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

Genes are found in all living organisms and are passed on from one generation to the next. They are the coded instructions an organism uses to make proteins, and it is these proteins that make up the structures and perform the functions of living things.

Identifying genes and their function is an important application of gene technology and can lead to more efficient conventional breeding processes. Marker-assisted breeding is one example. Genetic markers for desirable traits such as colour or disease resistance are used to identify plants or animals for inclusion in a breeding program early in their development. This speeds up the selection process.

RNA interference (RNAi), also known as gene silencing, is a way of reducing or switching off the activity of genes. In the 1990s a CSIRO research team discovered the mechanism behind RNAi which now enables scientists around the world to target specific gene activity.

For example, researchers from CSIRO and the University of Melbourne's Murdoch Children's Research Institute (MCRI) have successfully silenced a gene in chicken embryos, causing testis to become ovaries, bringing about a male to female sex reversal. This discovery is not only a breakthrough in understanding sex determination in animals, it also has taken MCRI researchers closer to uncovering genetic causes of sex development disorders in humans.

CSIRO's gene technology research

We use gene technology in crop and animal research to improve the sustainability and productivity of agriculture and to protect plants, animals and humans from disease. For example, we used genetic testing to speed up conventional breeding of our black tiger prawn and introduced a gene into cotton to help it resist the Helicoverpa larvae.

We operate within strict guidelines, which ensures the safety of the community and the environment, and also ensures that rigorous scientific practices are followed. This is particularly important in relation to genetically modified organisms (GMOs).

The majority of funding for our research relating to gene technology comes from:

  • government funding
  • non-profit organisations
  • Cooperative Research Centres (CRCs)
  • Research and Development Corporations (RDCs).

A small proportion of research funding and investment related to gene technology also comes from the private sector. Involving companies and industry is important to get commercial uptake of new products and ensure the intended benefits are realised.

Regulation of gene technology in Australia including CSIRO research

In 2001 the Office of the Gene Technology Regulator (OGTR) was created to support the independent Gene Technology Regulator, who administers the laws and makes decisions relating to gene technology research and development across Australia.

For a GMO or GM product to be released, the regulator has to be satisfied that it is safe and can be well managed to protect human health and the environment. Details of all GMO and GM product approvals in Australia are maintained by the OGTR and are available on their website.

GM products are also regulated (alongside non-GM products) by a number of authorities with specific areas of responsibility:

  • Medicines, medical devices, blood and tissues — The Therapeutic Goods Administration (TGA )
  • Food — Food Standards Australia New Zealand (FSANZ)
  • Agricultural and veterinary chemicals — The Australian Pesticides and Veterinary Medicines Authority (APVMA)
  • Industrial chemicals — The National Industrial Chemicals Notification and Assessment Scheme
  • Imported GM products — Department of Agriculture (Biosecurity)

If a GM product falls outside these areas, it is regulated by the Gene Technology Regulator.

All of our research involving gene technology is performed according to Australian legislation for gene technology, including regulations set out by the OGTR. CSIRO sites undertaking gene technology research have Institutional Biosafety Committees, whose role is to ensure all procedures are in accordance with OGTR regulations.

These regulations require the safe conduct of gene technology research within laboratories and, as is the case with any GMO, requires that any release of a GMO into the environment be licensed and comply with biosafety conditions that minimise any possible risk.

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