11 January 2021

Britain froze in anticipation

Is gene editing dangerous?

Vera Kuepper, "Science and Technology"

By editing genes, it is possible to grow crops that require fewer pesticides, fertilizers or have improved nutritional properties. 

Gene editing of crops and livestock may soon be allowed for the first time in England. Britain froze in anticipation.

Genetic modification and gene editing. What's the difference?

Genetically modified cultures are created by introducing foreign DNA sequences. Genetically edited cultures are created by editing an organism's own genome.

Gene editing is more efficient, cheaper, faster and more accurate. By changing the DNA structure of a gene, you can change the characteristics of a cell or an organism. With the help of gene editing, scientists can disable target genes, correct harmful mutations and change the activity of certain genes in plants and animals.

Scientists believe that gene editing is as safe as plant breeding. Genetic changes used by breeders are mutations that occur spontaneously and randomly in agricultural crops. Usually, several useful changes are chosen against the background of thousands of other mutations that are either neutral or negative. When editing genes, the genetic changes are the same as those used by breeders, but they are precisely targeted.

The agricultural industry has switched to gene editing for a variety of reasons. This procedure is faster, cheaper and more accurate than conventional genetic modification, allowing producers to improve their crops without adding genes. With the help of gene editing, the researchers obtained seedless tomatoes, gluten-free wheat and mushrooms that do not darken during storage.

So how does it work?

There are many ways to edit genes, but the biggest achievement of recent years is a molecular tool called Crispr-Cas9. It uses a guiding molecule (the Crispr bit) to find a specific region in an organism's genetic code – for example, a mutated gene – which is then cut by an enzyme (Cas9). Crispr-Cas9, allows scientists to precisely target sections of DNA, remove or modify them, or turn on or off certain genes. Crispr, developed in 2012, is inexpensive and has been widely distributed among scientists.

Other enzymes, such as Cpf1, can be used instead of Cas9, which can help to edit DNA more efficiently. Gene editing involves cutting and splicing sections of DNA within a single genome to cause changes that were previously possible only with long-term selective breeding of plants and animals. This is a process other than genetic modification, which involves the introduction of DNA from one species into another, and which will continue to be subject to an almost complete ban.

Through gene editing, crops that require fewer pesticides or fertilizers or have improved nutritional properties can be derived. For example, tomatoes that can lower blood pressure have recently been licensed for sale in Japan. Animal genes could also be edited in such a way as to allow the breeding of livestock resistant to major diseases, which would reduce the need for antibiotics and thus reduce the likelihood of developing resistant superbugs.

Gene editing can also be used to breed fitter and healthier animals. Not so long ago, Monsanto was recognized as the "most evil corporation in the world" when it became clear that its genetic scientists combine the genes of one organism into the DNA of another, doing it consciously, promoting and promoting their products to the markets of other countries by bribery and deception. And although breeders have been creating new crops for centuries by crossing different varieties of the same plants, but before the development of genetic engineering, they could not combine the genes of biologically dissimilar organisms. This technology, with its almost limitless ability to change lives, is understandably frightening. Gene editing has also come under the fight against GMOs.

EU, Russia, USA

In 2018, the European Court of Justice ruled that gene editing is essentially the same as genetic modification and must be subject to the same strict rules. GM crops are almost completely banned in the EU.

Indeed, it is almost impossible to determine whether the DNA of a plant or animal has been edited or not, because the changes that occur are indistinguishable from natural mutations. Nevertheless, the European Court ruled that gene editing is inherently unsafe, while at the same time allowing the use of carcinogenic chemicals and ionizing radiation, which create random variations, in traditional methods of crop breeding.

All these years, there have been disputes in the scientific circles of Britain, who believe that it is necessary to change the current strict rules that come from the EU and make it almost impossible to edit the genes of crops and livestock. They consider it absurd and limiting the purposeful cultivation of plants.

Other groups of scientists involved in the protection of the environment and animals express concern that loosening the rules on gene editing could lead to a decrease in animal welfare, for example, the technology will be used to accelerate growth, not animal health. In the USA, more than 20 species of plants with an edited genome are currently represented on the agricultural market, including mainly cereals and legumes. Among the most common modifications is the removal of genes responsible for the synthesis of biological molecules to improve the consumer properties of the products obtained from them. In Russia, 30 lines of plants and animals (including aquaculture) should be created using genetic technologies in 2019-2027. In accordance with the program, in the next three to six years, lines of at least four main agricultural crops, fast-growing lines of trees and industrial plants for plantation cultivation, lines of resistant to viral diseases of agricultural animals, as well as a complex of genomic-embryonic technologies for obtaining and replicating highly productive animals should be created with the help of genetic editing. In addition, it is planned to create a genetic database of biological objects containing genomic data of at least 2.5 thousand organisms.

What to expect?

In order to feed approximately 10 billion people by 2050, using existing lands and resources available to us, we need to change the system of agriculture and animal husbandry in general. In the agricultural sector, it is necessary to increase productivity by developing new technologies to increase crop yields. In the context of the changing global climate, which leads to an increase in extreme weather events and population growth, there is an urgent need to create new varieties of crops that can withstand adverse weather conditions and produce a larger harvest on the same piece of land.

One of the ways that gene editing can help climate is by improving plant biology itself. In particular, it can improve photosynthesis, the process that plants use to convert sunlight energy into sugar and oxygen. In this process, plants consume carbon dioxide, the most common greenhouse gas. Currently, forests and other terrestrial vegetation remove about 30% of anthropogenic carbon dioxide emissions from the atmosphere during photosynthesis.

When editing genes, plants can potentially remove more. Most plants use from 1 to 2% of the light falling on them, but scientists believe that their maximum power is actually about 12%. Gene editing can be used to increase their efficiency so that plants can absorb more carbon from the atmosphere. Gene editing can also be used to accelerate the growth of trees and expand the root system of plants – both of which can increase their ability to absorb carbon.  And while we shouldn't rely on genetically edited plants and animals to solve the climate crisis, ultimately they can play a role in curbing global emissions. As the climate crisis worsens, shoppers may have to be open-minded when genetically edited products finally appear on grocery store shelves.

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