Mon, Jun 03, 2019 - Page 7 News List

CRISPR gene editing will change the way Americans eat — this is how

The gene editing technology would be labeled and subject to stringent health and environment review in the EU, but not in the US, where produce could be radically changed

By Karen Weintraub  /  The Guardian

Illustration: Mountain People

Soon, soybeans would be bred to yield oil without dangerous trans fats. Lettuce would be grown to handle warmer, drier fields. Wheat to contain less gluten and pigs bred to esist deadly viruses. Someday, maybe even strawberry plants whose delicate berries can be picked by machine instead of by hand.

Ten years ago, such genetic changes would have been considered science-fiction — or so far off into the future of breeding as to be almost unimaginable.

However, gene editing, particularly with a tool called CRISPR-Cas9, has made it much easier and more efficient to tinker with the genomes of plants and animals.

The first CRISPR-edited products are to begin reaching the market this year, and researchers believe it is only a matter of time before US grocery shelves could be filled with gene-edited produce, grains and meat.

The technology would be subject to stringent health and environment review, as well as labeling requirements in the EU, but not in the US.

The US Department of Agriculture (USDA) in March last year issued a statement saying that it would not regulate crops whose genetic changes could have been produced with conventional breeding.

The European court of justice, by contrast, last summer ruled that gene-edited crops should be regulated as genetically modified organisms (GMOs).

The scientific challenges have been largely settled — or at least there is a clear path toward resolving them, scientists in the field have said.

However, political and social ones remain.

“The questions outstanding going forward are regulatory and PR and marketing and commercial launch — the things that matter the most, obviously, outside of the science,” said Rodolphe Barrangou, a distinguished professor at North Carolina State University and editor-in-chief of The CRISPR Journal.

CRISPR technology is still in its infancy. Short for “clustered regulatory interspersed short palindromic repeats,” CRISPR was first used in cells with a nucleus only six years ago. It takes advantage of the natural immune system of bacteria to make precise cuts in the target genome.

This can be used to delete a few letters, turning a gene off, or dialing it up or down, or it can force a change in the genetic alphabet, giving the plant or animal new functions.

It is not a perfect process, but it is much more precise and easier to work with than previous gene-editing techniques, scientists said.

Researchers said many of these new functions would be copied from nature, making, say, a greenhouse tomato as disease-resistant as a wild one without sacrificing flavor.

However, others could be entirely new — and likely to raise more concern.

Unlike genetic modification, gene editing does not require transgenics, the movement of gene from one species to another. So, if there are dangers to GMO foods — which some, but far from all scientists believe — gene editing that simply removes genes or copies sequences from similar species is likely to be safer.

Essentially, gene editing accomplishes what conventional breeding would, just more efficiently and more easily, said Zachary Lippman, an expert in the genetics of flowering plants at the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory on Long Island, New York.

“This is a tool that creates what nature could create on its own just never got around [to] or had the opportunity to create,” he said.

Comments will be moderated. Keep comments relevant to the article. Remarks containing abusive and obscene language, personal attacks of any kind or promotion will be removed and the user banned. Final decision will be at the discretion of the Taipei Times.

TOP top