CRISPR and GMO: the Unlikely Hero for the World

While many people have heard of genetically modified organisms, views on the safety and use of GMOs can range from person to person. Personally, I remember sitting down to watch a documentary with my parents who pride themselves on their relatively healthy lifestyles. By the time the credits rolled, I was convinced: GMOs were terrible. The documentary proved to be just one example of the anti-GMO propaganda produced in the early 2000’s. GMOs are a broad name for a variety of agricultural practices that involve the direct genetic modification of food, the use of pesticides or herbicides, the creation of monocultures and more. Britannica defines a GMO as an “organism whose genome has been engineered in the laboratory in order to favor the expression of desired physiological traits or the generation of desired biological products.” This is done by introducing new DNA to the organism’s genome. The reference to GMOs in this article specifically focuses on genetically engineered agriculture.

A survey by the Pew Research center found that 57% of Americans believe that it is “generally unsafe to eat GMO foods.” This is largely due to a recent trend of anti-GMO ideas that have persisted over the past decade. But here’s the kicker: according to some scientists, the genetic engineering of food or seeds in agriculture is no more dangerous to consume than their non-GMO counterparts. However, there are some valid criticisms regarding some aspects of GMO agriculture. For instance, the increase in the usage of harmful herbicides/pesticides can accompany the use of GMOs, when weeds and pests develop a gradual resistance to GMOs. To illustrate, over 90% of all cash crops in the US are herbicide-resistant, mostly to one form of herbicide (glyphosate), suggesting a wide dependence on this herbicide method generated by the use of due to GMO use. According to research, purely genetically modifying foods or seeds that will eventually become foods that have no negative health effects on humans.

The WHO reported that over 820 million people do not have enough to eat, 2 billion people are moderately or severely food insecure, and millions of children across the world suffer from serious vitamin deficiencies and low birth weights. Another impending issue surrounding GMOs is climate change. Due to global warming, certain areas are experiencing unusual dry or wet spells, which can have negative effects on agriculture. Where do GMOs come in? GMOs offer the potential to increase crop yields, both in size and quantity. They can also produce nutritious foods or crops with increased water retention and drought/flood tolerance. The powerful technology GMOs offer can help mitigate the conditions of populations that suffer from hunger, as well as the devastating conditions of global warming perpetuated by humans.

In fact, GMO technologies have already saved certain crop industries from complete obliteration, boosting local farming economies overall and saving certain crop species. But the narrative that has been pushed by “green-peace” and certain environmental organizations convinced millions of people that GMOs are inherently dangerous. The result is a wasteful controversy discouraging the uptake of genetically modified foods that could have saved  countless lives.

Recently, a new form of genetic editing called CRIPSPR, founded by UC Berkeley’s own Jennifer Doudna, has emerged. CRISPR offers an innovative solution to tackling issues such as food insecurity. To briefly summarize CRISPR’s biological mechanisms, scientists have found a way to exploit a special and unique trait of bacteria’s immune systems, which use a Cas-9 protein that can cut DNA along with a guide RNA to chop up the DNA that is injected into the cell by viruses. Scientists created a customizable form of the guide RNA which can be edited into any genomic sequence and tell the Cas-9 “scissors” to cut at the specific location denoted in the guide’s genome. This ability makes CRISPR the optimal tool for precise and accurate genetic editing. Per this new form of gene editing, small sections of the cell’s original DNA can be directly and precisely edited. Arguably, this is a more effective technique than GMO’s techniques, in which scientists place sections of DNA from one organism into the genomes of another. This technology has many advantages over GMOs, scientifically and economically. It makes it possible to genetically engineer faster than we ever have thought was possible. Additionally, the experimentation and procedural process is a fraction of the price of previous methods.

Besides its applications to agriculture, CRISPR can also contribute to the prevention of genetic disorders, in addition to find better ways to improving the treatment for certain diseases. Studies and preliminary research have shown that we can use these new and evolving technologies in making crops, to engineer crops that are completely immune to previously disastrous diseases, not to mention crops that can retain CO2 more efficiently and mitigate the effects of global warming. In addition to greater crop yields, the potential benefits include curbing further pesticide or fertilizer use and increasing plant diversity.

While scientists still have not perfected the gene-editing process nor reached the point where they fully understand the capabilities and long-term effects of such editing, the current research on this subject appears promising. To combat public stigma around such technology, there must be an emphasis on the difference between this procedure versus GMO. Rather than creating a “Frankenstein DNA,” we are teaching cells to do new things directly and precisely editing their own DNA. While the capabilities of this technology are yet to be fully unleashed, from what has already been discovered, the possibilities could be endless.