Defining Genetic Modification.

By Peter Dearden 05/08/2014

Peter K. Dearden

I have been doing a lot of travelling recently, and have become increasingly perplexed by the term ‘electronic device’ and what to do with them on planes. Some say turn off all your devices; does that mean heart pace makers, insulin pumps, and calculator watches? Some say you can have small ones on and others off. All too confusing! The problem is one of definition. Having a too broad definition of ‘electronic device’ means silly things happen.

The same applies to ‘genetic modification’. Our definition in law is very broad and process defined, which means that a recent High Court decision has incredibly broad consequences.

The problem is that the definition of genetic modification in New Zealand Law, as described in the Hazardous Substances and New Organisms Act 1996, is the following;

Genetically modified organism means, unless expressly provided otherwise by regulations, any organism in which any of the genes or other genetic material – 1. (a) have been modified by in vitro techniques; or 2. (b) are inherited or otherwise derived, through any number of replications, from any genes or other genetic material which has been modified by in vitro techniques.

This definition is problematic because it is broad; it tries to define an organism by a technique rather than an outcome and, given the recent ruling of the High Court, now makes a whole load of organisms that weren’t genetically modified problematic.

The issue starts with the fact that everything is genetically modified. We all have our own unique mutations that come from errors of copying our DNA, or damage to DNA caused by sunlight or chemicals etc. Every one of us is genetically modified, but, due to the definition, that is O.K. because it didn’t happen in vitro.

What does in-vitro mean? Well that’s a bit problematic too. Wikipedia defines it as

‘performed with cells or biological molecules outside their normal biological context; for example proteins are examined in solution, or cells in artificial culture medium.’

The idea being, I suppose, some sort of lab manipulation.

O.K. lets test this a bit. If I go out in the sun, UV light will damage my DNA and genetically modify me. Am I now a new organism in law? No, because it happened in a normal biological context. What if, heaven forefend, I go to a tanning salon? The UV light in a sun bed will damage my DNA, and this is a clearly abnormal biological context (and the operators of such things do like to wear white coats and pretend it’s a laboratory). Am I now genetically modified and need to be contained?

These are silly examples, but by defining genetic modification by a vague process we end up with poor decision-making.

Here is Neil deGrasse Tyson telling us that we shouldn’t worry about genetic modification because we have being doing selective breeding for millennia. Good point, but is there some difference between selecting variants, and making variants?

Genetics, for a long time, has been involved in doing both. Most of the species of crop plants developed in the ‘Green Revolution’ are based on mutagenesis. Here, to make lots of variants, we use a chemicals or UV light to damage DNA, make lots of random mutations, then select those that have useful traits and breed from them. This technique underpins almost all the varieties of plant we use today. It happens in the lab. Tissue is treated with a mutagen, and then the results propagated. No DNA is added; no genes from another species are spliced in. We just hope by damaging the DNA we might get a trait that is useful. As far as I can see, under the act, this is an in-vitro manipulation leading the DNA change- surely this is genetic modification and needs to be contained.

The impact of placing these constraints on such agricultural varieties would be huge, and produce, I think, damaging declines in food production.

The High Court decision was triggered by the advent of technology that allows us to do mutagenesis in a much more targeted way, rather than randomly causing damage to genes, we now have techniques that will target a single place in the genome, and cause damage. The techniques leave no trace. No DNA is added, and the only outcome is the change you are targeting. This is an update of mutagenesis and is both useful, and much less wasteful. BUT, it happens in a lab, so by law it is genetic modification.

I think the definition must be about outcome. Making a mutation in the DNA of an organism to help with selective breeding is not really problematic. We have been doing it for millennia, using either natural mutations caused by UV light or copying errors, or induced ones using chemical mutagens, or new, more targeted technologies.

More problematic, I think, is the placing of new genes from another species into an organism, the splicing of DNA that is not normally together to produce new traits. These technologies, while remarkably useful, cannot be produced naturally. I personally do not believe that there is any significant risk associated with most organisms developed in this way, but I do recognise the need to regulate them. Surely here is the definition that the legislation needs to be hung on. Is the DNA of an organism mixed with others, or is it not.

Geneticists have a word for this; it is called Recombinant. We should regulate, contain and worry about Recombinant organisms, and care less about those that have a mutation in their own genome that produces an interesting trait.

By defining genetic modification in this way, we could also future proof the legislation. What if I can add DNA to the genome of an organism in my garden by merely watering it with a solution? This is really not in-vitro, but we are very close to being able to do that. Surely we would want to recognise that organism as recombinant and contain it, however it was made?

By using the outcome of the process to define which organisms needs to be regulated or not, we will have better law, and a better approach to the use and control of genetic modification in New Zealand.

If you want to read more, Try ‘Code for Life’ who has a very insightful series of posts on this issue.

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