The next genetically modified food you eat probably won’t be a GMO.
At least not in the conventional sense of the term, which stands for genetically modified organism.
It will probably be made using Crispr, a new technique that lets scientists precisely tweak the DNA of produce so that it can do things like survive drought or avoid turning brown.
On Thursday, the agriculture giant Monsanto nabbed the licensing rights to the technology from the Broad Institute to use in its seed development. This is the first license the institute has issued to a company for use in agriculture. (The agriculture giant DuPont Pioneer, on the other hand, is collaborating with another science company, called Caribou Biosciences, to license its own Crispr crops, including corn.)
Using Crispr, an agriculture company can get around the restrictions on GMOs and, they hope, the opposition to them – because a crop altered using Crispr isn’t technically a GMO at all.
Harvard geneticist George Church thinks crops like these might be our best hope for ending the war against GMOs, which he and dozens of other experts call misguided, once and for all.
“It’s a beautiful thing,” Church recently told Business Insider.
The US Department of Agriculture seems to agree, as does Monsanto. The USDA has already moved two crops made with Crispr – a type of mushroom and a type of corn – closer to grocery store shelves by opting not to regulate them like conventional GMOs. DuPont, the company making the corn, says it plans to see the crop in farmers’ fields in the next five years.
When a GMO is not a GMO
What makes these crops not GMOs, you might ask? It all comes down to the method that scientists use to tweak their genes. And Crispr is a far more precise method of modifying genes than scientists have had access to.
Instead of relying on the genetic engineering people are referring to when they talk about GMOs, which involves swapping a plant’s genes with chunks of DNA from another organism such as a bacterium, Crispr allows scientists to simply swap out a letter or two of the plant’s genetic code (composed of nucleotides denoted by the letters A, G, C, and T) and replace it with another one that, say, would prevent the crop from turning brown.
“Changing a G to an A is very different from bringing a gene from a bacteria into a plant,” Church said.
At the center of the department’s decision not to subject the new crops to its rules is the fact that the Crispr-edited crops don’t contain any “introduced genetic material” or foreign DNA, which is what most GMOs are made with.
This could mean that everything we know about genetically modified food is about to change.
“DuPont views the USDA’s confirmation as an important first step toward clarifying the US regulatory landscape and the development of seed products with Crispr technology,” Neal Gutterson, DuPont Pioneer’s vice president of research and development, told Business Insider in an email.
A world of Crispr crops?
Teams of researchers across the globe are working on developing more crops made with Crispr, and experts say the USDA’s recent decision is a promising development.
“If USDA decides the first product does not require regulation, that would definitely be encouraging for the many people already using Crispr,” Joyce Van Eck, an assistant professor at the Boyce Thompson Institute, told the Genetic Expert News Service in April, shortly before the USDA made its decision.
Crispr was introduced in 2013 as a genome-editing tool in a couple of common laboratory plants, including a weed called arabidopsis and a tobacco plant. Since then researchers have experimented with it in a number of crops, including oranges, potatoes, wheat, rice, and tomatoes.
“By the end of 2014, a flood of research into agricultural uses for Crispr included a spectrum of applications, from boosting crop resistance to pests to reducing the toll of livestock disease,” Maywa Montenegro wrote in January in the science magazine Ensia.
Of course, Church would prefer that people embrace GMOs as they are now, since numerous scientists have determined they are safe. After all, he said, Americans have embraced GMOs in other things like clothing. (More than 80% of the cotton that goes into things like T-shirts is genetically modified.)
“I hope people wake up one day and realize, ‘Hey, almost everything is GM’ – it’s in the air, on our bodies, in our medicine. Maybe we can get over the GM foods controversy,” Church said.
Until then, we have Crispr.