The fu­ture of food: DNA edit­ing

New meth­ods are cheaper and faster, but crit­ics are wary

South Florida Sun-Sentinel (Sunday) - - Money - By Caitlin Dewey The Washington Post

RO­SEVILLE, Minn. — In a gleam­ing lab­o­ra­tory hid­den from the high­way by a Hamp­ton Inn and a Denny’s restau­rant, a re­searcher with the biotech firm Ca­lyxt works the con­trols of a boxy ro­bot.

The ro­bot whirs like an ar­cade claw ma­chine, drop­ping blips of DNA into tubes with pipettes. It’s build­ing an en­zyme that rewrites DNA — and trans­form­ing food and agri­cul­ture in the process.

Thanks to a cut­ting-edge tech­nol­ogy called gene edit­ing, sci­en­tists can now turn plant genes “on” and “off” al­most as eas­ily as Ca­lyxt sci­en­tists flip a switch to il­lu­mi­nate the rows of ten­der soy­bean plants grow­ing in their lab.

Ca­lyxt’s “health­ier” soy­bean, the in­dus­try’s first true gene-edited food, could make its way into prod­ucts such as chips, salad dress­ings and baked goods by the end of this year.

Un­like older ge­netic mod­i­fi­ca­tion meth­ods, the new tech­niques are pre­cise, fast and in­ex­pen­sive, and com­pa­nies hope they will avoid the neg­a­tive rep­u­ta­tion and reg­u­la­tory hurdles that hob­bled the first gen­er­a­tion of ge­net­i­cally mod­i­fied foods.

But the speed of change has star­tled con­sumer and en­vi­ron­men­tal groups, who say the new tech­nol­ogy has not been ad­e­quately vet­ted, and they have pe­ti­tioned reg­u­la­tors to add fur­ther safety re­views.

“This is hard stuff,” said Fed­erico Tripodi, Ca­lyxt’s chief ex­ec­u­tive. “Con­sumers ac­cept that tech­nol­ogy is good in many as­pects of their lives, but tech­nol­ogy and food has been some­thing A re­searcher holds a canola sam­ple at Ca­lyxt, where ex­per­i­men­tal wheat and soy­beans are also grown.

scary. We need to fig­ure out how to en­gage in that con­ver­sa­tion.”

Ca­lyxt’s soy­bean is the first of 23 gene-edited crops the Agri­cul­ture De­part­ment has rec­og­nized to date.

Sci­en­tists at Ca­lyxt de­vel­oped their soy­bean by turn­ing “off” the genes re­spon­si­ble for the trans fats in soy­bean oil. Com­pared with the con­ven­tional ver­sion, Ca­lyxt says, oil made from this soy­bean boasts far more “healthy” fats, and far less of the fats that raise bad choles­terol.

Tripodi likes to say the prod­uct is akin to olive oil but with­out the pun­gent fla­vor that would make it off-putting in Oreos or gra­nola bars. It has earned praise from the Cen­ter for Science in the Pub­lic In­ter­est, a con­sumer group that says pub­lic health will ben­e­fit from in­gre­di­ents with less trans and sat­u­rated fats, re­gard­less of how they were de­vel­oped.

With the ad­vent of gene edit­ing, the pace of those crop im­prove­ments is ac­cel­er­at­ing, said Dan Voy­tas, Ca­lyxt’s chief science of­fi­cer and a pro­fes­sor of bi­o­log­i­cal sciences at the Univer­sity

of Min­nesota.

“I never an­tic­i­pated the speed at which the field de­vel­oped,” Voy­tas said, lop­ing through the hu­mid green­houses where Ca­lyxt is grow­ing leafy jun­gles of ex­per­i­men­tal soy­beans, wheat and canola.

Plant breed­ers have sought to im­prove crops since the dawn of agri­cul­ture. For cen­turies, farm­ers have bred their health­i­est and high­est-yield­ing plants to pro­duce bet­ter off­spring. In the 1980s, sci­en­tists also be­gan to cut and paste DNA be­tween species in what is known as ge­netic engi­neer­ing.

That sparked a back­lash among Amer­i­can con­sumers, nearly 4 in 10 of whom be­lieve ge­net­i­cally mod­i­fied foods are bad for their health, ac­cord­ing to a 2016 Pew Re­search Cen­ter re­port. Pub­lic con­cern about ge­net­i­cally mod­i­fied or­gan­isms, or GMOs, has driven the growth of a multi­bil­lion-dol­lar non-GM food mar­ket and re­stricted their cul­ti­va­tion in Europe.

