|Photo by: Agricultural Research Service via Wikipedia|
There is increasing attention being paid to the science of gene-splicing, genetic engineering and genetically modified organisms (GMOs). There are even reports of conflicting research on the impacts of these developments on human beings and the environment. Large corporations are capitalizing on this science as a means to further agribusiness and create economic booms in farming for many countries around the world while movements spring up in opposition on the basis of cited detriments posed by GMOs to those who consume them, and these opposing forces are like winds of opposing temperatures giving rise to an F-5 of controversy.
New research has illustrated that there are biological dangers associated with the fruits of genetic engineering, some of which were not known until this latest publication in the scientific journal, Nature Methods, which analyzes the unintentional impact gene editing has displayed in mouse DNA. Gene editing, in particular, has been extolled as the new, safe version of genetic engineering because it doesn’t have to bring genes from foreign species into the target organism; instead, scientists use the infamous biotechnique tool, CRISPR-Cas9, to cut DNA in specific locales and allow the cells’ DNA to repair the cuts.
“The tools used for gene editing are designed to recognize and make changes only on specific DNA sequences. In the Nature Methods research, for example, the engineers designed their tools to fix a defective DNA sequence that could restore sight to blind mice. But the defective DNA sequence that governs sight is also repeated in other places throughout the mouse genome—unrelated to vision. Therefore, the gene editing tools can also make unintended changes in these ‘off-target’ locations,” according to Jeffrey Smith, founder of the Institute for Responsible Technology.
“The unwanted mutations do not come from cutting the DNA. Rather, they occur when the cut ends are rejoined by the cells’ repair mechanisms. It results in either the loss of some DNA base units or the insertion of a few base units at the cut site,” Smith adds. He cites the aforementioned study—conducted by lead author Kellie Schaefer of Stamford University and her colleagues in there, at the University of Columbia and the University of Iowa—to point out these and alludes to other reasons why many people are up in arms about the detrimental, biological effects that gene editing has been proven to have in certain circumstances, but he makes sure to address the differences between current methods and methods of old, which were worse. This demonstrates biotechnological progress, albeit insufficient progress in the eyes of many.
“If the mutation occurs in the middle of a known gene (or in a portion of the DNA that controls a gene) it can severely disrupt its function. Gene editors, therefore, rely on computer models of the genome to identify where the similar sequences are that are likely to become mutated and to predict what level of collateral damage that could create. If the risk is considered low enough, they proceed with editing,” says Smith.
On the other hand, the dangers of GMOs may actually pale in comparison to the benefits thereof. The culture of opposition to GMO production and the development of gene editing biotechnology and methods is most prevalent in Western societies where naturally occurring crops are already abundant. This culture is one that usually coincides for many people with the attempt to live healthy lifestyles. It involves avoiding GMO products in grocery stores and shopping in certain places so as to find vegetables and fruits that were not exposed in their cultivation to harmful processes or pesticides in the first place. Unfortunately, this is a movement that some in third-world countries view as a luxury that cannot be afforded everywhere.
“Africa suffers from cataclysmic food shortages like no one else on the planet. Many countries there have struggled through lost harvests due to drought, man-made land degradation, and declining soil fertility among other things. Coupled with surging population growth, that’s a bad combination, especially as the number of Africans is expected to double to 2.4 billion by the year 2050,” reports CNBC Africa. The plight of sustaining populations in certain African nations that are poorer than others (i.e. Uganda, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Angola, etc.) amounts to a numbers game and a race against the earth’s biological clock. South Africa has the seventh-highest per capita income on the continent, and it holds the second-largest African economy behind Nigeria; nevertheless, it is one of only two African nations where GMO production is currently occurring. The other is Egypt, a smaller but more efficient economy.
“That’s a lot of mouths to feed. And importing food to help fill the gap is costly. With government coffers across the continent severely constrained, largely because of the decline in state revenues due to the commodity slump, Africa will need to grow more of its own food. And on a continent, that, according to the United Nations, already has over 230 million people, or roughly a quarter of its population, facing hunger and malnutrition, this is a big, and very ugly, question mark,” according to CNBC Africa.
Many publications from these and other third-world countries commonly espouse the virtues of GMO products and, more importantly, gene-editing techniques. The reason for this is because genetic engineering is seen as a means by which to answer the world’s rapidly growing food shortage crisis. Rose Maxwell Gidado, an agriculture correspondent for Nigerian Tribune, says that “In order to feed a world population that is expected to top 9 billion by 2050 and to do so in ways that do not harm the environment, farmers will need to roughly double current production levels on about the same amount of land.
“Genetically modified crops are more efficient and therefore use less agricultural inputs to produce the same amount of food. From 1996-2012, without GM crops the world would have needed 123 million more hectares of land for equal crop production. GM technology reduced pesticide use by 8.9 per cent in the period from 1996- 2011,” Gidado explains.
This points to the caveat of genetic engineering. Climate change only continues to threaten the global food supply further, and disadvantaged countries have little alternative other than genetic engineering to provide for themselves and for each other. Gidado also points out that “controversy remains over access to this biotechnology, corporation patents on certain plant strains, and claims regarding the safety and quality of GM foods as compared to non-GM foods.” Even beyond the safety concerns, patents make it impossible at present for these countries to take advantage of the biotechnological progress being made.
Photo by: ViktoriaAnselm via Wikimedia Commons
Moreover, even if the patents weren’t an obstacle and third-world societies got their hands on the biotechniques they need, Schaefer’s study exemplifies how this would likely proliferate health complications, some of which are newly discovered due to unpredicted mutations. “Instead of letting the computer guess which off-target changes would take place, Schaefer’s team actually sequenced the genome of the two gene-edited mice after they had undergone CRISPR-Cas9,” Smith explains.
“They did find insertions and deletions (indels), which is the type of mutation that the computer predicts. One mouse had 164 indels; the other 128. But of the top 50 sequences that a computer would identify as most likely to be mutated, none were changed at all. Far more importantly, however, the computer model would totally miss their other finding: point mutations throughout the genome. One mouse had 1,736; the other 1,696.” This alludes to all sorts of yet misunderstood facets of genetic engineering that require further study and technological improvement in order to mitigate the effects of what may be the only mechanism by which to feed the global population.