By Jim Kozubek
Georgetown Journal of International Affairs
At a conference in Washington in 2015, French microbiologist Emmanuelle Charpentier discussed the ethical impacts of Crispr-Cas9, a new form of tiny molecular scissors that she and UC Berkeley biologist, Jennifer Doudna, discovered could be used to alter genetic code and create genetically modified organisms (GMOs). Charpentier had detected an interaction causing a key molecule to clasp to a second molecule called Crispr, which then guided a protein called Cas9 to modify genetic code. While scientists disagree over who owns the rights to the technology that was later developed based on these discoveries, consumers remain uncertain as to its impacts. Many consumers are adamantly opposed to modifications in heritable human code or in agriculture. In fact, Charpentier received a threatening letter from anti-GMO activists about the perceived safety and environmental concerns surrounding gene modification.
The trial over the rights to commercialize Crispr-Cas9 began in late 2016 and is expected to come to a resolution this month. The Broad Institute won key patents and spent tens of millions on lawyers to defend it against an interference proceeding initiated by UC Berkeley and Charpentier. Importantly, a number of proteins related to Cas9 were recently discovered, including CasX and CasY reported by Doudna, and Cpf1 reported by Broad scientist Feng Zhang and colleagues, which promise more sophisticated genome editing and ease the singular focus on the Cas9 lawsuit.
Amid the ongoing patent battle, Crispr-Cas9 and associated genome modification tools are enabling next generation, precision GMO crops, which may circumvent regulatory hurdles and even qualify as organic. Such technological innovations in the GMO space open up new opportunities to improve the nutrition and growth yield of crops. Precision GMO crops are a top-down solution to meeting global nutritional demands and may simultaneously undermine the enterprise of local farmers and fishermen.
With the aim of improving the growth yield and sustainability of crops, Caribou Biosciences, one of Doudna’s companies, is collaborating with DuPont to grow wheat strains edited for drought resistance and a waxy corn that can be eaten or used to produce stronger adhesives. Companies testing and producing “Crispr crops” escape onerous regulations. UC Berkeley researcher Maywa Montenegro observed that “to U.S. regulators, most organisms currently under development may not be considered genetic modification. This is because U.S. policy is product-based, and with many types of Crispr edits, the product will not include foreign genetic material. In cases where editing introduces sequences from close crop wild relatives, the product might even be genetically indistinguishable from the results of conventional crossbreeding–and, say researchers, could even qualify as organic.”
Picture: Azizkhan327 (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons