News release from the Royal Society of New Zealand
For immediate release
Thursday 17 November
Revolution occurring in gene editing has significant implications for New Zealand
The revolution occurring in gene editing technology is happening quickly and has significant implications for us to
consider as New Zealanders, according to the Royal Society of New Zealand.
New gene-editing techniques are revolutionising the ease and accuracy of making changes to genetic material. These new
technologies have the potential to bring huge benefits, including in healthcare, agriculture and conservation. Their
development and use around the world is accelerating at pace, but what will be the implications for New Zealand?
Evidence suggests that the technology has the potential to solve genetic diseases like Huntington’s disease, produce
crops adapted to climate change, or wipe out malaria transmission by mosquitoes. New Zealand-specific examples could be
cows that produce low levels of methane or using the technology to meet our predator free ambitions.
“These new techniques are promising, especially because of how precise and reversible they are compared with traditional
breeding or genetic modification techniques. This reduces the chance of unintended consequences. However, there are also
important legal and ethical decisions to be made about whether we wish to allow this technology to be used without
restriction in New Zealand,” observed Royal Society of New Zealand President, Professor Richard Bedford.
“As New Zealanders we might decide we want to use it to solve medical problems like haemophilia, but not to build
‘designer babies’. It’s important to understand what this new technology is and what it could be used for so that we can
have an informed discussion about where New Zealand’s boundaries are for adoption of these technologies and the speed at
which we wish to adopt them.”
To help us all understand the advances occurring in gene editing, the Society has prepared a fact sheet, infographics
and an animation in simple language, explaining current gene-editing technologies and what they are already being used
for around the world.
The Society has also convened a multidisciplinary panel of New Zealand’s leading experts to consider the implications of
gene-editing technologies for New Zealand, including the research, ethical, social, legal, regulatory, environmental and
economic considerations. This panel will also consider New Zealand’s unique cultural perspectives.
Professor Barry Scott, co-chair of the panel, a Vice President of the Society and a Professor of Molecular Genetics at
Massey University, says the use of gene-editing technology has taken off worldwide following the development of a
technique called CRISPR in 2012, which has dramatically reduced the cost and difficulty of gene editing compared with
“Already they are being used to make immune cells attack cancer cells and to create more hardy and productive plants and
animals, much faster than conventional agricultural selection has allowed. Interest in using gene editing to introduce a
sterilisation gene into a pest as part of a pest-eradication programme is understandably high in New Zealand, given the
challenges facing our biodiversity.
“Another factor to consider is how difficult it is now becoming to distinguish between genetic changes generated by
conventional breeding, gene editing, or natural mutation, which may make the new gene-editing technologies difficult to
regulate and will challenge New Zealand's existing regulatory regime.
“The panel seeks to inform public debate by providing an independent evidence-driven assessment of what the implications
of the huge expansion in the use of gene editing technologies worldwide could mean for New Zealand.”
Resources on gene editing and information about the expert panel can be found at www.royalsociety.org.nz/gene-editing
About the Royal Society of New Zealand
The Royal Society of New Zealand offers expert advice to government and the public, recognises excellence in research
and scholarship in science, technology and humanities, promotes science and technology education, publishes
peer-reviewed journals, administers funds for research and fosters international scientific contact and co-operation.