But sci­en­tists hope the pub­lic will prove less hos­tile to CRISPR and TALENs, the most prom­i­nent of the new gene-edit­ing tools, be­cause

of their po­ten­tial to im­prove taste and nu­tri­tional value.

Both work like tiny ge­netic scis­sors, snip­ping the dou­ble helix of a plant’s DNA at spe­cific, pre-coded spots. When the DNA heals it­self, it some­times deletes or scram­bles the gene next to the break — ef­fec­tively turn­ing that gene “off.”

Sci­en­tists in univer­sity labs and at com­pa­nies such as Ca­lyxt are al­ready de­sign­ing plants that are more nu­tri­tious, con­ve­nient and sus­tain­able, they say. Gene edit­ing’s low cost has em­pow­ered smaller play­ers to com­pete in a field that has long been dom­i­nated by huge agribusi­ness com­pa­nies.

Re­searchers at the In­sti­tute for Sus­tain­able Agri­cul­ture in Cor­doba, Spain, have come out with a strain of low-gluten wheat tar­geted to the boom­ing gluten-free mar­ket. Pennsylvania State Univer­sity has de­vel­oped mush­rooms that do not brown, and the Cold Spring Har­bor Lab­o­ra­tory has cre­ated to­ma­toes suited for shorter grow­ing sea­sons.

But even as gene edit­ing ac­cel­er­ates, some con­sumer and en­vi­ron­men­tal groups

have be­gun to fear that the field has out­paced reg­u­la­tors. Ad­vo­cates and crit­ics alike agree that the 30-yearold le­gal frame­work for vet­ting ge­net­i­cally mod­i­fied crops has failed to keep pace with in­no­va­tions such as CRISPR and TALENs.

Un­der cur­rent rules, the Agri­cul­ture De­part­ment does not re­quire field tests or en­vi­ron­men­tal as­sess­ments for many of th­ese crops, the way it does for most con­ven­tional ge­net­i­cally mod­i­fied or­gan­isms. That’s be­cause most of the gene-edited crops to date, such as Ca­lyxt’s soy­bean, do not con­tain for­eign ge­netic ma­te­rial and were not made us­ing the bac­te­ria or viruses that sci­en­tists em­ployed in the first-gen­er­a­tion GMOs. The agency has said its author­ity ex­tends only to those meth­ods, be­cause it’s charged with pro­tect­ing plants from in­fec­tions and pests. In late July, Europe’s top court came to the op­po­site con­clu­sion, rul­ing that gene-edited crops should ad­here to the same strict reg­u­la­tions as ge­net­i­cally mod­i­fied or­gan­isms.

The Food and Drug Ad­min­is­tra­tion, mean­while, does mon­i­tor the food safety and nutri­tion of ge­need­ited foods — but only if the food-maker re­quests a con­sul­ta­tion. Ca­lyxt has made no such re­quest, ac­cord­ing to the FDA. The agency is eval­u­at­ing whether gene-edited foods carry ad­di­tional safety risks.

Con­sumer groups have also raised alarms over how gene-edited foods will be la­beled. While Congress passed a law re­quir­ing food mak­ers to dis­close ge­net­i­cally mod­i­fied in­gre­di­ents in 2016, those rules will prob­a­bly not ap­ply to foods made with newer ge­need­it­ing tech­niques, said ex­perts who had re­viewed it. Ca­lyxt has mar­keted its soy­bean oil to food-mak­ers as “non-GMO,” cit­ing the fact that it con­tains no for­eign ge­netic ma­te­rial.

But con­sumers are un­likely to ac­cept this dis­tinc­tion, said Michael Hansen, a se­nior staff sci­en­tist at Con­sumers Union.

“I don’t un­der­stand why the com­pa­nies don’t want to be la­beled,” Hansen said. “Not la­bel­ing gives the im­pres­sion that they have some­thing to hide. And con­sumer ac­cep­tance will de­pend on that.”

But the seeds of change are al­ready - lit­er­ally - in the ground. One hour south of Ca­lyxt’s of­fices, the com­pany’s gene-edited soy­beans blan­ket a long, slop­ing hill on 62-year-old Bob Braun’s farm.

Braun is one of 75 farm­ers grow­ing Ca­lyxt beans this sea­son on his 17,000 acres of farm­land. By July, the plants are roughly knee­high and sport­ing pale laven­der flow­ers.

Within a few years, Braun pre­dicts, con­sumers also won’t be wor­ried about the dif­fer­ence be­tween gene-edited and con­ven­tional foods.

“I think you can go back to any time in hu­man his­tory and find peo­ple who were afraid of change,” he said.


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