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New GE Technologies

There is a range of new genetic engineering techniques emerging from the laboratory, there include techniques of genome editing and synthetic biology. There is a global debate raging over the regulation of these new techniques.

Genome editing

« Genome editing » or « gene editing » refers to the modification of the genome at a specific, targeted location. Using enzymes that act as molecular scissors to cut DNA along with natural DNA repair mechanisms of cells, the genome can be modified by adding, deleting or altering parts of the DNA sequence. This can be distinguished from transgenic approaches that introduce foreign genetic material (into unspecified locations within the genome), though most genome editing techniques still use familiar genetic engineering tools such as the use of recombinant DNA (a combination of DNA elements from multiple sources) and also involve transformation of plant cells (uptake of the DNA by a cell).

As seen with transgenesis, the disruption of the genome via genetic engineering can have long-distance effects on the balance of global expression of genes.

Claims that these technologies are safer than transgenic techniques are unproven. Gene editing techniques each bring their own set of risks and uncertainties. Whilst many of these are the same as with older genetic modification (GM) techniques there are also serious additional concerns. There is a scientific case for classifying all these techniques as GM and regulating their use with as much rigour as previous and current GM techniques.

Products of new genetic modification techniques should be strictly regulated as GMOs, European Network of Scientists for Environmental and Social Responsibility, September 2017.

Genetic Engineering in Plants and the “New Breeding Techniques (NBTs)”: Inherent risks and the need to regulate, EcoNexus, Dr. Ricarda Steinbrecher, December 2015

Synthetic Biology

Synthetic biology is a form of extreme genetic engineering. It is an emerging technology that is developing quickly yet remains largely unregulated. With synthetic biology, instead of swapping existing genes from one species to another (as is done through rDNA technology/genetic engineering), scientists can write entirely new genetic codes on a computer, « print » them out and insert them into living organisms. Scientists are even trying to create life from scratch.

Artificial DNA is engineered into living things to fundamentally change their character. Nobody knows how to asses synthetic organisms for safety and, until now, governments and companies have refrained from releasing these organisms into the environment because they may threaten the natural world.

Companies have commercialized several products already, including a vanilla substitute grown by synthetically modified yeast, a coconut oil replacement produced by engineered algae, and engineered versions of patchouli and vetiver fragrances.

Click here for more information on synthetic biology.

Gene Drives

News – December 4, 2017: The Gates Foundation hired the public relations company « Emerging Ag » to co-ordinate a “fight back against gene drive moratorium proponents.” CBAN is one of 170 organizations calling for a global moratorium on gene drives at the UN Convention on Biological Diversity.

Gene drives are an experimental genetic engineering technology intended to aggressively spread a specific bioengineered trait among a species or population in nature.

Normally, a genetically modified organism that is released into the wild would pass on its bioengineered traits (e.g. herbicide tolerance) to only about half of its offspring. Gene drives are designed so that the bioengineered traits will be passed on to all or most offspring (even though they are unlikely to be one hundred percent effective). If a gene drive were to be successful, the chosen genetically engineered traits would spread and become dominant in wild populations over a few generations of the species. A successful gene drive could intentionally or accidentally alter a species or crash it to extinction. So far, these artificial gene drives are developed using the new ‘gene- editing’ system known as CRISPR-Cas9.

Gene drives may be deliberately introduced into invasive species to eradicate them from the wild for conservation purposes, or into weed species to remove them from farmers’ fields. They could be used to exterminate crop and livestock pests and destroy herbicide resistance in superweeds. Several groups have recently made news for proposing gene drive mosquitos to suppress or make extinct the species that transmit malaria. Gene drives might also be pressed into use for military purposes as bioweapons, or to suppress food harvests.

December 5, 2016: Call for a Global Moratorium on Gene Drives: 163 groups including CBAN called upon governments at the 13th Conference of the Parties to the Convention on Biological Diversity, in accordance with the precautionary principle, to put in place a moratorium on 1) any further technical development and experimental application of gene drives, and 2) environmental release of genetically-engineered gene drives.

The main distinction between gene driven organisms and most GM crops is that gene drive organisms are explicitly designed to live and reproduce in the wild.

Nanotechnology

Nanotechnology refers to the manipulation of matter on the scale of the nanometer (one billionth of a meter). Nanoscale science operates in the realm of single atoms and molecules. Click here for information on nanotechnology.

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