Something big happened in Europe last week: The EU’s top court has ruled that gene-edited plants and animals will be regulated under the same restrictions as GMOs. And while environmental protection groups are celebrating, many scientists say the landmark decision will have a devastating effect on research.
What is Gene-Editing?
Gene-editing technology has been touted as a major game changer in the biotech industry. It’s called CRISPR genome editing, and its goal is to create resilient plant and animal varieties while also developing treatments for several human diseases.
Here’s how it works: something called the CRISPR Cas9 protein cuts the DNA of a cell in a specific place. When the damage is repaired, some of the DNA letters change — a transition that can be used to disable non-desirable genes.
The biotech world has been incredibly excited about its research into CRISPR and the possibilities it presents. It’s been around for about a decade, and scientists have been working tirelessly to make it work for us in very real ways. Some of the projects include the following:
- Creating malaria-resistant mosquitoes to stop the spread of the deadly disease.
- Creating an unlimited supply of transplant organs; scientists believe gene-editing pigs could make them suitable donors for humans.
- Creating more efficient crops; some research suggests gene-editing could improve some crops’ water efficiency by 25% without affecting yields.
- Creating heat-resistant cows to produce top-quality beef while also coping with rising temperatures.
- Finding a cure for ALS; researchers have found gene-editing helped them disable the defective gene which causes the debilitating disease in mice.
Despite the promising initiatives sparked by gene-editing technology, there has been a serious debate in Europe over the past 10 years about what defines a genetically modified food. Many scientists and plant breeders argue gene-editing does not at all fall into the GMO category since no foreign DNA is inserted into cells. They say it’s mutagenesis, and should, therefore, be exempt from the rules governing GMOs.
On the flip side, a recent study of mice and human cells by the Wellcome Sanger Institute in the UK found that CRISPR causes deletions or rearrangements more than 100 DNA letters long — sometimes even thousands of letters long. There are, of course, possible health risks associated with those mutations, serious ones at that. The findings only added fuel to the fire of those against GMOs. Many groups say gene-editing involves deliberate alterations to DNA, and so the technology must be heavily regulated.
The Court Rules
The EU’s top court gave environmentalists the victory they were looking for last week. In their ruling, the judges said, “organisms obtained by mutagenesis are GMOs within the meaning of the GMO Directive, in so far as the techniques and methods of mutagenesis alter the genetic material of an organism in a way that does not occur naturally.”
Put very simply, the ruling means that gene-edited crops will be subject to the same strict rules as conventional GMOs. All new inventions, including CRISPR-Cas9 food, will have to submit to the EU’s lengthy approval process.
‘Green’ agencies are applauding the decision, saying the court has prioritized human and environmental health. But it’s a major blow to Europe’s biotech industry, obviously disappointing many plant-breeders, scientists, and companies such as Dow, Dupont, and Monsanto. One Swedish plant physiologist told the Nature International Journal of Science he expects the move to have a “chilling effect on research” and that funding for various projects will likely vanish.
Researchers had hoped gene-editing technology could be used to alter cells to eliminate human diseases, or to create hardier plants and animals. So many others see nothing wrong with airing on the side of caution and knowing more about what we’re doing before literally changing our DNA structure.
The verdict may be in, but there’s certainly no end to this debate.
And in case you’re wondering, the USDA has announced it has no plans to regulate gene-edited plants or crops.
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