BERKELEY, CA, Aug. 17, 2017 – About 500 people gathered this week at the University of California Berkeley to assess the rapid adoption of gene editing techniques that appear to hold immeasurable promise for human, animal and plant health and growth.
The two-day conference, CRISPRcon, is named for new techniques – Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats – called CRISPR-Cas systems.
Over the years, researchers have found various methods of editing the genes of organisms. They involve amending the DNA within an organism’s nucleus, rather than inserting transgenic materials from other organisms into the nucleus. Since 2013, scientists have been pursuing an efficient approach of directly targeting sites in a cell’s chromosomes. The technique uses the cell’s own bits of RNA strands to guide its Cas proteins in ways that apply highly specific amendments to the DNA, thus altering the organism itself.
In agriculture, scientists are now increasingly applying genome editing to vanquish diseases and enable great leaps forward: for example, to develop resistance to citrus greening for citrus trees or to bestow immunity to porcine epidemic diarrhea virus (PEDv) for pigs.
Jennifer Doudna, a UC Berkeley professor of chemistry and cell biology who spoke at the conference, described the cell’s nucleus as its “instruction manual.” She lauded researchers for learning to “cut and paste bits of text” guiding its life functions. The wondrous feature of the new techniques, she said, is that they can be readily used in “every aspect of biology; every type of organism.”
“I have never seen science move at the pace as it is now” in the arena of genetics advancements, Doudna said, in part because CRISPR is such a “democratizing tool,” available and inexpensive for scientists worldwide to employ.
Participants included a range of genome editing proponents hungry to develop its benefits. Thomas Titus, an Illinois pig farmer, said he thinks first about the potential of CRISPR techniques in eliminating, or improving resistance to, swine diseases. He notes that gene editing for resistance to PEDv has already been accomplished by researchers at Kansas State University, and “if we would eradicate diseases like that, it would be just astronomical.”
“Gene editing will have great impact on the future of farming, and especially on livestock production,” Titus said. “What it comes down to is how we can utilize this technology for the greater good.”
Not all at the conference were ready to rush into CRISPR, though. An instant online survey of the auditorium full of attendees, for example, found 46 percent viewing CRISPR systems as “a tremendous tool for the benefit of all mankind,” while the rest took a more suspicious or nuanced view.
Many commented on the typically long lag between discovery of biological innovations and their acceptance by society. Doudna noted the “torturous history” of so-called “golden rice,” which is loaded with Vitamin A but hasn’t earned regulatory approval because the trait is transgenic. The costs of implementing some promising genome editing discoveries may slow them, she said.
Dana Perls, a food technology campaigner for Friends of the Earth, said that she sees agricultural industry giants investing in gene editing and promoting its benefits, and she thinks that calls for caution.
“The potential benefits is what we hear about,” Perls said. “However, it is equally important, if not more important, to look at the potential risks.”
Potential effects on climate change, human health and food safety, she said, must be examined before genome editing advances are accepted.
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