God’s Red Pencil? CRISPR and The Three Myths of Precise Genome Editing


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For the benefit of those parts of the world where public acceptance of biotechnology is incomplete, a public relations blitz is at full tilt. It concerns an emerging set of methods for altering the DNA of living organisms. “Easy DNA Editing Will Remake the World. Buckle Up; “We Have the Technology to Destroy All Zika Mosquitoes“; and “CRISPR: gene editing is just the beginning”. (CRISPR is short for CRISPR/cas9, which is short for Clustered Regularly-Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats/CRISPR associated protein 9; Jinek et al., 2012. It is a combination of a guide RNA and a protein that can cut DNA.)

The hubris is alarming; but the more subtle element of the propaganda campaign is the biggest and most dangerous improbability of them all: that CRISPR and related technologies are “genome editing” (Fichtner et al., 2014). That is, they are capable of creating precise, accurate and specific alterations to DNA.

Douglas Gurian-Sherman, with the Center for Food Safety, a nonprofit group that has campaigned against genetically engineered crops, says the lack of formal regulatory review of gene-edited crops is disturbing. For one thing, it makes it difficult to know exactly what’s been done to the crop. “The company can just keep its data to itself,” he says.

The issues of CRISPR and other related new “genome editing” biotechnologies are the subject of intense activity behind the scenes. The US Department of Agriculture has just explained that it will not be regulating organisms whose genomes have been edited since it doesn’t consider them to be GMOs at all. The EU was about to call them GMOs but the US has caused them to blink, meanwhile the US is in the process of revisiting its GMO regulatory environment entirely. Will future safety regulations of GMOs be based on a schoolboy version of genetics and an interpretation of genome editing crafted in a corporate public relations department? If history is any guide it will.