The Potential of Genome Editing

By Ingrid Fung

Over the last few years the potential of genome editing has captured the imaginations of the popular media, attracted hundreds of millions in investment, and set the scientific community a blaze with activity. The approach enables researchers to make precise changes to the DNA within a cell, effectively changing genetic programming and thus the function of the genes and proteins encoded, without inserting any external genetic material. The potential applications for genome edited organisms are innumerable, promising to improve everything from our health to the sustainability of the food we grow. But why the sudden excitement, and what do these technologies mean for highly regulated industries like agriculture?

The idea of making cuts in DNA and hijacking cellular repair mechanisms to make targeted changes is not a new concept. Previously, zinc finger and TALENs proteins were used to make edits to the genomes of many organisms. Unfortunately, these endonucleases were cumbersome to use and required a high degree of engineering and troubleshooting. This meant that genome editing was not an economical solution for most commercial problems. However, this changed in 2012 when a seminal paper published in the Journal of Science showed that certain endonucleases (Cas9) could be reprogrammed to cut at almost any site using guide RNAs. This discovery greatly simplified the process of making edits to genomes, and was met with a high degree of excitement from the scientific community. Since then, use of the CRISPR/Cas9 system has quickly gained popularity as it is vastly more adaptable than its technological predecessors and greatly reduces the time, and costs associated with genome editing. The CRISPR/Cas9 system has made genome editing economically viable for a vast array of commercial applications. This has spurred a furry of investment in companies like Caribou Biosciences, Intellia Theraputics, and CRISPR Therapeutics.

In agriculture, genome editing has the potential to reduce water and nitrogen use, improve nutrition, and allow the development of crops that can grow on land that isn’t currently arable. Creating genome edited crops, accompanying microbes, and healthier livestock that improve agricultural efficiency will be key in sustainably meeting global food requirements as the world’s population continues to grow. Some have even touted that genome editing will eventually do away with the need for genetic modification (GM), the old-school technique of inserting foreign DNA into the genomes of an organism. However, it is important to note that while genome editing will likely be warmly accepted in the realm of medicine where GM is a relative non-issue, and biological medicines are welcomed by patients, this is not the case for agricultural applications. In the realm of public opinion, there may be little difference between genome editing and gene insertion in crops.

Luckily, it seems that at least in North America, regulators agree that there is a clear distinction between genome editing and GM technologies. In 2014, the FDA ruled that genome edited crops will not be regulated differently than those created using conventional breeding techniques involving mutagenesis.

While the potential of genome editing to improve agriculture is great, it is important for Ag Tech investors, entrepreneurs, companies, and industry stakeholders to actively seek consumer acceptance for eventual genome edited products. While we may have gotten it wrong with GM technologies, actively engaging in public science education, increasing transparency, and keenly engaging in public consultations to understand consumer preferences and concerns during product development will be essential to gaining market acceptance for genome editing.

Want to learn more about synthetic biology and how companies use it? Check out Ingrid’s article ‘Synthetic Biology As A New Tool’.