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  • RNA interference is both a natural process and a novel biotechnology tool in which small RNA molecules ‘silence’ or decrease the activity of specific genes by preventing them from making proteins.

    Rights: qimono

    Pieces in the gene technology puzzle

    There are multiple components in play regarding the use of genetic technologies. Cultural and societal considerations sit alongside scientific and technological considerations.

    Image sourced from Pixabay.

    This resource provides explanations of the key science concepts that underpin the structure and function of genes, gene editing and social considerations of this novel tool. It also includes te ao Māori concepts to consider when investigating genetic tools and technologies.


    Deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA) is a molecule that contains the instructions needed for an organism to develop and function. These instructions are stored as a code made up of four chemical bases: adenine (A), guanine (G), cytosine (C) and thymine (T).

    Double-stranded RNA (dsRNA)

    RNA with two complementary strands. Double-stranded RNA forms the genetic material of some viruses and activates the immune system against a viral infection. Natural and synthetic dsRNA can trigger RNA interference.

    Double-stranded (dsRNA) sequences

    A sequence of the bases adenine (A), cytosine (C), guanine (G) and uracil (U) that make up a particular molecule of double-stranded RNA. Small interfering RNA (siRNA) are examples of dsRNA sequences.


    A segment of a DNA molecule that carries the information needed to make a specific protein. Genes determine the traits (phenotype) of the individual.

    Gene expression

    The use of a gene to make a protein. Involves transcription of the DNA sequence into RNA and translation of the RNA into an amino acid sequence (or protein).

    Genetic modification

    Genetic modification (GM) is any process that changes the genetic material of an organism (plant, animal, bacteria or virus) in order to make it capable of producing new substances or performing new or different functions.

    Ira tangata

    Ira is the life force or genes that exist within all living beings. Ira tangata represents the human life force element inherited from the parental generation through genes. Genes hold more than just biological significance – they possess a spiritual quality that enables Māori to establish a connection with the atua (Māori gods). Through whakapapa, Māori can trace the descent of living beings, including themselves, back to the Atua.


    Referred to as guardianship. This is particularly relevant when taonga species are involved as it describes the responsibility to care for and manage these species in a reciprocal nature. Researchers also have a responsibility to identify and engage with the appropriate kaitiaki or representatives who can make decisions on behalf of the taonga.


    The authority and power that exists within all living beings. It is closely linked with the concept of tapu and also relates to levels of control by Māori and their responsibilities for decision making in relation to taonga.


    This refers to the vital life essence found in everything, giving them an energy whether they are living or non-living. Preserving the mauri of an organism or system is important as it ensures the natural balance and wellbeing are upheld. Even the smallest biological parts, like the microbiome and bioactivity, have their own mauri.

    Messenger RNA (mRNA)

    Single-stranded RNA made during transcription (when DNA is copied) and used as the template for protein synthesis in translation. Its sequence is complementary to the DNA sequence from which it is transcribed.

    Protein translation

    The process in which a messenger RNA sequence is used as a template to form a sequence of amino acids (a protein). Occurs after transcription.


    This can be referred to as self-determination or autonomy. Rangatiratanga should go beyond simply acknowledging Māori authority and should also emphasise the importance of inclusive processes that ensure Māori perspectives and voices are genuinely considered in decision making at various stages or levels in shaping the use of genetic technologies.


    Ribonucleic acid (RNA) is a molecule generated in cells by transcription and required for the synthesis of proteins. Most RNA molecules are single stranded. The RNA nucleotide bases are adenine (A), cytosine (C), guanine (G) and uracil (U). Like DNA, the bases can be thought of as codes.

    RNA interference (RNAi), gene silencing

    The process when a double-stranded RNA molecule prevents an mRNA molecule from being translated into a protein. Also called RNA silencing or RNA inactivation.

    Small interfering RNA (siRNA)

    A small, double-stranded RNA molecule that binds to complementary DNA sequences and prevents gene expression. Also called short interfering RNA or silencing RNA.

    Socio-scientific issue

    A societal challenge that has both scientific and social implications. Examples of socio-scientific issues include genetic engineering and climate change.


    Describes something of great significance or value and should be carefully preserved to maintain its integrity while also respecting the tapu (sacredness) it holds. Taonga can be abstract and extends to biological materials such as tissue samples, DNA and associated data.


    Encompasses Māori customs and protocols. Tikanga helps guide ethical decision making by providing specific protocols and processes that uphold people’s values and principles. It serves as a framework for Māori to actively engage with ethical issues and consider how research may impact their values and relationships.


    Whakapapa is embodied in the DNA of organisms where the protection of whakapapa is crucial for Māori and the inherent responsibility in ensuring it remains intact for the survival of future generations.


    Benton, R., Frame, A., & Meredith, P. (2013). Te Mātāpunenga: A compendium of references to the concepts and institutions of Māori customary law.

    Hudson, M., Beaton, A., Milne, M., Port, W., Russell, K., Smith, B., & Wilcox, P. (2016). Te Mata Ira: Guidelines for Genomic Research with Māori.: Te Mata Ira: Guidelines for Genomic Research with Māori. Originally retrieved from, now access from

    Hudson, M., Thompson, A., Wilcox, P., Mika, J., Battershill, C., Stott, M., Brooks, R., & Warbrick, L. (2021). Te nohonga kaitiaki: Guidelines for genomic research on taonga species. Te Kotahi Research Institute.


    This article was written by Tere Porter-Rawiri (Te Ātiawa, Taranaki, Ngāti Mutunga).

    Rights: New Zealand’s Biological Heritage National Science Challenge

    New Zealand’s Biological Heritage National Science Challenge

    The BioHeritage Challenge is one of 11 National Science Challenges funded by MBIE.

      Published 12 September 2023 Referencing Hub articles
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