Back in June, the EU court came out with its highly anticipated ruling on gene-edited organisms. You might have heard of gene-editing, as specifically the CRISPR technology has been making headlines, not only due to its huge potential for biotechnology, but also due to the – now settled – high-stake patent dispute between its inventors. This article is not about the patent-war, but concerns itself about the huge potential of the technology, and how the current EU court ruling might affect the future prospects of the technology.
Briefly, CRISPR (or more correctly CRISPR-CAS9) is one of many newly developed gene-editing tools used to manipulate single nucleic acids of the DNA chains that makes up the genetic code of all living things. I won’t cover the technical aspects, as they have been excellently detailed elsewhere. However, it is important to reiterate the basics, which is that gene-editing is fundamentally different to transgene technologies – i.e. taking a gene from one organism and transplanting it into another, thereby creating the infamous GMOs (short for genetically modified organisms). Gene-editing does not insert foreign DNA into the existing DNA, but rather precisely cuts out nucleic acids from the existing DNA.
It is generally believed that gene-editing can provide similar beneficial traits to an organism, but without the popular concerns associated with GMOs (e.g. increased risk of cancer, infertility and accelerated aging). Which is why scientists, plant breeders and medical doctors have heralded gene-editing as a critical tool to not only provide food security for our rapidly growing global population, but also enabling the treatment of genetic disorders and diseases which before has been completely off-limits for pharmaceutical science. Unfortunately, the ruling of the EU court imposes the same restrictions on gene-editing as they do on transgene technologies and GMOs, thereby effectively curbing any application of the gene-editing technology outside of research laboratories.
I fear that it is the same fear-mongering and irrational arguments that dominated the debate on GMOs, that have now spilled over into the gene-editing debate, without thoroughly assessing the merits of the new technologies. Indeed there seem to be many similar trends between the campaigns against GMOs and gene-editing. Interestingly, the opposition seems to be predominantly targeted against multinational corporations such as Monsanto, rather than arguments against the concrete science. In order to have a proper debate about the technology and its potential uses, it is paramount that we disentangle the science and technology from the organisations using it, and their possibly dubious agendas.
Admittedly, the use-case for conventional GMOs seems rather limited, and unconsolable with the idea of sustainable agriculture. The current applications of conventional GMOs are dominated by herbicide resistant crops, which allow the farmer to deploy large amounts of herbicide on their fields without damaging their crops. However, I would argue that there are much broader use-cases for the technology, which have effectively been hampered by the strict regulation that is required to put a GMO crop on the market. These regulations have led to the current dead water of innovation, and effectively monopolized the technology for the huge corporations that have the resources to lift the regulatory burden.
My hope for gene-editing, had been that this would be a new chance to develop innovative solutions to important problems; something that is best done from the bottom-up, i.e. university spin-outs and biotech start-ups that are pushing the limits of our current knowledge and challenging the way things are done. Like the CRISPR-edited mushrooms developed at PennState by Prof. Yinong Yang and his team, which promises to help limit our excessive foodwaste; or the CRISPR-edited wheat cultivar developed in Cordoba, Spain that could alleviate the burden of living with coeliac disease. Innovations like these, are getting more difficult to bring to market in the EU as a result of the gene-editing ruling. This will mean that, rather than seeing a surge in biotechnological innovation in sustainable agriculture driven by the strong biotech ecosystems in Europe, we will likely witness a consolidation of the large multinational corporations, again leading to a de facto monopoly on an immensely powerful technology, and a dead water for innovation. However, a last hope remains. Despite the discouraging ruling from the EU court, it is the European Commision which executes and pass the laws, and they can change the wording of the ruling, thereby opening up the slight possibility that some of these gene-editing technologies can escape its death sentence.
About the Author: Daniel Vik is a scientist and pragmatic romantic. He recently joined the REBBLS core group, and hopes to inspire a meaningful debate about science, innovation and society.