or 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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