The biotechnology giant Monsanto has now partnered with the Broad Institute to develop seeds using genetic or genome editing technology.
On Thursday, Monsanto announced a new partnership with the Broad Institute, a project of MIT and Harvard that focuses on a biomedical and genomic research. The new partnership grants Monsanto non-exclusive licensing for agriculture applications of CRISPR-Cas technology for use in seed development.
“The license to CRISPR-Cas from the Broad Institute provides access to an exciting tool for our growing body of genome-editing research,” said Tom Adams, Ph.D., biotechnology lead for Monsanto. “Genome-editing technology is complementary to our ongoing discovery research and provides an incredible resource to further unlock our world-leading germplasm and genome libraries.”
Using CRISPR-Cas technology for seed development was also discussed by a team of Italian researchers in August 2014 in Trends in Biotechnology. The researchers examined the public backlash against Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs) and whether the public would be more receptive of Genetic Editing. The team was hopeful that “awareness of what makes these biotechnologies new and different” might lead to Genetically Edited Organisms (GEOs) being more widely accepted than their GMO counterparts.
While GM foods are created when foreign genes are inserted into a plant, genetic editing modifies “through the insertion, deletion, or altering of existing genes of interest,” which could be used to prevent a crop from turning brown. Monsanto is now hoping these differences will make the crops more marketable than GMO products.
Monsanto is not the only biotechnology company to invest in CRISPR technology. DuPont Pioneer has also struck a deal with Caribou Biosciences to license its own CRISPR crops. Monsanto and DuPont are hoping that both the public and the U.S. government are accepting of genetically edited crops. Technically, a crop edited via CRISPR is not a GMO, at least not in the fashion that most of the public understands.
The US Department of Agriculture seems to agree, as does Monsanto. The USDA has already moved two crops made with Crispr — a type of mushroom and a type of corn — closer to grocery store shelves by opting not to regulate them like conventional GMOs. DuPont, the company making the corn, says it plans to see the crop in farmers’ fields in the next five years.
Based on the USDA’s decision not to regulate or label the genetically edited crops it is likely that Monsanto and DuPont will continue to invest in CRISPR technology. Business Insider notes that since 2013, “researchers have experimented with it in a number of crops, including oranges, potatoes, wheat, rice, and tomatoes.”
Another element of this story involves the use of CRISPR technology to create genetically engineered babies. In February 2016, Anti Media reported that Rathy Niakan, a stem cell scientist from London’s Francis Crick Institute, was granted a license to carry out experiments involving creating genetically engineered embryos using CRISPR-Cas9. This begs the question – do Monsanto and DuPont, companies with a history of involvement with bioweapons, have an interest in genetically engineered humans?
Genetically engineered human embryos and gene editing is reminiscent of Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World. It is also a theme in the 1997 film, Gattaca. In Gattaca, we see a future version of our world where genes decide one’s place in society. The practice amounts to an essential caste system. In this world, the wealthy and elite can afford to engineer their children and remove any possible “defects.” Those who are deemed genetically inferior are called “in-valids.” The film touches on genetic engineering, eugenics, and the moral implications of playing God with human life. Both Gattaca and Brave New World offer thought-provoking explanations of this new, growing reality.
What are your thoughts? Do you support Genetically Edited crops? Would you support CRISPR technology over GMOs?