Rethinking the Value of Gene Editing

British newspaper, the Guardian, reports that Gideon Henderson, chief scientist at the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, has called for a renewed debate on biotechnology, the science of gene editing of crops and animals. This is a highly controversial topic throughout the world. 

Henderson notes that “extensive public discussion” effectively ended in the 1990s when the world was hit by a fear of ‘Frankenfoods’, or foods edited with the genes of other species. Fears grew even stronger as companies such as Monsanto publicly envisaged worlds in which they could control the food chain and force farmers to buy expensive weedkiller and seeds from them. The ability of GM crops to cross-pollinate with conventional crops or wild plants and contaminate them, only made the public discourse even more anti-biotech. Thanks to EU directives put in place in 1996 and 2001, only a handful of GM crops can be cultivated in the EU, with many member states instituting domestic GM restrictions which largely remain to this day. Developing countries were forced to follow suit, for fear of being locked out of the EU market. 

Anti-GM sentiment remains high, even though the science suggests that GM foods are not harmful. Indeed, studies show that the people most opposed to GM crops know the least about the science but think they know the most. 

Since the 1990s, there has been a revolution in gene editing, the emergence of CRISPS-Cas9 technology. The technology, developed by Emmanuelle Charpentier and Jennifer A Doudna, is often referred to as a “genetic scissors” because it allows for precise changes to be made to DNA, with a level of accuracy that was simply unimaginable in the 1990s. The whole process is akin to cutting and pasting on electronic documents. 

The CRISPR-Cas9 system is faster, cheaper, and more precise than any other gene editing tool and its effect has been felt across clinical medicine, biomedical research, agriculture and society at large. The technology’s potential to treat or even prevent disease has garnered a lot of excitement, and often controversy regarding attempts to create ”CRISPR babies”.  

We are edging toward a future where prosthodontic services may involve gene-editing treatment to regrow teeth: gene selection is getting closer, after an epoch in which gene selection was the process of several decades of selective breeding.

Unfortunately, as the Guardian notes, there is a rupture between what science says and what people believe. Where scientists are clear about the distinction between gene editing and gene modification -where genes from different species are mixed in ways that would not occur outside a lab-, European law has prevented the development of gene-edited crops, bringing them under the same legal framework as GM crops. This, according to scientists like Henderson, is a mistake. 

The confusion comes at a price for humanity: gene editing allows us to use the incredible biodiversity of crop species to conduct gene selection to improve crop yield, adaptation to environmental changes and develop new species. Yet, in many jurisdictions, the law has prevented the utilization of this technology.