About genes and gene technology

Genes are sequences of DNA that organisms use to create proteins. Scientists use gene technology to study genes, alter genes to achieve a specific result or transfer genes to another host. Genetically modified organisms (GMOs) have many uses. In Australia, we regulate gene technology and GMOs.

About genes

Genes are made of deoxyribonucleic acids, otherwise known as DNA. They:

  • contain sets of instructions for a living organism to make molecules called proteins – the ‘building blocks of life’
  • determine the properties of an organism.

RNA (ribonucleic acid), converts DNA into the proteins that make up an organism.

DNA and genes pass from generation to generation. All living things inherit DNA from their parents.

A genome is the full set of genetic instructions for an organism. Genomics is the study and mapping of genomes.

Learn more about genes and DNA:

Where to find DNA

DNA is in the cells of living things, like animals, plants and microorganisms.

Non-living matter – such as rocks and minerals, liquids or gases – does not contain DNA.

About gene technology

Humans have long manipulated genomes through selective breeding – choosing organisms with a desired trait and producing offspring with those desired traits. We have done this for thousands of years.

Gene technology, also known as genetic modification, provides ways to change genes and the genome. Genes can be modified to:

  • produce or remove specific traits or functions
  • speed up or slow down natural processes.

Scientists do this in a laboratory by inserting, removing or altering the activity of one or more genes. This changes the organism so that it gains, loses, or changes specific characteristics. For example, inserting an insecticide-producing gene from bacteria into a cotton plant helps it resist insects.

Genetically modified organisms (GMOs)

A genetically modified organism (GMO) is an organism that has either:

  • been altered using gene technology
  • inherited modified genes from a parent GMO.

Learn more about GMOs on the Office of the Gene Technology Regulator (OGTR) website.

Gene technology techniques

Scientists can modify genes using different techniques, including:

  • using enzymes to cut and paste pieces of DNA together (recombinant DNA)
  • implanting a gene from one species into another using transgenics
  • deactivating, or silencing, undesirable genes using RNA interference
  • precision gene editing, such as using   CRISPR-Cas9 (clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats and CRISPR-associated protein 9)
  • engineering organisms to give them new abilities (synthetic biology)
  • making a desired gene or trait spread at a higher rate of inheritance (gene drives).

Uses of gene technology

Gene technologies have many uses in areas such as:

  • agriculture – introducing pest or disease resistance, improving drought tolerance, or improving nutritional value of a crop
  • animal health – producing animal medicines and vaccines
  • food – producing enzymes to use in food processing
  • human health – using GMOs to produce vaccines or medicines such as insulin, or developing new ways to diagnose and treat disease
  • industrial chemicals – using microorganisms to decompose toxic substances and clean up industrial sites or environmental accidents.

Regulating gene technology

The Gene Technology Act 2000 introduced a national regulatory framework for dealing with GMOs. This helps protect the health and safety of people and the environment by identifying and managing risks posed by:

  • the use of gene technology
  • GMOs.

The National Gene Technology Scheme is a cooperative arrangement between all Australian governments. It supports a nationally consistent regulatory system for gene technology.

Learn more about the scheme.

Safety of GMOs in Australia

A major focus of our regulatory work involves assessing and managing the risks to:

  • human health and safety
  • the environment.

When we first established the scheme in 2001, GMOs were relatively new. Gene technology was in its early stages and some risks were unknown, so regulation took a more precautionary approach. Over the last 20 years the scheme has effectively managed the safe use of gene technology in Australia. We currently assess risks on a case by case basis.

Learn more about how we regulate gene technology in Australia.

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