Mon, Oct 24, 2016 - Page 7 News List

Gene editing and seed stealing

Gene sequencing is faster and cheaper than ever, but if agricultural biotechnology corporations have free access to genomic databases, the legally unprotected providers of desired genes are likely to lose out

By Chee Yoke Ling and Edward Hammond

Illustration: Yusha

Four hundred years ago, John Rolfe used tobacco seeds pilfered from the West Indies to develop Virginia’s first profitable export, undermining the tobacco trade of Spain’s Caribbean colonies. More than 200 years later, another Briton, Henry Wickham, took seeds for a rubber-bearing tree from Brazil to Asia — via that great colonialist institution, London’s Royal Botanic Gardens — thereby setting the stage for the eventual demise of the Amazonian rubber boom.

At a time of unregulated plant exports, all it took was a suitcase full of seeds to damage livelihoods and even entire economies. Thanks to advances in genetics, it might soon take even less.

To be sure, over the past few decades, great strides have been made in regulating the deliberate movement of the genetic material of animals, plants and other living things across borders. The 1992 United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity, in particular, has helped to safeguard the rights of providers of genetic resources — such as (ideally) the farmers and indigenous people who have protected and nurtured valuable genes — by enshrining national sovereignty over biodiversity.

While some people surely manage to evade regulations, laboriously developed legal systems ensure that it is far from easy. The majority of international exchanges of seeds, plants, animals, microbes and other biological goods are accompanied by the requisite permits, including a material transfer agreement.

However, what if one did not have to send any material at all? What if all it took to usurp the desired seeds was a simple e-mail? What if, with only gene sequences, scientists could “animate” the appropriate genetic material? Such Internet-facilitated exchanges of biodiversity would clearly be much harder to regulate. And, with gene sequencing becoming faster and cheaper than ever, and gene-editing technology advancing rapidly, such exchanges might be possible sooner than you think.

In fact, genes, even entire organisms, can already move virtually — squishy and biological at each end, but nothing more than a series of ones and zeros while en route. The tiny virus that causes influenza is a leading-edge example of technical developments.

Today, when a new strain of influenza appears in Asia, scientists collect a throat swab, isolate the virus and run the strain’s genetic sequence. If they then post that strain’s sequence on the Internet, US and European laboratories might be able to synthesize the new virus from the downloaded data faster and more easily than if they wait for a courier to deliver a physical sample. The virus can spread faster electronically than it does in nature.

More complicated viruses and some bacteria are in the range of such techniques today, though wholly synthesizing a higher organism with a more complex genome, such as maize, is many years away, but that might not matter, as new gene-editing technologies, like CRISPR-Cas9, enable scientists to stitch together complicated new organisms, using gene sequence information from organisms to which they do not have physical access.

For example, the key traits of a drought-resistant maize from a Zapotec community in Oaxaca, Mexico, might be reproduced by editing the genes of another maize variety. No major new advance in the technology is needed to unlock this possibility.

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