As the world becomes ever more concerned with sustainability, scientists are starting to use gene-editing tools like CRISPR and TALEN to modify animals and crops.
Like genetic modification, gene-editing allows us to alter an organism’s DNA for benefits like faster growth and improved nutritional content.
According to the US National Academy of Sciences, these improvements are necessary if we expect to feed the world while reducing our impact on climate change.
Specific gene-editing projects include:
- Wheat with low gluten content
- Mushrooms that don’t turn brown when cut
- Corn that can withstand drought
- Rice that won’t absorb pollution
- Pigs with virus immunities
- Coffee that grows without caffeine
These projects are moving very slowly in order to catch “off-target edits” or unexpected changes that could affect an animal’s health or alter a crop’s nutritional content.
“We’re kind of being overly cautious,” says North Carolina State University geneticist Jennifer Kuzma. “Most gene-edited plants and animals are probably going to be just fine to eat. But you’re only going to do yourself a disservice in the long run if you hide behind the terminology.”
The first gene-edited food (canola) went on the market this year, and more will be introduced in early 2019. As of now, these products don’t have to be labeled like GMOs because they do not contain foreign DNA.
In 2016, Congress passed a law requiring the uniform labeling of all food products continuing GMOs. Unfortunately, the labels seemed to make consumers believe the products were unsafe.
“If the consumer sees the benefit, I think they’ll embrace the products and worry less about the technology,” says University of Minnesota professor Dan Voytas, referring to gene-edited foods. Voytas works for Calyxt Inc., which is using gene-editing to remove trans fat from soybean oil.
As Calyxt CEO Federico Tripodi, the public’s distrust of GMOs is in part “due to a perception that these products are unnatural and developed for the benefit of large corporations, not consumers.” But at the same time, “there are growing numbers of consumers with health-related fears, such as diabetes, obesity, and food allergies that directly impact their food choices.”
Aside from public opinion, another key factor in the success of gene-edited foods will be international cooperation.
Thanks to trade, international regulations will be “the most important factor in whether gene-editing technologies are commercialized,” explains USDA’s Paul Spencer.
Lawmakers in Europe have already decided that existing restrictions on GMOs should apply to gene-edited foods as well. Earlier this month, the US joined 12 other countries in the opinion that the world should adopt internationally consistent rules for gene-edited foods.
What’s the difference between gene-editing and genetic modification?
GMOs are plants and animals whose DNA has been mixed with that of another species. A majority of scientists agree that GMOs are completely safe.
Examples of GMOs include:
- Tomatoes that are bigger and more resistant to decay
- Rice and soybeans that resist pests
GMOs have been on the market since 1994.
By comparison, gene-editing is a new technology that allows researchers to remove certain pieces of DNA in order to control traits. You can think of it like rearranging the letters of an organism’s genetic alphabet.
Gene-editing is faster and cheaper than genetic modification, and it doesn’t always require foreign DNA.
Using gene-editing, New York scientist Zachary Lippman was able to create tomato plants that produce twice the number of tomatoes. “There’s a long way to go, but what we have been able to do in the last four or five years is unbelievable,” says Lippman. “It’s science fiction.”
An example of gene-editing that does include foreign DNA is the effort to prevent Holstein cattle from growing horns.
Horns are typically removed for safety concerns, but the process was condemned by the Human Society in 2007 after it was found that less than 20% of farms used anesthesia.
A company called Recombinetics Inc. is mixing DNA from Angus cattle (which don’t grow horns) with that of Holstein cattle to prevent the latter species from growing horns.
“We are still working with everything that nature has provided,” says Lippman. “With traditional breeding, whatever traits nature has kicked out of the DNA, that’s the hand you have been played…With gene editing, now you are playing poker with aces up your sleeve.”
According to Kuzma, about 20 gene-edited products will enter the US market during the next five years. In the meantime, geneticists are looking at ways they can improve crops – like cassava – that are important in poor countries.
“We think it’s really going to revolutionize the industry.”