Monsanto aims to use CRISPR to engineer food

Posted Sep 29, 2016 by Tim Sandle
Agricultural biotech company Monsanto has licensed the use of the cutting edge CRISPR-Cas genome-editing technology for food production.
CRISPR -  revolutionary new tool to cut and splice DNA.
CRISPR - revolutionary new tool to cut and splice DNA.
UC Berkeley
Monsanto has licensed the gene editing technology from the Broad Institute at Harvard University and MIT. The aim is to use the emerging technology to produce crops such as corn and soybeans. The aim is to ensure these crops are more resistant to diseases and more robust to environmental changes, such as drought.
This is based on CRISPR technology. The technique enables researchers to remove and replace bits of DNA in a precise way. CRISPR is an acronym for “Clustered regularly-interspaced short palindromic repeats.”
Digital Journal has run an in-depth article on the technology; here it is explained: “CRISPR is based on the functionality of a bacterium’s immune system. With this defensive mechanism, parts of viruses that infect bacteria are retained within the bacterial genome. This allows the bacterium to later recognize and defend itself against viral infections in the future.”
The technique is seen as a potential tool for helping to overcome world hunger (this is featured in an informative Digital Journal article by Karen Graham).
With the new genetically modified food news, in discussion with New Scientist magazine Tom Adams, who is Monsanto’s head of biotechnology, has said why CRISPR is key to his company’s aims: “Getting more productivity out of less acres with less inputs is clearly a critical thing for humanity. And gene editing is another tool that can help us accelerate that.”
The use of genetically modified organisms to genetically modified food is controversial, not least because of the risk of releasing modified genetic material into the environment. This is a subject of concern with many environmental organizations, such as Greenpeace. Here the environmental campaign group states:
“These genetically modified organisms (GMOs) can spread through nature via cross-pollination from field to field and interbreed with natural organisms, thereby making it impossible to truly control how genetically engineered modified crops spread. GMOs cannot be recalled once released into the environment.”
As a counter to this, English biochemist and molecular biologist Sir Richard Roberts has recently sent a letter to environmental organizations calling for greater dialogue about genetically modified foods. Here the academic is very critical of those environmental groups that he sees as blocking progress in relation to the use of GMOs in food production. In an interview with the European Union website EUractiv, he says: “Many people in the developing world are deliberately being denied the opportunity to use modern agricultural techniques to raise their quality of life.”
As an example, Sir Richard Roberts adds: “Just golden rice alone, if its development was not being hampered, has the possibility to save many children from blindness and developmental defects. Currently, as many as two million children die every year from vitamin A deficiency.”
In related news there is set to be an expensive and long-running patent dispute with respect to CRISPR technology as different parties fight for the right to use it (based on the matter of ‘who really invented it and which university should patent it?’) With this, according to Nature magazine, the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office must consider in the fight over CRISPR–Cas9 gene editing.