What does a policy of bio-isolation mean for synthetic biology? Australia has strict biosecurity laws governing what can be brought into the country and I heard repeatedly during my time in Perth the effect this can have on bringing in necessary samples or reagents, particularly if anything you need can be classified as invasive. Imagine how that impacts the groups I met here working on plant synthetic biology. Imagine being thwarted by customs just for trying to import moss.
Australian ecosystems have taken a unique evolutionary trajectory due to its isolation and the country history of problematic invasive species (and also a history of using biological agents to control these species). Did this translate over into a hesitation to deploy existing GMOs and would that in turn affect potential uses of synthetic biology?
Paradoxically no, if anything the opposite is true. While I heard stories of the difficulties importing biological samples or even moving genetically modified plants from one room to another in the same university, genetically modified crops are widely grown in Australia. No one I spoke to can foresee any inherent barriers to the eventual deployment of synthetic biology here. Public attitudes are not as hostile to genetic technology as in the EU, with less public and political opposition to their use.
Indeed the isolation, history of invasive species and public/regulatory acceptance of genetic modification may make Australia the forefront of practical applications of gene drive technology. After all, trying to control a population by virus infection or poisoning is not necessarily confined to the target species. The spread of sterility by gene drives is specific and humane compared to prior methods. With small, uninhabited islands to test the technology and interest from the conservation movement, maybe here is where the technology will be tested in mammals – once you resolve the limitations about low rates of homology directed repair and time taken to reach reproductive maturity.
And the line between invasive feral species and domesticated pet is blurry and mating between two groups is possible. Cats for example are a potential gene drive target.
Maybe here, isolation can be an asset.
Of course local is all relative and Perth is considered far away even to other Australians. Up next on my tour is Brisbane, just one five hour flight away…
[Many thanks to all the members of University of Western Australia for their thoughts, including Prof Ian Small for the discussion on gene drives.]