Previously known as Physicians and Scientists for Responsible Genetics PSRGNZ - Charitable Trust
As required under the new 2005 Charities Act, PSGR has reregistered as a charitable trust.

2017 Letter to the Royal Forest and Bird Protection Society of New Zealand 10 November 2017

10 November 2017

Royal Forest and Bird Protection Society of New Zealand

Genetic manipulation and gene editing

PSGR is a not-for-profit, non-aligned charitable trust whose members are science and medical professionals. Since the recommendations of the Royal Commission on Genetic Modification (RCGM) “to proceed with caution” we have maintained a watching brief on the scientific developments in genetic engineering.

The basic problem inherent in all the discussion about genetic manipulation and gene editing (especially CRISPR) is that it is based on unscientifically naive exaggerations of what the technology can actually achieve. Proponents talk about it being extremely precise and accurate and only making small changes that could have occurred as a result of ordinary germline mutations. This is fundamentally misleading. What they are talking about is the change which is targeted, but the targeted change is invariably accompanied by a very large number of other changes at similar sites in the DNA of the genome being altered. Although each of the changes may be small, genetic CRISPR is still a scattergun approach like earlier methods of genetic engineering, although it is much more selective. And the correlations between the sites affected by the scattergun are very likely to be of some genomic significance. Unintended effects may eventually come to light at the population level after a long time. The effect of many changes are likely to remain undetectable using standard techniques of phenotyping because of their wide dispersal in the genome. Thus, genetic engineering and the recently acclaimed CRISPR are not much like the way enthusiasts describe them.

In the same way, the problems with gene drive technologies arise because of the disconnect between the engineering plan and biological/ecological reality. There is so little that is really known about the long-term (or even short-term) effects of gene-drive deployment that, in our opinion, it would be utter foolishness to unleash it on the environment, especially something as delicate as our native ecology. It is as if Hahn and Meitner, having discovered nuclear fission on the laboratory bench, told everyone to get busy designing and building a nuclear power plant – we should just get on with it so that we can reap the urgently needed benefits.

Molecular biologists present inflated views of the worth of what they do in order to get research grants, start believing what they have said and then have it peddled by the media as a way of justifying the community funding their work. It all has to sound clever, smart, innovative, commercially viable, entrepreneurial and a solution to climate change, world hunger, antibiotic resistance, other medical problems, or ecological collapse. What is done is mostly scientifically and/or commercially speculative. Most of it does not work.

The few magic bullets that are produced are dressed up so that their side effects are masked – like the herbicide, glyphosate – and sold as complete solutions that are actually partial.

All molecular biological explanations are couched in terms of accepted concepts like “gene” that are not only problematic philosophically but also practically. We still have very little idea how a complete genomes work. It is important to understand much more than the relationship between the genes and the features of individual organisms. We need to know what the effects of changes are on entire populations many generations down the line. That is what ecology depends on. It is likely there are huge chunks of “junk DNA’ in the human genome, and in that of any other mammal, whose sudden loss would drive the species to extinction. Yet the effects of CRISPR engineering on these parts of the genome are ignored. It is not considered significant in technological evaluations. As long as a proponent demonstrates the target effect and nothing else very evident, the world can be convinced that what is being done is safe and smart and it is allowed to go ahead. That attitude needs to change.

The main problem we are facing with biotechnology is that we are not, as a species, humble enough in our relationship with the natural world and its underlying processes, in this case the organisation of the fundamental molecular processes that hold biological systems together.

The Trustees of Physicians and Scientists for Global Responsibility New Zealand Charitable Trust