Gene-edited food prod­ucts head­ing to gro­cery stores

Belleville News-Democrat (Sunday) - - Weather - BY LAURAN NEERGAARD

The next gen­er­a­tion of biotech food is headed for the gro­cery aisles, and first up may be salad dress­ings or gra­nola bars made with soy­bean oil ge­net­i­cally tweaked to be good for your heart.

By early next year, the first foods from plants or an­i­mals that had their DNA “edited” are ex­pected to be­gin sell­ing. It’s a dif­fer­ent tech­nol­ogy than to­day’s con­tro­ver­sial “ge­net­i­cally mod­i­fied” foods, more like faster breed­ing that prom­ises to boost nu­tri­tion, spur crop growth, and make farm an­i­mals hardier and fruits and veg­eta­bles last longer.

The U.S. Na­tional Academy of Sciences has de­clared gene edit­ing one of the break­throughs needed to im­prove food pro­duc­tion so the world can feed bil­lions more peo­ple amid a chang­ing cli­mate. Yet gov­ern­ments are wrestling with how to reg­u­late this pow­er­ful new tool. And af­ter years of con­fu­sion and ran­cor, will shop­pers ac­cept gene-edited foods or view them as GMOs in dis­guise?

“If the con­sumer sees the ben­e­fit, I think they’ll em­brace the prod­ucts and worry less about the tech­nol­ogy,” said Dan Voy­tas, a Univer­sity of Min­nesota pro­fes­sor and chief sci­ence of­fi­cer for Ca­lyxt Inc., which edited soy­beans to make the oil heart-healthy.

Re­searchers are pur­su­ing more am­bi­tious changes: Wheat with triple the usual fiber, or that’s low in gluten. Mush­rooms that don’t brown, and bet­ter-pro­duc­ing toma- toes. Drought-tol­er­ant corn, and rice that no longer ab­sorbs soil pol­lu­tion as it grows. Dairy cows that don’t need to un­dergo painful de-horn­ing, and pigs im­mune to a dan­ger­ous virus that can sweep through herds.

Sci­en­tists even hope gene edit­ing even­tu­ally could save species from be­ing wiped out by dev­as­tat­ing dis­eases like cit­rus green­ing, a so far un­stop­pable in­fec­tion that’s de­stroy­ing Florida’s famed oranges.

First they must find genes that could make a new gen­er­a­tion of trees im­mune.

“If we can go in and edit the gene, change the DNA se­quence ever so slightly by one or two let­ters, po­ten­tially we’d have a way to de­feat this dis­ease,” said Fred Gmit­ter, a ge­neti­cist at the Univer­sity of Florida Cit­rus Re­search and Ed­u­ca­tion Cen­ter, as he ex­am­ined dis­eased trees in a grove near Fort Meade.


Farm­ers have long ge­net­i­cally ma­nip­u­lated crops and an­i­mals by se­lec­tively breed­ing to get off­spring with cer­tain traits. It’s time-con­sum­ing and can bring trade-offs. Mod­ern to­ma­toes, for ex­am­ple, are larger than their pea-sized wild an­ces­tor, but the gen­er­a­tions of cross-breed­ing made them more frag­ile and al­tered their nu­tri­ents.

GMOs, or ge­net­i­cally mod­i­fied or­gan­isms, are plants or an­i­mals that were mixed with an­other species’ DNA to in­tro­duce a spe­cific trait – mean­ing they’re “trans­genic.” Best known are corn and soy­beans mixed with bac­te­rial genes for built-in re­sis­tance to pests or weed killers.

De­spite in­ter­na­tional sci­en­tific con­sen­sus that GMOs are safe to eat, some peo­ple re­main wary and there is con­cern they could spur her­bi­cidere­sis­tant weeds.

Now gene-edit­ing tools, with names like CRISPR and TALENs, prom­ise to al­ter foods more pre­cisely, and at less cost, with­out nec­es­sar­ily adding for­eign DNA. In­stead, they act like molec­u­lar scis­sors to al­ter the let­ters of an or­gan­ism’s own ge­netic al­pha­bet.

The tech­nol­ogy can insert new DNA, but most prod­ucts in de­vel­op­ment so far switch off a gene, ac­cord­ing to Univer­sity of Mis­souri pro­fes­sor Nicholas Kalaitzan­don­akes.

Those new Ca­lyxt soy­beans? Voy­tas’ team in­ac­ti­vated two genes so the beans pro­duce oil with no heart-dam­ag­ing trans fat and that shares the famed health pro­file of olive oil with­out its dis­tinct taste.

The horn­less calves? Most dairy Hol­steins grow horns that are re­moved for the safety of farm­ers and other cows. Re­com­bi­net­ics Inc. swapped part of the gene that makes dairy cows grow horns with the DNA in­struc­tions from nat­u­rally horn­less An­gus beef cat­tle.

“Pre­ci­sion breed­ing,” is how an­i­mal ge­neti­cist Ali­son Van Ee­nen­naam of the Univer­sity of Cal­i­for­nia, Davis, ex­plains it. “This isn’t go­ing to re­place tra­di­tional breed­ing,” but make it eas­ier to add one more trait.


The Agri­cul­ture Depart­ment says ex­tra rules aren’t needed for “plants that could oth­er­wise have been de­vel­oped through tra­di­tional breed­ing,” clear­ing the way for de­vel­op­ment of about two dozen ge­need­ited crops so far.

In con­trast, the Food and Drug Ad­min­is­tra­tion in 2017 pro­posed tighter, drug-like re­stric­tions on gene-edited an­i­mals. It prom­ises guid­ance some­time next year on ex­actly how it will pro­ceed.


An­i­mal ge­neti­cist Ali­son Van Ee­nen­naam of the Univer­sity of Cal­i­for­nia, Davis, points to a group of dairy calves that won’t have to be de-horned thanks to gene edit­ing.

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