The World Health Organization’s special committee on gene editing has recently called for maintaining an international database for the ongoing research work in the area. The WHO panel’s statement said that it would be irresponsible for any scientist to conduct human gene-editing studies in people, and a central registry of research plans should be set up to ensure transparency. This committee’s comments have come in the wake of the birth of the first gene-edited babies — the result of an experiment by a Chinese scientist, He Jiankui, who genetically altered human embryos.
In such a backdrop, the mere mention of word ‘Gene Editing’ makes most of the people think it is the same as Genetically Modified Organisms and then they go on to associate it with controversies surrounding the latter. So is it really the same, after all, we are talking about editing the genes? But the fact is that it is different and the difference lies in the way the genome is modified. Instead of insertion of a foreign gene in the DNA, here it is limited to the modification or deletion of the mutated gene within the individual’s genome.
Not that the Gene Editing is without any controversies, here the question is not on the side effects of the product but the priority of its usage and avoiding unnecessary experimentation. Point in case is the He Jiankui’s gene edited baby claim which is ridden with bioethical issues and an unnecessary hype that doesn’t solve any problem. So could it have been avoided? Certainly yes, if there would have been guidelines established in respective countries.
In India, the Department of Biotechnology is shortly coming up with the draft guidelines for gene editing, as revealed by the Principal Scientific Advisor to the Government of India, Prof K Vijayraghavan recently on Twitter. It would be interesting to see how would the cross sections of our scientific community and the society, in general, would react as and when this draft comes up for consultations.
The question, meanwhile, is that should the ‘Gene Editing’ be discarded just because its use in humans involves bioethical issues or we should look at its immense potential in agriculture and ensuring food security for our population? Since one cannot disagree with the fact that bioethical issues in human gene-editing need thorough detailing, let us limit this discussion to the potential of Gene Editing in revolutionizing agriculture.
Gene Editing in agriculture: A look at positives
Given its immense potential, Gene Editing is seen as a powerful tool for global agriculture, offering options to wipe out genetic disease, improve drought resistance, boost nutrient efficiency, and prolong shelf life. The approach involves making a cut in the plant’s DNA using molecular scissors, then the changes to the sequence are made by the plant’s own repair process. The technology enables breeders to insert, delete or replace genetic traits within the organism’s genome.
There are several approaches, but it is the method called CRISPR-cas9, which has created a huge buzz within the scientific community. However, questions have been raised over who will determine the technology’s future and how.
With gene editing, the ability to pick livestock traits will be just as easy. For agriculture, the desirable animal health and productivity traits to sell to producers for use in breeding programs will be possible. The discoveries could include the gene-edited polled cows, heat-tolerant cattle, foot-and-mouth disease resistance, genetic castration, meat quality, and what not.
Apart from CRISPR, there are many who are creating their own proprietary technologies for gene editing. This includes many companies in US and Europe who are not much interested in CRISPR because of patent and licensing disputes with the technology.
CRISPR stands for clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats. These repeats were discovered in the genomes of bacteria where it acts as an adaptive immune system. It uses RNA to guide molecular scissors (Cas) to cut up invading viruses. Using these same molecular tools, scientists reprogrammed the molecular scissors to cut and edit or correct specific spots in DNA. CRISPR-Cas tools can now be engineered to cut out the DNA at the exact site of a mutation for a disease in a pig, for example.