Modifying plants for human consumption

– the story of a CRISPR salad

Modifying plants to feed the world

How are we going to feed the 7.45 billion people in the world? Many people including scientists believe that genetically modified plants are one route to food security (1).  However, we as a species and society remain largely afraid of genetically modified organisms, perhaps, because of the seeming “unnaturalness” of it all.

A new technology now allows scientists to modify plants and other organism in a more “nature-identical” way. In fact, plants produced by this method are so indistinguishable(genetically) from naturally occurring varieties that no one an tell the difference. Therefore, the Swedish agricultural board and the United States Department of Agriculture (for mushrooms, fungi not ”technically” plants) have set the precedent by clearing seeds and mushrooms produced by this method for production and consumption.

The method used to produce these is called the CRIPR-Cas9 system (Watch Carl ZImmer’s  video on CRISPR here). It can be used to remove bits of DNA from an organism’s genome in a targeted manner.  Think of it like what the invention of the engine was for transportation. Scientists all over the world are using this metaphorical scissor to snip out pieces of DNA exploring function and consequences, in an effort to understand ourselves, the living world around us, and curing mice of rare mice diseases (a favourite among us lab rats!) (2-5). Why not make varieties of plants that are better suited for human consumption using this method?

Undoubtedly, there are serious and complex socio-economic issues around the use and misuse of plant genetic engineering, but the discussion has often focussed on and suggested that the “science” is not good enough, which in the personal opinion of those of us writing this piece is a problem. We think that this blanket idea of “imprecise science” actually detracts from the actual concerns -mostly social and economic (monopolization, unexpected risks of cultivation of new cultivars, proprietary seeds etc.). How well-founded or rational is our fear of modified crops? What do we know and not know? We thought we would ask the scientist who recently publicly (broadcast on Swedish Public Radio by host Gutaf Klarin) ate a plate of CRISPR generated cabbage and broccoli and has been actively reaching out to people about the use of this technology in agriculture.

An interview with Stefan Jansson

Q. You may be remembered as the first man to eat a CRISPR modified plant, how do you feel about that?

Well, I would of course prefer to be remembered because of my contributions to science, not just because I made some cooking once upon a time. But these two things are closely connected, if I have´t had the scientific credibility that I actually have, I would just have been regarded a ”mad scientist” doing a stunt and the meal would not have got the same positive attention.

Q. As a plant biologist, do you have concerns about genetically modified crops – for example, what if the gene modified leads to increased requirement for water etc.? What measures are in place to assess this?

As with all plant breeding techniques, one can of course create varieties that are better or worse for the environment. I do like those that are likely to have a positive impact but not those that are likely to have a negative impact, regardless of they are made with techniques that fall under the GMO legislation or not

Q. If CRISPR becomes a patented/proprietary technology it may restrict the adoption to richer countries and not actually benefit or ensure food security. What are your thoughts?

It would of course be better for the world with no restriction of access, but I also realize that we cannot change the patent legislation, and as companies are there to make money, we simply have to live with any restrictions that may come. I do hope that they will not restrict the use of those that need it most, but that is beyond yours and my control.

Q. Within the current norms of GMO versus non GMOs, is insertion of genes from the same plant (not-foreign) allowed?

It is considered a GMO, at least under the EU legislation.

Q. Do seed companies make new varieties using random mutagenesis using chemicals and radiation? Is this permitted?

Many breeders are still busy exploiting the variation created by mutagenesis programs conducted many decades ago, but I assume that also run new mutagenesis programs for some species. These are not considered GMO

Q. Plants have been selected by humans since the time we began agriculture. Would comparison of ancient plant genomes to current plant genomes be a good starting point to identify or make an inventory of desirable changes?

Indeed, and I have understood that some breeders do this

Q. Given that most genes in a plant that make protein are useful in some circumstance or other, how many genes do you think can we knock-off and ensure ‘improvement’?

It is of course only few genes that we can knock out and increase the fitness of the plant, if so evolution would probably have already selected those changes. But all genetic changes that we have made so for during the domestication have probably lead to a reduced fitness of the plant, but made them more useful to us in the agricultural system, so there is indeed a huge room for improvement also with new techniques.

Further Reading and References

1. Original Broadcast of the CRISPR dinner from Sverige Radio by Gustaf Klarin (In Swedish, amenable to translation using Google Translate or similar other tools), September 5th, 2016

2. What was on the plate?



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