GMO

Fight Viruses by releasing the Gene Scissors: What is Gene Editing and why should we get excited about it?

Understanding gene editing with comic book figures

Humanity is currently facing a huge challenge imposed by the Coronavirus. Borders are being shut down, planes grounded, and factories closed. At the same time, scientists and public health professionals are working on tests, treatments, and vaccines to soon provide a medical response. Coping with corona might be one of the largest tests humans have faced in the past decades but it won’t be the last virus we need to defeat. It is time to embrace bioscience and allow more research and applications of genetic alteration methods.

For the layman, all this technobabble about mutagenesis and genetic engineering is difficult to comprehend and it took me personally a good amount of reading to start grasping what different methods exist and how these can massively improve our quality of life.

Let’s first look at the four most common ways to alter the genes of a plant or animal: 

  • Dr. Xaver – Mutations per se just happen regularly in nature – This is how some amino acids ended up being humans a billion years later. Biological evolution can only happen thanks to mutations. Mutations in nature happen randomly or are caused by exogenous factors such as radiation (e.g. sun). For the comic book readers among us, X-men have mutations that (in most cases) occurred randomly.
Mutations occur in nature all the time
  • The Hulk – Mutation through exposure (mutagens): One of the most common ways to manipulate seeds is exposing them to radiation and hoping for positive mutations (e.g. higher pest resistance). This method is very common since the 1950s and a very inaccurate shotgun approach aiming to make crops more resistant or palatable. It requires thousands of attempts to get a positive result. This method is widely used and legal in nearly every country. In our comic book universe, the Hulk is a good example of mutations caused by radiation.
Your daily veggies and the Hulk have much more in common than you would think
  • Spiderman – Genetically Modified Organisms (transgenic GMO): This often-feared procedure of creating GMOs is based on inserting the genes of one species into the genes of another. In most cases, GMO crops have been injected with a protein of another plant or bacteria that makes the crop grow faster or be more resistant towards certain diseases. Other examples can be seen in crossing salmon with tilapia fish which makes the salmon grow twice as fast. Spiderman being bitten by a spider and suddenly being able to climb skyscrapers due to his enhanced spider-human (transgenic) DNA is an example from the comicverse. 
Combining genes across species: When spiders and humans come together
  • GATTACA/Wrath of Khan – Gene Editing (the scissors): The latest and most precise way of altering an organism’s genes is so-called Gene Editing. In contrast to traditional GMOs, genes are not being implanted from another organism but changed within the organism due to a precise method of either deactivating certain genes or adding them. 
Gluten-free Super Villain: Gene Editing is not so much about super-humans but more about keeping and making us healthy

This can be even done in grown humans that are alive, which is a blessing for everyone who suffers from genetic disorders. We are able to “repair” genes in live organisms. Gene editing is also thousands of times more accurate than just bombarding seeds with radiation. Some applied examples are deactivating the gene responsible for generating gluten in wheat: The result is gluten-free wheat. There are several methods that achieve this. One of the most popular ones these days is the so-called CRISPR Cas-9. These ‘scissors’ are usually reprogrammed bacteria that transmit the new gene information or deactivate defunct or unwanted genes. Many science fiction novels and movies show a future in which we can deactivate genetic defects and cure humans from terrible diseases. Some examples of stories in which CRISPR-like techniques have been used are movies such as GATTACA, Star Trek’s Wrath of Khan, or the Expanse series in which gene editing plays a crucial role in growing crops in space.

What does this have to do with the Coronavirus?

Synthetic biologists have started using CRISPR to synthetically create parts of the coronavirus in an attempt to launch a vaccine against this lung disease and be able to mass-produce it very quickly. In combination with computer simulations and artificial intelligence, the best design for such a vaccine is calculated on a computer and then synthetically created. This speeds up vaccine development and cuts it from years to merely months. Regulators and approval bodies have shown that in times of crisis they can also rapidly approve new testing and vaccination procedures which usually require years of back and forth with agencies such as the FDA?

CRISPR also allows the ‘search’ for specific genes, also genes of a virus. This helped researchers to build fast and simple testing procedures to test patients for corona.

In the long term, gene editing might allow us to increase the immunity of humans by altering our genes and making us more resistant to viruses and bacteria. 

This won’t be the last crisis

While the coronavirus seems to really test our modern society, we also need to be aware that this won’t be the last pathogen that has the potential to kill millions. If we are unlucky, corona might mutate quickly and become harder to fight. The next dangerous virus, fungus, or bacteria is probably around the corner. Hence we need to embrace the latest inventions of biotechnology and not block genetic research and the deployment of its findings.

Right now a lot of red tape and even outright bans are standing between lifesaving innovations such as CRISPR and patients around the world. We need to rethink our hostility towards genetic engineering and embrace it. To be frank: We are in a constant struggle to fight newly occurring diseases and need to be able to deploy state of the art human answers to this.

After Brexit, let’s embrace gene editing

EU rules are killing vital innovation in biotech.

After Brexit, let’s embrace gene editing

Virus-resistant tomato, disease-resistant ricestem-cell treatment for paralysis, for heart disease, for spinal-chord injury and even for cornea repair — these are just some of the many innovations made possible through gene editing.

Canada has created permissive rules for these technologies, as has Japan, where scientists are working night and day to find therapeutic treatments that root out cancer and the Zika virus.

