GMOs are history but not the way you think!

Ever heard of CRISPR–Cas9 or CRISPR, pronounced crisper as it is shortened down to? No? Neither had I until a blog I follow talked about a new variety of ground cherry developed using CRISPR technology.
CRISPR is the newest form of genetic engineering. Unlike GMO engineering, it does not insert a gene from another organism into a target plant. It deletes, inserts or replaces a DNA sequence. Hence the word indel (which first shows up in Wiki in May 2010).
CRISPR/CAS9 involves changing/altering original base pair arrangements within the genome of an organism.
Nonetheless, according to Court of Justice of the European Union, the result is a genetically altered plant which is subject to the same stringent regulations as conventional genetically modified (GM) organisms.
CRISPR organisms are not likely to be the lightening rod that GMO organisms are. In the case, of ground cherries, scientists took a wild, rambling plant with a delicious fruit and made the wild rambling vines into a more compact, an easier growth habit to deal with. They got more flowers and more fruit. They’ve also made the fruits noticeably larger. In the future, they want to target genes associated with sugar. Also, they want to alter the plant’s habit of dropping ripe fruit on the ground, which creates both a harvesting challenge and a food safety hazard.
This could have been done by the traditional selective breeding process but would have taken years and maybe not at all. It’s very tempting to say that CRISPR is just a faster version but it’s not. It is manipulating the gene structure of an organism to produce a new organism.
Q: Does the new organism have health impacts?
A: We don’t know.
Q: Does the new organism have environmental impacts?
A: We don’t know.
Will we wait to find out? Not likely since, it’s already been shown to deal with some of the disease problems of rice, wheat, corn, potatoes, cotton, sorghum, soy, and brassicas (cabbage, broccoli, cauliflower, kale, Brussels sprouts, collard greens, savoy, kohlrabi).
And then there’s yellow dragon citrus greening which threatens all citrus globally and has no treatment to combat this bacterial disease apart from removing and destroying entire trees if infected. If CRISPR could provide a solution by targeting the bacteria that causes the disease and/or the insect that spreads the disease, is that desirable? Maybe and maybe not. How long will it take to find out if there are health or environmental impacts? What specific questions do you ask? Look how long it has taken to get to the current assessment of the impact of neonicotinoids on bees. And that was a much clearer cause and effect situation.
From the immediately above reference article,

Gene editing is cheaper, faster and far less controversial than traditional genetic modification, the Clemson researchers argued in support of the study.

“Previous efforts to create new HLB … resistant (citrus trees) focused on conventional breeding or development of transgenic plants,” the Clemson researchers noted. “Unfortunately, the approaches used in those projects are inadequate to meet the current crisis because of the lack of sources of resistance in citrus and time constraints associated with citrus breeding. Furthermore, genetic engineering presents many regulatory and public acceptance obstacles for transgenic citrus.”

Approval of new GMO traits developed with traditional genetic modification involves a complex regulatory process that can take years. Those regulatory barriers, for the most part, do not yet apply to gene-edited plants.

“The CRISPR-engineered citrus plants do not include foreign genes and are currently not restricted in the U.S.” the researchers said.

Whereas scientists traditionally add genetic material to produce genetically modified plants, the gene-editing process generally removes material.

If USDA’s Biotechnology Regulatory Services is convinced that no new material is being added to plants – as is generally the case in most genetically modified plants – it allows scientists to do their work without going through years of supervised test planting.

Can CRISPR Feed the World? That was also the question asked about GMO’s and we know where that led.  So is it the same thing.  In one very critical way, NO.  This is not a Monsanto story yet and it may never be but  one company controls the patent rights to the technology:

Since CRISPR is patented by the Broad Institute, any produce created using it can’t be sold unless the scientists behind it pay the hundreds of thousands of dollars for the right to use it.

“As researchers we benefit from the fact that we don’t have to pay up front to use this technology, which is wonderful, it’s such a powerful tool, but once we start talking commercialization, the cost of licensing just about knocked me off my chair,” says Van Eck.

and there’s already been a patent fight.

Q: So what’s the final word?

A: Stay tuned (and follow the money)

Since researchers filed the original CRISPR-Cas9 patents, the fast-paced field of CRISPR biology has moved on. Researchers have since discovered new enzymes to replace Cas9, and modified the CRISPR-Cas9 system to manipulate the genome in many ways, from editing individual DNA letters to activating gene expression.

Although CRISPR-Cas9 is still often the preferred CRISPR variety for researchers in both industry and academia, other systems may grow in popularity as scientists gain more experience with them. “This is still an incredibly important case for the present,” says Sherkow. “But it may not be an incredibly important case for the future.”


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