Gene Editing Finds its Way to the Farm

December 21, 2018 10:04 AM
 
Products resulting from the new technology are expected to reach grocery store shelves next year

Cows born without horns or pigs that never reach puberty? These scenarios could become a reality soon, thanks to new gene-editing tools.

A company wants to alter farm animals by adding and subtracting their genetic traits in a lab.

Alison Van Eenennaam, animal geneticist, University of California-Davis, says edits that create polled herds will soon be common.

“It’s kind of like a pair of molecular scissors, if you will, that you can tell to go and cut the DNA at a very precise location in the genome,” Van Eenennaam explains. “What that enables you to do is go in and very precisely alter one particular gene of the thousands of genes that make up the genome, and you can introduce useful genetic variations.”

It works on crops, too. Variations such as soybeans edited to grow with more heart-healthy fat or mushrooms that don’t brown will soon be on the market. The scientists say the science sounds like GMOs or genetically modified foods, but it isn’t.

“A lot of the consumer resistance to accepting GMO technology is that we’re moving foreign genes from other organisms,” explains Fred Gmitter, geneticist, University of Florida Citrus Research and Education Center. “Using genome editing, all we’re doing is changing the natural DNA that exists within the plant.”

Gmitter hopes gene editing will help save Florida’s citrus industry, which is being devastated by the citrus greening disease.

“For Florida, it cut our production from about 240 million boxes 15 to 18 years ago down to 45 million boxes in the last season,” Gmitter says.

Despite its promise, some critics are concerned about how gene-edited foods will be regulated.

“I think the vast majority of the products will be safe, but somebody needs to be looking out for those cases where a mishap may happen or the developer of the product may miss some important health or environmental consequence,” says Jennifer Kuzma, with the Genetic Engineering and Society Center at North Carolina State University.

U.S. agriculture officials say no new rules are needed for these gene-edited plants that could have been developed through more traditional methods. That’s clearing the way for about two dozen gene-edited crops so far, including heart-healthier soybean oil. Products made with the oil will likely hit grocery stores next year. The animal debate, however, is still under consideration on how it might be regulated.


To see how researchers edit genes, watch the video at bit.ly/DNA-edits.

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