A new technology is set to transform life as we know it. CRISPR, short for Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats, has revolutionized the field of biology by allowing scientists to edit genomes far more easily and quickly than in the past.
The potential uses of CRISPR are far-ranging and profound, beginning with better treatments for lung cancer, muscular dystrophy and high cholesterol and stretching all the way to wiping out mosquitos and enhancing human intelligence. Among these applications is in engineering better livestock and crops— an issue that will harken back to the public controversy over genetically-modified organisms (GMOs) that has brewed for over two decades. CRISPR will be able to do everything that transgenesis (how the first GM-crops were created) could do for agriculture and more, thanks to its precision, speed and low cost. Already, CRISPR has been used to create drought-resistant corn and a mushroom that does not brown as easily. In the future, the biological tool could pave the way for higher yielding, more sustainable agriculture— a necessity when the Earth’s changing climate and growing population will increasingly strain food systems. CRISPR could help make livestock and crops that are more productive, more resistant to infections and more tolerant to drought and heat. For scientific research to ever reach this point, however, it is essential we begin extensive, well-informed public discussion over the amazing promise, and potential risks, of CRISPR in agriculture.
This discussion begins with an honest evaluation of the technology and the nature of public opinion. No, CRISPR did not just end the controversy over GMOs, as some news sources claim. Just because the U.S. Department of Agriculture did not regulate the aforementioned gene-edited corn and mushroom plants as GMOs does not mean USDA regulations cannot change with pressure from the public. Current USDA regulations are playing catch-up with the lightning-fast proliferation of CRISPR and date back 20-30 years when transgenesis, or the insertion of foreign DNA into a living organism, was the primary form of genetic modification. The corn and mushroom plants escaped regulation because though their genomes were edited, they had portions deleted rather than foreign DNA inserted. Only the latter is defined by the USDA as a GMO and subject to strict control.
To the scientists cheering over the USDA decision: Lack of regulation says more about the speed of CRISPR’s advance and the public’s token interest in science than it is an indication of public support. In fact, most Americans know little about the technology. According to a July 2016 Pew Research survey, 90 percent of Americans have heard little or nothing about gene editing. Even among my Harvard colleagues, I found that few students outside of the science majors had ever heard of CRISPR. For the past few years, scientists have very much been living in a bubble when it comes to fascination and excitement over gene editing.
The public will not remain unaware, however. As CRISPR finds more uses and products begin to hit shelves (and in the not-so-distant future, doctor’s offices), consumers will want to learn more about the technology and question its ramifications. The key for gene-editing to avoid the GMO fiasco and obtain public trust will be for passionate scientists, thinkers and activists to teach the science, discuss legitimate fears and encourage the development of regulations in a field with real dangers. As many scientists and academics are beginning to realize, their research rarely speaks for itself. In the absence of efforts to explain their work, the vacuum will be filled with fear and distrust, conducive to nothing and helpful for no one.
There are definitely reasons to assume that CRISPR will be better received by the public than GMOs. When CRISPR is used solely to delete genes or shift its own genes around, the final product will be one that could have occurred in nature. This methodology is essentially keeping the best parts of an organism’s genome while deleting the worst, all of which could have occurred through natural mutations. This is unlike the use of transgenesis for GMOs, such as the addition of an eel gene into a salmon or a bacterial gene into corn, which likely would never have happened. Since people generally feel better about consuming so-called “natural” products compared to “unnatural” ones, CRISPR could have a public relations advantage in comparison to GMOs.
Still, resistance is already emerging against the idea of “natural” CRISPR products. In November 2016, the National Organic Standards Board unanimously voted to exclude ingredients created by next-generation gene editing, including CRISPR, from its U.S. organic standards for reasons similar to its justification for the Board’s ban on GMOs. It is hard to imagine avid organic consumers differentiating the two technologies given this ruling. To add to the confusion, CRISPR can also be used to add foreign DNA to a genome, much like traditional transgenic methods. If and when companies begin creating products through such a methodology, consumers will likely find it difficult to distinguish between different types of gene-editing.
A stronger reason CRISPR may be more accepted by the public is its usage in medicine. In the near future, CRISPR will likely be able to treat and prevent a wide host of debilitating diseases, saving millions of lives and improving many more. It could eliminate all mosquito-borne illnesses, allow easy access to healthy transplant organs and treat inheritable diseases like muscular dystrophy. If people attach strong emotional sentiments to CRISPR-produced therapeutics (think public opinion on penicillin or the polio vaccine), perhaps they will recognize the benefits CRISPR can bring to agriculture and be more accepting of eating gene-edited food. Since the benefit of a life saved or improved is more tangible than an x percent increase in crop yield or y percent decrease in agricultural water usage, acceptance of medicinal uses of CRISPR could be a driver of acceptance of agricultural uses of CRISPR more so than the other way around.
These are just hypotheses— ideas to think about and questions to ponder for the future. What is certain is that we need good discussion and effective regulation, now. While few would doubt the immense benefits CRISPR is likely to bring, few also would discount the possibility for abuse and undesirable outcomes. Scientists have written in numerous papers on the dangers of CRISPR and the need for national and international oversight. The Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard, whose researchers first harnessed CRISPR in 2013 and hold a patent on the technology, have several important restrictions for the use of CRISPR in commercial agricultural research. These include a prohibition on research to create sterile seeds (sometimes known as “terminator seeds”) and to modify tobacco for commercial purposes. Certainly good requirements for corporations, but in need of constant monitoring and effective enforcement.
This is where you come in. I encourage you to read more about CRISPR, share this article with your friends and family and discuss amongst yourselves what this groundbreaking technology means for the world. Be prepared for change!
For more background information, read this article.
Charles Pei is an undergraduate student at Harvard University studying Chemical and Physical Biology. As an analyst intern at the Food Integrity Campaign, he is spearheading research on the intersection between agriculture and climate change. He previously worked at the Joint U.S.-China Collaboration on Clean Energy (JUCCCE) and conducted award-winning biofuel research at The Ohio State University. He is very interested in the role technology will play in global problems and hopes to facilitate public discussion on key issue areas.