In Europe, however, the prospects are bleak. Bureaucrats and politicians are stifling the speed with which scientists can make breakthroughs available to consumers and patients. Granted, wealthy elites will always be able to fly to Tokyo or the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota to get treatments. But for Brits who cannot afford this, we need laws and regulations that will allow for the research and development of innovative treatments.

Gene editing is effectively banned throughout the EU. The slightest word in favour of innovative technologies such as CRISPR (a prominent genome-editing technology) gets you yelled at by politicians and EU-funded NGOs alike. With Brexit on the horizon, the UK has a unique opportunity to embrace innovation.

There is some light at the end of the tunnel on the continent. At the Global Forum for Food and Agriculture (GFFA) in Berlin next month, approximately 70 ministers of agriculture from around the world intend to adopt a communiqué about the global direction of agriculture. The hope is that these delegates will recognise the value in technologies like gene editing. In Germany, some green activists like the Youth Greens seem to be waking up to the problem. Several activists have warned that strict regulation makes the application of gene technologies more expensive, meaning only big corporates can afford it.

However, we cannot rely on what happens internationally. Britain has an obligation to its citizens to allow scientists to develop new cures and new foods for the 21st century. Brexit offers a unique opportunity to rethink biotech regulations as we break away from the EU’s anti-science dogma. We cannot let Britain lag behind in global innovation.


The Consumer Choice Center is the consumer advocacy group supporting lifestyle freedom, innovation, privacy, science, and consumer choice. The main policy areas we focus on are digital, mobility, lifestyle & consumer goods, and health & science.

The CCC represents consumers in over 100 countries across the globe. We closely monitor regulatory trends in Ottawa, Washington, Brussels, Geneva and other hotspots of regulation and inform and activate consumers to fight for #ConsumerChoice. Learn more at 
consumerchoicecenter.org

Viewpoint: Conservatives say UK could break from ‘outdated’ EU GMO, CRISPR regulations if they sweep ’Brexit election’

On the 12th of December, the United Kingdom will hold a general election. With the UK’s exit from the European Union (Brexit) remaining unresolved, tensions are as high as ever. Once out of the EU, though, the UK could regain full control over its laws and regulations.

Though the election debate has centered around immigration, security and healthcare, the question of what direction the UK should take in terms of science policy persists. Will the UK manage to unleash the potential of its biotechnological sector and become a global advocate for innovation and consumer choice, or will it retain the EU’s antiquated approach?

In a manifesto released in November, the Conservatives pledged to take the path of “science-led, evidence-based policy” to improve the quality of food, agriculture and land management. Previously, Prime Minister Boris Johnson promised to liberate the UK’s biotech sector from the EU’s anti-genetic modification rules.

ECJ
Image: iStock/Zerbor

The laws that concern genetically modified organisms in the UK are primarily based on European Union regulations. For years, the EU has backpedaled on agricultural innovation, preventing European consumers from accessing biologically enhanced food. This can be seen in the very limited number of genetically modified crops authorized for cultivation in the EU, and a very cumbersome and expensive process of importing genetically modified crops from other countries. In July 2018, the European Court of Justice (ECJ) decided that gene-edited plants should be regulated the same way that genetically modified organisms are regulated, rendering them practically illegal and hindering innovation even further.

If the UK chooses to move away from these EU-based regulations as a consequence of Brexit, it could become a forward-looking global biotech powerhouse.

The first step would be to replace fear-based skepticism of genetic modification with an evidence-based, pro-innovation approach. Despite popular rhetoric, there is no substantial scientific evidence behind the alleged health and environmental risks ascribed to GM products. Abandoning these baseless assertions and creating and sustaining the conditions under which UK farmers could innovate, lower their production costs, and use fewer chemicals would be an enterprising move on the part of the UK government.

Approving GM pest-resistant crops, for instance, could save about £60 million ($79 million) a year in pesticide use in the UK. Moreover, £60 million in savings would mean more leeway for competitive food pricing in a country where prices at the grocery store are rising 2 percent annually.

Once restrictive genetic modification laws are relaxed, it would be necessary to enable easy market access for GM foods. Under current EU legislation, products containing GMOs need to be labeled as such, and the requirements also apply to non-prepacked foods. It is legally established that such products (soy, for example) not only require written documentation but also should have an easily readable notice about their origin. No such rule exists with regards to foods that are 100% GMO-free, meaning there is explicit discrimination in place giving GMO-free food an unfair advantage on the market.

The EU’s strict regulations on the use of GM technology have been, first and foremost, harmful to consumers, depriving them access to innovative options such as Impossible Foods’ plant-based burger, which so closely mimics meat thanks to an ingredient produced with the help of genetically engineered yeast. Vastly popular in the US and now expanding to Asia, vegan burgers using plant-based substitutes for meat and dairy products, are absent from the European market due to backwards-looking anti-GM rules.

The United Kingdom should strive for the smartest regulation in the field of approval and market access to GMOs. Relaxed regulations on gene-editing methods like CRISPR-Cas9 could also attract massive investment and lead to wide-reaching biotech innovation in the UK.

Enabling gene-editing is an essential part of unleashing scientific innovation in the United Kingdom after Brexit. Skepticism of gene-editing centers around the potential but largely exaggerated adverse effects of the technology and ignores the astonishing benefits that could accrue to both farmers and consumers.

If the UK manages to replace the EU’s overly cautious biotech rules with a pro-innovation and prosperity-fostering regulatory scheme, it could become a true global biotech powerhouse. This is an ambitious, exciting, and above all, achievable future.

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