Podcast: Treating blindness with CRISPR; customized cancer drugs; Beyond Meat v. critics; saving bananas from extinction

, | March 11, 2020
This article or excerpt is included in the GLP’s daily curated selection of ideologically diverse news, opinion and analysis of biotechnology innovation.

For the first time ever, CRISPR has been used to edit DNA inside a living human being. Scientists have also tapped the gene-editing tool to accelerate DNA sequencing in hopes of customizing cancer treatments. Plant-based burger startup Beyond Meat blasts critics who claim its products are ‘ultra-processed.’ Genetic engineering may save the world’s favorite banana from extinction. But how does the public feel about all this genetic tinkering?

On this episode of Science Facts & Fallacies, plant geneticist Kevin Folta and GLP editor Cameron English go beyond the headlines to break down the latest developments from the world of genetics and biotechnology.

Can CRISPR gene editing save the Cavendish banana from extinction?

The Cavendish banana—that delicious, yellow tropical fruit currently populating the produce sections of our grocery stores—may not be available for much longer. A fungal disease known as Tropical Race 4 (TR-4) is wreaking havoc on banana plantations across South America, threatening to wipe out the Cavendish for good. TR-4 spreads rapidly and isn’t easily controlled with pesticide applications. That’s why scientists are working feverishly to immunize the banana by cutting a segment of DNA out of its genome that makes it susceptible to TR-4.

Bananas by Steve Hopson
Credit: Steve Hopson

More precise cancer treatments may be possible by pairing CRISPR with genetic sequencing

Researchers at Johns Hopkins School of Medicine have used CRISPR to rapidly sequence particular genes involved in the development of breast cancer, eliminating the DNA replication process usually required for genome sequencing. The development could enable the selection of customized cancer drugs that treat the disease based on the genetic makeup of individual patients.

Beyond Meat goes ‘on the offensive,’ blasting critics who claim plant-based burgers are ultra-processed

Plant-based burgers have been a hit with consumers so far, achieving nearly a $1 billion in sales in 2019. This development has made the meat industry nervous, and they’ve launched expensive marketing campaigns to dissuade the public from chowing down on the beef-free alternatives. The industry’s biggest criticism: plant-based meats are “ultra-processed,” and presumably less nutritious than traditional burgers.

Related article:  Animal proteins from GMO microbes: More synthetic food ingredients to launch in 2021

Beyond Meat, maker of the wildly popular Beyond Burger, is having none of this. The company announced in early March it was going “on the offensive” to counter the marketing assault on its products, arguing that plant-based foods may actually be healthier than meat in some cases.

Targeting blindness with CRISPR: Doctors attempt first editing of genes inside a human body

Gene editing has yielded dozens of important medical treatments for deadly diseases, including cancers like leukemia and lymphoma. Typically, doctors extract immune cells from a patient, edit their DNA, then infuse them back into the person’s body to attack the disease. Scientists have now taken this approach a step further by injecting a virus carrying the instructions to produce CRISPR-Cas9 directly into a patient’s eye, where it is expected to edit out a mutation involved in Leber congenital amaurosis, a genetic condition that causes blindness. Will this groundbreaking procedure work? Is it safe?

Follow the latest news and policy debates on agricultural biotech and biomedicine? Subscribe to our newsletter.

Infographic: What the US public thinks about tinkering with human genetics

As all this genetic engineering work begins reshaping intimate aspects of our lives, scientists and policy makers are eager to find out how consumers feel about the technology. Is the public on board, or do they fear a loss of human control? Both.

A majority of people surveyed by Pew (60%) said genetic engineering should be used to prevent serious diseases and produce organs for people who need them (57%), but they were also concerned about using the technology to enhance human performance. 69 percent, for example, said implanting brain chips to improve memory and information processing would be a step too far.

Kevin M. Folta is a professor in the Horticultural Sciences Department at the University of Florida. Follow Professor Folta on Twitter @kevinfolta

Cameron J. English is the GLP’s senior agricultural genetics and special projects editor. BIO. Follow him on Twitter @camjenglish

The GLP featured this article to reflect the diversity of news, opinion and analysis. The viewpoint is the author’s own. The GLP’s goal is to stimulate constructive discourse on challenging science issues.

Outbreak Daily Digest
Biotech Facts & Fallacies
Talking Biotech
Genetics Unzipped
sperm swim

Video: Sperm are ‘spinners not swimmers’—because they are lopsided

Research by fertility scientists in the UK and Mexico challenges the accepted view of how sperm “swim”, suggesting that it ...
mag insects image superjumbo v

Disaster interrupted: Which farming system better preserves insect populations: Organic or conventional?

A three-year run of fragmentary Armageddon-like studies had primed the journalism pumps and settled the media framing about the future ...
dead bee desolate city

Are we facing an ‘Insect Apocalypse’ caused by ‘intensive, industrial’ farming and agricultural chemicals? The media say yes; Science says ‘no’

The media call it the “Insect Apocalypse”. In the past three years, the phrase has become an accepted truth of ...
breastfeeding bed x facebook x

Infographic: We know breastfeeding helps children. Now we know it helps mothers too

When a woman becomes pregnant, her risk of type 2 diabetes increases for the rest of her life, perhaps because ...
biotechnology worker x

Can GMOs rescue threatened plants and crops?

Some scientists and ecologists argue that humans are in the midst of an "extinction crisis" — the sixth wave of ...
food globe x

Are GMOs necessary to feed the world?

Experts estimate that agricultural production needs to roughly double in the coming decades. How can that be achieved? ...
eating gmo corn on the cob x

Are GMOs safe?

In 2015, 15 scientists and activists issued a statement, "No Scientific consensus on GMO safety," in the journal Environmental Sciences ...
Screen Shot at PM

Charles Benbrook: Agricultural economist and consultant for the organic industry and anti-biotechnology advocacy groups

Independent scientists rip Benbrook's co-authored commentary in New England Journal calling for reassessment of dangers of all GMO crops and herbicides ...
Screen Shot at PM

ETC Group: ‘Extreme’ biotechnology critic campaigns against synthetic biology and other forms of ‘extreme genetic engineering’

The ETC Group is an international environmental non-governmental organization (NGO) based in Canada whose stated purpose is to monitor "the impact of emerging technologies and ...
Share via
News on human & agricultural genetics and biotechnology delivered to your inbox.
Optional. Mail on special occasions.
Send this to a friend