientific techniques and processes, including gene technology, as tools to help us in the fight against emerging animal diseases.

The Challenge

Emerging infectious disease threat

Emerging infectious diseases, particularly those that are transmitted from animals (zoonotic) pose a constant threat to human health and well-being, as well as to Australia's environment, industries and trade.

We believe, like science and health organisations around the world that responsible research needs to take several forms and be undertaken on several fronts, so the most effective innovations can be used to address challenges facing humanity and the environment.

Since 2006 we have been undertaking gene technology research to investigate whether RNA interference (RNAi) can be used to help protect livestock animal species from disease. 

Our Response

Is gene technology the future?

Gene technology is the term given to a range of activities concerned with understanding the expression of genes, taking advantage of natural genetic variation, modifying genes and transferring genes to new hosts.

Gene technology is the term given to a range of activities concerned with understanding the expression of genes, taking advantage of natural genetic variation, modifying genes and transferring genes to new hosts. © Shutterstock

In some cases, disease resistance or susceptibility of an animal can be due to a very subtle change in a single host protein. For example, there are naturally occurring mutations where a single nucleotide change has altered the function of a cell surface receptor for a virus such that the virus is now unable to infect the host cell, leaving the animal resistant to disease.  

New gene editing technologies allow scientists to introduce the same specific nucleotide changes in ‘susceptible’ animals with surgical precision, thereby faithfully replicating the naturally occurring mutation.  This leaves these animals, and their offspring, permanently resistant to a particular disease.

Other types of gene technologies can achieve similar results.

CSIRO research into preventing plant disease led to the discovery in the 1990s of a naturally occurring gene silencing mechanism in plants. This mechanism called RNA interference (RNAi) is triggered when a viral pathogen invades a cell allowing the organism to stop the virus from replicating and causing disease.

Further research has shown that the mechanism can be tailored to control particular viruses, and is highly effective in preventing infection in plant and animal cells.

Since 2006 we have been undertaking gene technology research to investigate whether RNAi can be used to help protect livestock animal species from disease. We have also started investigating RNAi as a strategy to control important viral diseases of fish and prawns.

Another gene technology research project that we’re undertaking, in collaboration with Deakin University (and with support from the Poultry CRC), is focused on producing allergen-free eggs for use in food consumption, to assist in protecting people from encountering allergic reactions to eggs, and the production of safer influenza vaccines. For example, eggs are used to produce flu vaccines however; individuals who are allergic to egg whites are currently prevented from receiving a standard flu vaccine.

We’re also investigating the use of RNAi as a promising approach to develop specific insecticides for the control of insects that spread diseases to people and insects that are pests of plant crops, as well as develop specific herbicides for weed control.

CSIRO is the holder of key intellectual property for RNAi and remains at the forefront of gene silencing technology and its application.

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