Applying Indigenous Australian biocultural knowledge and values in synthetic biology 

Entering into cross-cultural dialogue with Indigenous Australians about novel biotechnologies.

Project duration: January 2021 – January 2024

The sun is setting over a beautiful bay, the light catches a jetty leading out to a small wharf where some small boats are moored. The sky is blue with a few fluffy clouds.

Image by Kirsty Wissing.

The challenge

Feral invasive species including rats, cats, and rabbits are the number one threat to Australia’s biodiversity. While growing populations of invasive species put increasing strain on Australia’s ecosystems, engineering biology holds the potential to provide transformative solutions.  

One proposal is to manage invasive species more humanely and at scale, with engineering biology. This involves engineering a gene drive to preference a single sex in offspring of a target species, using techniques from the domain of synthetic biology. Applied over generations, a gene drive holds the potential to suppress breeding and control or even eradicate pest populations from the environment.  

The Advanced Engineering Biology Future Science Platform (AEB FSP) is part of a growing scientific community which recognises that engagement with society needs to come at the beginning of the innovation pipeline – not at the end. With genetic biocontrol technologies such as gene drives currently in development, there is now a critical opportunity to shape these innovations in ways that maximise their social and ecological benefits.  

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples have unique and enduring connections to the lands, skies, waters, plants, and animals. Australia’s first peoples have developed sophisticated knowledge and deep relationships with the environment over tens of thousands of years. As such, they are key stakeholders with distinct interests in the potential applications of engineering biology for environmental management, and the risks and opportunities it may pose for their communities and their environments.  

This project seeks to engage and be guided by Indigenous Australians, to consider how new biotechnologies might (or might not) play a helpful role in managing the environment in the future.   

Our response

The aim of this project is to expand understandings of science through discussion with Indigenous Australians and co-development of research methodologies that are culturally appropriate, safe, and inclusive. We are exploring how diverse forms of knowledge might inform the design and use of biotechnologies such as gene drives. We do this by valuing, respecting, and protecting Indigenous biocultural knowledge, and asking Indigenous Australians about their perspectives on the potential future implementation of genetic biocontrols for conservation purposes. 

This project has been a dialogue between communities and organisations in the Torres Strait – particularly in the Central Islands of the Kulkalgal Nation – and CSIRO scientists. Conversations have included learning about existing pest management practices in the Torres Strait, as well as sharing information about and gaining Torres Strait Islander perspectives on risk, opportunities and other potential implications of gene drives as a potential tool for future pest management.  

The project involves building relationships and trust, as well as learning what research processes and protocols are important to Torres Strait Islanders. This includes ongoing conversations and sharing information back to those engaged in research, on their terms and timing.  


As part of CSIRO’s broader work, the AEB FSP has identified Indigenous science as a key priority. As such, the AEB FSP’s work should align with traditional knowledge and values wherever appropriate, such that all partners have equitable collaboration and decision-making responsibilities throughout relevant projects.  

By building relationships and understandings at a local level early on, we are aiming to ensure that Indigenous Australians’ perspectives, values, and practices are respected and considered in the development and implementation of engineering biology technologies. This will help ensure that, if deployed, they work to protect important species and ecosystems in culturally appropriate and inclusive ways. 

This project offers a model to scale up the impact of Indigenous science as a methodology for engaging with emerging technologies, while appreciating each community’s unique history and context. By exchanging ideas about new technologies like gene drives early, Indigenous Australians are better positioned to steer and guide innovation so that it can be used effectively and appropriately. This addresses an urgent need to protect biodiversity, while potentially making space for benefits such as employment and training for people who already know their country and environment very well.  


Kirsty Wissing (Project Lead), Aditi Mankad, Kirsten Maclean, Marcus Barber – with engagement from Torres Webb, Lesley Scanlan and Owain Edwards.  

More information

Our Knowledge, Our Way: Indigenous-led approaches to strengthening and sharing our knowledge for land and sea management

Public attitudes towards synthetic biology