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Worry over amateur access to gene editing

Press AssociationPress Association 30/09/2016

Amateur "garage scientists" toying with powerful gene editing technology could pose a future danger that should not be ignored, experts have warned.

Kits that make it possible to "cut and paste" DNA in living organisms such as yeast and bacteria can already be bought on the internet for a couple of hundred dollars.

Using the new technology, known as CRSPR-Cas9, does not require a high level of scientific knowledge, raising concerns that malicious "bio-hackers" or careless enthusiasts might create something potentially harmful.

The issue was raised in the first part of a major investigation of gene editing by the Nuffield Council on Bioethics, an independent body that explores ethical questions raised by advances in biology and medicine.

In its review, the Nuffield Council points out the "comparatively low cost, ease of use and availability" of online gene editing kits meant they are accessible to unregulated amateur users.

"These may include DIY 'garage' scientists, school and undergraduate students, and others with an interest in biological research and the possibilities - whether potentially beneficial or harmful - raised by genome editing," the report says.

It says that since 2014, CRSPR-Cas9 gene editing has been used in a synthetic biology contest for school and university students called the International Genetically Engineered Machine (iGEM) competition.

In 2015, a DIY kit that could make Escherichia coli (E coli) bacteria resistant to the antibiotic streptomycin was on sale for about $A180.

Nuffield Council for Bioethics director Hugh Whittall said: "There is no evidence that we've seen that there are people with things going on in their garages, but ... this is one of the things that we need to be aware of, be conscious of the possibility.

"It goes back to this question of whether the control mechanism in terms of the supply of the kits and materials is adequate."

CRSPR-Cas9 was introduced in 2012 and is rapidly transforming biological research.

The system uses certain proteins that allow DNA to be cut and edited at precise, targeted locations.

Human reproduction and livestock farming were identified as two key areas of concern by the Nuffield Council. Both will be the subject of further inquiries by dedicated working parties.

In the field of human reproduction, gene editing has the potential to eliminate inherited diseases such as cystic fibrosis.

There are more than 4000 known single gene conditions that are thought to affect around 1 per cent of births worldwide.

But producing babies from embryos whose inherited DNA has been altered is illegal in the UK. Critics point to the dangers of irreversible changes being passed onto future generations and the possible creation of "designer babies".

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