CRISPR or “Clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats” (a mouthful, but not something that sounds good to eat) is being called a game changer by the biotech community. CRISPR is a gene-editing tool with applications beyond seeds (a human test passed safety review in 2016).
The technology reportedly occurs naturally. Microbes use CRISPR molecules to edit their internal DNA. It seems to act as a souped-up immune system (this is still being debated) for microbes. However, science doesn’t understand how CRISPR works in the natural world. It’s also been called a “genetic bar code” allowing microbes to recognize relatives and know when to cooperate and when to fight
Scientists made the discovery while sequencing DNA of the gut microbe E. coli. They found a unique sequence of genes they’d never seen before. What struck them was that these sequences looked like DNA viruses. That’s when researchers realized that the microbes possibly used CRISPR as a defense against viruses. Bacteria snatch fragments of viral DNA and then stash them away for future use. When another virus attacks, the bacteria uses CRISPR to identify the attacker (sort of a genetic shorthand).
What particularly interested researchers was the precision with which DNA was cut open and identifiers were inserted. (I’m trying to put this into lay terms as best I can). In what we currently term as “GMO” or genetically modified organism (more correctly termed Genetic Engineering) a gene gun violently shoots pieces of metal particles coated with DNA into plant tissue (inserting traits such as Round Up resistence, etc., as the case may be). This is imprecise to say the least.
CRISPR allows scientists to create customized DNA scissors. They can snip out any segment of DNA that they want. This has been termed “a biological version of find and replace“. Now CRISPR is being used to create new seed varieties. Monsanto recently licensed CRISPR-Cas9 genome editing technology. There are restrictions but they do not go far enough. For example, they aren’t allowed to create Terminator Seeds (seeds which automatically sterilize themselves to prevent seed saving) for fear that such traits could escape into the wild and create an environmental catastrophe.
Monsanto is particularly excited about CRISPR because it will speed up the process of gene insertion dramatically because traits can be targeted specifically. Currently, the USDA has said that because foreign genes aren’t being inserted into plants CRISPR will not need regulatory approval the way that GMOs do (an approval process that is corrupt and self-serving, but at least it was something). In other words, researchers admit they don’t fully understand how the technology works in its entirety and the USDA has already declared it safe.
Stay Tuned for Part 2.
P.S. If you want more, this video is medically focused but provides a good overview of the CRISPR process.