A new gene-editing technology known as CRISPR could soon be used to alter the crops producing the food we eat — making tomatoes sweeter, for example, or vegetables more resistant to disease.
It remains to be seen how consumers will feel about the technology given the backlash over genetically modified organisms, or GMOs, which are produced using a different kind of genetic engineering.
Larry Gilbertson, a longtime scientist with Monsanto, believes some of the controversy surrounding GMOs stemmed from the giant agriculture company’s lack of direct engagement with the public. Monsanto — now known as Bayer Crop Science after Bayer bought Monsanto for $63 billion this year — plans to do better with products made with CRISPR technology, which are being developed and still “years away,” he said.
“The coolest science in the world doesn’t matter if the world isn’t ready for it,” said Gilbertson, applied genome modification lead for Bayer Crop Science.
Gilbertson was in Chicago recently to talk CRISPR — which stands for clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats, a description of DNA sequences — at the Foodscape conference on emerging food trends. The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.
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Q: What is CRISPR?
A: What CRISPR allows you to do is to choose any place, any position, any gene and make a very precise change in that gene. And changes in genes change attributes, characteristics, traits — in humans, in plants and so on.
In human health, all of the excitement is about trying to cure genetic diseases by pinpointing the genetic change and then using these tools to go in and actually correct them. And in plants, you can think of it as the same thing. Again, finding a specific gene that you’d like to change that will make a tomato sweeter, an ear of corn bigger, make a lettuce plant resistant to disease, anything like that. And then go in and make that specific change.
Q: How might Bayer utilize this technology?
A: I think of it as essentially another form of breeding. The types of changes that we’re making in the genes are very much like the types of changes that already exist in crops that grow in fields. What this allows us to do is do it more directly. And rather than the breeding process, which takes time and a lot of effort, we want to use it for many of the same things that we’ve been breeding for all along – improving productivity of plants, improving plant health and ultimately working on consumer benefits as well.
Q. How is gene editing different from altering plants through breeding and biotechnology?
A. So in breeding, you’re basically taking two plants that have different attributes, different traits, crossing them together and then looking among the progeny of that cross, the offspring of that cross. You’re combining all of the genes of one parent, all of the genes of another parent — tens of thousands of genes — into progeny and sifting through that, finding the ones that have the traits you want and eliminating the ones you don’t.
In GMOs, also called biotechnology, what we’re doing is we’re transferring one specific gene into the plant. You transfer one or a few specific genes into a plant and those genes are selected because they’ll add a useful trait, like make the plant resistant to insects, make it be able to tolerate drought better.
And in gene editing, we’re not mixing thousands of genes, we’re not adding one or two specific genes, we’re making changes in the plant’s existing DNA. And the changes tend to be small.
Q: Consumers who don’t like GMOs might not like gene editing either. How is Bayer planning to address their concerns?
A: First, we want to be part of the conversation. Because we have gone through the experience with GMOs and there have been some lessons learned there. We’re very proud of our GMO technology and we continue to support that. But we are engaging more with the public. We realize it’s not just about the science. As a scientist, I wish I could just explain how it works and everyone would just be OK with it. But we know it’s more than just understanding. Food is emotional and I understand that.
Q: It seems like a powerful technology with staggering potential. Is there any line that shouldn’t be crossed when it comes to changing certain crops?
A: That’s a question for the public at large. When we edit a tomato plant, it’s still a tomato. When we edit a corn plant, it’s still corn. I think most of us think that’s what we’ll be doing with editing — improving crops as they are, as opposed to creating something completely different.