RNA interference (RNAi) is a biological process in which RNA inhibits gene expression. It is a natural process in cells. As a biotechnology tool, RNA interference ‘silences’ a gene by using a synthetic RNA sequence to prevent translation.
RNAi – a socio-scientific issue
RNAi was hailed by the journal Science as the “Breakthrough of the Year” in 2002, and the scientists who discovered it won the Nobel Prize in Medicine or Physiology in 2006. Since its discovery, much of the science that underpins RNAi has become well established. RNAi is widely used in research to study gene function, in medicine to identify potential therapeutics and in biotechnology to improve crop yields and control pests.
In Aotearoa, pockets of public unease remain about the use of novel gene technologies, so using RNAi to resolve local issues like pest control continues to be an area of debate. New Zealand’s Biological Heritage National Science Challenge notes that, “Issues such as use of outdated technology, critical knowledge gaps, and lack of public awareness due to the poor links between science and action make this problem complex.”
There are also government regulations. The Ministry for the Environment defines a genetically modified organism as, “A plant, animal, insect or micro-organism whose genetic make-up has been changed using modern laboratory techniques. For example, new genes might have been added or the function of genes already present might have been altered. New genes may contain sequences found in the same or different species or they may be synthetic.” The Hazardous Substances and New Organisms Act (HSNO Act) regulates research into and the release of all living things that do not already exist in New Zealand, including those that are genetically modified. The Environmental Protection Authority considers applications to import, develop, field test or release any new organism (including a genetically modified organism).
Mātaiaho – weaving learning within and across learning areas
Socio-scientific issues help to develop students’ critical-thinking and problem-solving skills as well as their science capabilities. They are often value laden, so they present opportunities for cross-curricular student inquiry and learning.
As a biological process, RNAi combines a number of biology basics and brings them to life in an authentic context. In the New Zealand Curriculum, learning about RNAi sits within the Living World – Evolution strand:
- Level 7: Understand that DNA and the environment interact in gene expression.
- Level 8: Understand how humans manipulate the transfer of genetic information from one generation to the next and make informed judgments about the social, ethical, and biological implications relating to this manipulation.
As a socio-scientific issue, RNAi sits within the Nature of science – Participating and contributing strand.
- Levels 5–6: Develop an understanding of socio-scientific issues by gathering relevant scientific information in order to draw evidence-based conclusions and to take action where appropriate.
- Levels 7–8: Use relevant information to develop a coherent understanding of socio-scientific issues that concern them, to identify possible responses at both personal and societal levels.
In Te Mātaiaho, learning about RNAi in a social context sits within Te ao tangata Social sciences – Interactions change societies and environments:
- Understand: Relationships and connections between people and across boundaries lead to new ideas and technologies, political institutions and alliances, and social movements.
- Do: Communication using evidence, logic, social science concepts and conventions, and an awareness of audience and purpose enables us to express and share our views and supports participation.
- Do: Working collaboratively to consider possible solutions to social issues enhances decision making and strengthens evidence-based, ethical responses.
Resources to support learning
The Science Learning Hub – Pokapū Akoranga Pūtaiao has partnered with the BioHeritage Science Challenge to create resources about RNA interference and its potential uses within Aotearoa as pest control:
- RNA interference – article
- Using RNAi to control varroa mites – article
- Using RNAi to combat myrtle rust – article
- RNAi for pest control – te ao Māori considerations – article
- New Zealand's Biological Heritage – Ngā Koiora Tuku Iho – article
- RNA interference – key terms – article
- RNAi – making science-informed responses – activity
Learning about RNAi and its potential for pest control supports students to develop skills in:
- critiquing sources of information
- analysing the relevant biological knowledge
- identifying the potential social implications
- analysing these implications from multiple perspectives
- articulating and justifying their own positions.
Nature of science
Socio-scientific issues – such as the use of RNA interference as a biotechnology tool – highlight the relationship between science, technology and society. Although the science and technology that underpin RNAi is well established, societal and cultural concerns need to be considered.
The following resources provide helpful background information:
- DNA, chromosomes and gene expression
- Proteins – what they are and how they’re made
- Cell biology and genetics
- The genotype/phenotype connection
- Identifying Mendel’s pea genes (gene expression)
The article Modern biotechnology has other examples of genetic modification.
The article Impacts of biotechnology on society explores interacting factors that influence thinking about biotechnology.
The Connected article Fake facts looks at misinformation, malinformation and disinformation in the online media landscape. It also suggests strategies for evaluating whether information is based on facts and whether it is worth sharing.
The Ethics thinking tool kit provides you and your students with a framework for unpacking these complex issues.
The Ministry for the Environment booklet Genetic modification – the New Zealand approach, published in 2004, aims to answer some of the basic questions you might have about what genetic modification is, how applications to use it can be made and how they are controlled and managed in New Zealand.
Read the 2019 report Gene editing – legal and regulatory implications from the Royal Society Te Apārangi.
Visit the New Zealand’s Biological Heritage – Ngā Koiora Tuku Iho website: