Does CRISPR gene editing = GMO? Biotechnology skeptics may split on how to regulate New Breeding Technologies


Are you ready for GMO labeling 2.0? The term “genetically modified organism” has never made sense as a designation for food using ingredients grown from seeds engineered using transgenic procedures; genetic engineering is a process not an end point. Now that confusion could be compounded if opponents of biotechnology succeed in efforts to have products made through various genet editing (GE) techniques categorized legally as genetically modified (GM).

Gene editing using the CRISPR-Cas9 system is one example of a high tech tool for applications from food production to insect-borne disease control whose future will depend on GE terminology usage develops.

In common usage, and in terms of regulations, “genetically modified (GM)” is equated with transgenic—altering the genome of a plant with a gene donated from a different species, with the donated species being plant, animal, fungal or microbial. This why the term “foreign DNA” is often used when talking about transgenics, although that word is technically incorrect, as many genes are shared all living species.

But a plant also can be engineered to express its own genes differently than how they are commonly expressed. One example of this is RNA interference (RNAi); this is the technique used to create the Simplot potato so it does not easily bruise, produce acrylamide on heating, or involve the insertion of additional genes into its genome. But anti-GM critiques refer to it as a “GMO” and a candidate for proposed GMO labels. They are lobbying the European Commission (EC) with the goal of bringing about a European ruling to classify new breeding technologies (NBT) and CRISPR edited sterile insects as GMOs, which would effectively ban them. Here is Greenpeace’s rationale:

The European Commission is considering whether genetically modified organisms GMOs) [sic] that have been produced through a range of new techniques should be excluded from the European Union’s GMO regulations. Biotechnology companies want to apply these techniques to engineer plants and animals for use in industrial food, biomass and biofuel production. They argue that these new methods to directly modify the genetic make-up of living organisms fall outside the scope of EU GMO regulations. This would mean that there is no risk assessment, labeling and monitoring of GM organisms produced by the new techniques and their derived products. The Commission has announced that it will present a legal analysis on the matter by the end of March 2016.

But with fierce lobbying on both sides of the issue, EC has stalled on announcing its ruling.

Gene drives to combat insect populations

Concerns of NGOs are based on a valid point that powerful technologies, such as CRISPR genome editing, could present grave dangers if they are used irresponsibly or before adequate research is done to ensure that the repercussions can be reasonably understand. There is great caution about human germ line for this very reason. We’re not there yet, but we may be soon.

Another potential application of genome editing that has been cited as a potential example of biotechnology misuse is the use of gene drives to thwart insect-borne disease. A CRISPR-powered gene drive can be forced into a population by introducing a genetic sequence that drives the gene with its altered traits through successive. With populations of mosquitos that carry malaria, dengue, and Zika, a relatively small population of genetically altered sterile mosquitos can be introduced that not only provide immunity against an infectious agent–the Plasmodium parasite that causes malaria, for instance–but if received by offspring on a chromosome from one parent, copies itself to the adjacent, homologous chromosome. While it sounds as though it could only be used for good, there is concern that such a system could disrupt a biosystem. To address this, gene drive researchers are developing eraser programs, also delivered using CRISPR-Cas9, that could essentially turn off or even reverse the first drive that was introduced.

These new technologies may split what has come to be known as the “anti-biotech” movement: one faction is likely to continue to oppose new biotechnology applications, using the GMO stigma and using for precautionary laws to restrict research and utilization. They will be driven by ideology even at the expense of improved sustainability. Other, more science focused critics, might begin to view next generation genetically engineered products through a lens that is significantly more nuance.

Recently, some proponents of organic farming have been making distinctions between precision breeding techniques, such as RNAi and CRISPR-Cas9 applications and techniques that involve “foreign DNA”, because they see sustainability value in high tech procedures. that might ultimately be adopted as organic certified.

David Warmflash is an astrobiologist, physician and science writer. Follow @CosmicEvolution to read what he is saying on Twitter.

