Is CRISPR/Cas a way of introducing genetic engineering through the back door?

CRISPR/Cas is a genome editing technology whose use in human medicine is raising high hopes that it could potentially be used to cure hereditary diseases. Experts believe that using this technology to breed new plants could likewise deliver major benefits.

What is CRISPR/Cas?

Bacteria take an uncompromising approach to intruders – they generally take no prisoners and simply shred the threat. If foreign viruses introduce their genetic material into bacteria, for example, the defense mechanism of the bacteria gets straight to work, cutting the unwanted genome into pieces and thus rendering it harmless. This defense mechanism developed by bacteria over millennia is known as CRISPR/Cas, and is commonly and appropriately referred to as “gene scissors.”

What gene scissors do is very different to what conventional genetic engineering in plant breeding does, however. With CRISPR/Cas, the location of the genome in which the modification takes place can be precisely controlled. And a particularly important aspect is that, unlike conventional genetic engineering, which often involves adding genes from other species to organisms, gene scissors are instead generally used to specifically switch off one or more genes or to precisely switch back on traits, for example from wild varieties that have been lost over the course of breeding. The resulting modification is therefore indistinguishable from a conventional breeding breakthrough or a natural mutation, as there is virtually no difference. It’s just that this method is simpler, faster and more precise.

What possibilities does CRISPR/Cas offer?

There are many research projects under way, at various stages right up to the first marketing authorizations. Significant examples include projects to achieve improved resistance to fungal infections in rice or wheat, better-tasting tomatoes and the deactivation of allergens in peanuts. Source

CRISPR/Cas is a very precise method for modifying an organism’s genome – and also the most “democratic”; as it is cheap and simple, it is increasingly being used by universities and research facilities in countries that do not have major research budgets. Of course, this is only possible if it is not classified as “genetic engineering”, because if it is, this method will remain limited to major companies, as only they have the time and financial resources needed to undergo the expensive and lengthy registration process.

How should politics handle CRISPR/Cas?

New breeding techniques offer the possibility of developing plants that are resistant to diseases or pests, that produce higher yields or that can better cope with changing climatic conditions. They increase the availability of the existing genetic diversity, which currently can be used only sparingly because many genes have been more or less deactivated over the years during the relatively inexact process of conventional breeding.

With regard to political regulation, we have the same position as the Max Planck Society: as long as genes from another species are not introduced into a plant and this plant could also have been created through conventional breeding or natural mutation, it would be misleading to describe it as a genetically modified organism. In our view, what is important is whether the plants in our fields or in front of consumers contain foreign genes, not what technology was used to breed them. Source Excessive regulation and the associated costs and delays could impede the development and use of this innovative and precise breeding method in Europe, and impair the international competitiveness of European breeders, particularly smaller and medium-sized companies.

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