  • david hockney

    How much do you pay to get this stuff picked up by Google news? I wish you wouldn’t because I’m sick of reading your industry sponsored drivel. And you trying to pretend it is unbiased. Nobody is fooled.

    • agscienceliterate

      We will sure miss you. You betcha.

  • Robert Howd

    It will be very interesting to see where this goes in the EU, since some of the newer products are definitely worthwhile. In a marketing sense, I can’t see the EU agreeing to be left out of these new developments for very long.

  • Brian

    The genetic manipulation of mosquitoes being pondered is a potential extinction level event. Not exaggerating in the slightest. IT CAN KILL US ALL. render us extinct. Read on. From MIT, the Massachusetts Institution of Technology, a world renowned science center. ”

    The Extinction Invention

    A genetic technology that can kill off mosquito species could eradicate malaria. But is it too risky to ever use?”

    “This meant that with CRISPR, even a two-person team could, in theory, change an entire species. ” “change” including exterminate an entire species. ANY species. Really.

    Add natural gene hopping between species and we are really asking for it.

    This is new stuff, folks, super dangerous, no weapons have even threatened us like this.

    • IJR

      Yes potatoes are scary.

      • Brian

        They will be now.

        • agscienceliterate

          “….in theory….” “…could…..”
          And from that highly speculative language, you come up with “super dangerous”?
          Hey, Brian, did you take any science or statistics classes in high school or college? Any critical thinking classes?

          • Brian

            Gosh, do you know what gene drive is? nope. Do you understand that viruses and bacteria can spread to population? I guess not. DO you understand the gene jump species in the wild, particularly to bacteria? DO you know that many GMO process use a antibiotic resistant bacteria as part of the process? nope.

            In theory could and with the whole planet full of these things, eventually will. But let’s risk it because Monsanto needs more profits.

            Did you even read the article I linked to? seriously what do you think you are doing?

          • agscienceliterate

            Yup, read the article. Yawn.
            I repeat my question, about you jumping from those highly speculative assertions to your own conclusion based on squat, that this technology is “super dangerous.”
            “In theory…” plus conspiracy mindsets can lead you into all kinds of unlikely paradigm thinking.

          • Brian

            Did you notice they didn’t read it and are already attacking MIT as a source, seriously? The GMO folks are know liars in the media.

          • Michael McCarthy

            Brian Brian • 13 hours ago
            Did you notice they didn’t read it and are already attacking MIT as a source, seriously? The GMO folks are know liars in the media.

            schizophrenia is real, seek help

          • Michael McCarthy

            “DO you understand the gene jump species in the wild, particularly to bacteria? “
            Genes do not “jump”. Bacteria and viruses have the ability to insert genes into a host, and bacteria can also exchange plasmid DNA. There is, however, no known mechanism for DNA exchange from a plant to a bacteria or virus nor between unrelated plant species (with the exception of two instances in a parasite/host relationship).
            “DO you know that many GMO process use a antibiotic resistant bacteria as part of the process?”
            This old trope again? An antibiotic resistance marker is sometimes used during the insertion process but are removed during outcross.

        • IJR

          ooga booga!

          • Brian

            Label it.

          • agscienceliterate

            Obama signed a labeling bill.

          • Brian

            You will believe anything.

            Why the GMO Labeling Bill Obama Just Signed Into Law Is a Sham—and a National Embarrassment

          • agscienceliterate

            Ah, as I thought. “Label it” really means, to you, labeling it in a specific way that is sought after by anti-GE activists who have a political agenda to push. Anything else is a “sham” in your mind. Guess you need to try harder on getting a labeling law through that will meet your specifications. Not gonna happen.

            And seriously, Brian — is your go-to for information? Seriously? You proved my point.

          • Brian

            Gosh labeling it as containing GMO materials. Is that do hard to understand? Did your lawyers give you a more sophisticated answer that someone ends up meaning you don’t really label it all all?

          • agscienceliterate

            Of course you distain the labeling initiative which was passed by Congress and signed by the president. It doesn’t contain the specific exact misleading wording that you cited above, and you guys are well known for your “my way or the highway” approach to labeling.
            Labeling for a singular specific process, and leaving off other processes like mutagenesis, doesn’t tell the consumer anything about nutrition, allergenicity, or other essentials that are the fundamental purpose of labels in the first place. In the last four statewide ballot elections on this topic, voters rejected labeling wording that you activists proposed, “containing GMOs,” solely to satisfy activists’ political agendas in California, Oregon, Washington, and Colorado. Every single labeling initiative would have confused voters bye exempting thousands of foods that are genetically modified, and would’ve required labeling foods as GE that were not GE.
            You are kicking a dead horse. But then again, you activists always have.

          • IJR

            CRISPR is not GMO.

          • Brian

            Yes it is. you don’t even know that. incredible.

          • IJR

            Read the article then take two weeks off and quit.

        • IJR

          To Luddites

    • Brian

      Ain’t it funny when the GMO people claim we are the liars?

      The GMO pesticide industry has a terrible history of AstroTurf, lies and bought research. Remember Kevin Folta? The GMO/pesticde/antibiotic industry has no credibility, and everyone who promotes it should disbelieved. Some 80%+ of the GMO/pesticide/antibiotic chemical farming research is paid for by the industry. Funding biases results.

      It is the very depth of the lies told by the The GMO/pesticde/antibiotic industry that reveals the deceptions.

      • agscienceliterate

        All anti-science activist propaganda, including the Folta witch hunt.
        Brian, bro, there isn’t any use bothering to provide you with scientific info and links, because you double-down on the woo diatribes and misinformation. As Farmer Sue, who used to post here, says, “Your mind is slammed shut tighter than a hog’s ass at fly time.”
        So, the only solution is for you to stick to organic. Stick to non-GMO certified. The very best foods for you. Stay far away from GE foods.

    • Brian

      Isn’t amazing that the GMO folks will just send out the pr folks to flat out deny that for GMO? Of course this whole site is astro turf and their whole point is to sell GMO food even if they have to deny it is GMO.

      From the MIT aritlce: “Bier and Gantz had used Cas9, the DNA-slicing molecule becoming famous for its role in the gene-editing technology called CRISPR. The virtue of Cas9 is that it’s easily directed to snip open any DNA sequence you like. So they’d added Cas9 to the fruit fly genome and told it where to cut.”

      From this article “In common usage, and in terms of regulations, “genetically modified (GM)” is equated with transgenic—altering the genome of a plant with a gene donated from a different species, with the donated species being plant, animal, fungal or microbial. This why the term “foreign DNA” is often used when talking about transgenics, although that word is technically incorrect, as many genes are shared all living species.” Ya see how they are pretending it’s not GMO? start with a straw man, works every time.

      • Twan

        GMO is a regulatory term. In the EU GMO are defined as: “organisms, with the exception of human beings, in which the genetic material (DNA) has been altered in a way that does not occur naturally by mating and/or natural recombination”.
        Discovery of agrobacterium genes in sweet potato (
        showed how artificial that definition was as accordingly all transformations obtained by Infiltration with agrobacteria should now be considered “natural”. CRISR CAS9 is even worse as it can induce single Point mutations indistinguisable from natural Events.

        Therefore Greenpeace and green parties urge the EU to adopt their definition of a GMO:
        “it is only the process, not the resulting organism, that determines whether an organism is a GMO. It is irrelevant whether the intended genetic alteration could also arise from mutations that are induced by chemicals or radiation, or occur spontaneously. It is also irrelevant whether the inserted genetic material it is present in the final product”
        Your interpretation of a GMO does not exclude CRISPR CAS, unintentionally admitting hat under conditions it can generate non-GMO products. I know this is hair-splitting but that’s the discussion on GMO.

  • IJR

    CRISPR sounds great. It will probably make the anti-GMO people nuttier.