What, exactly, qualifies an organism for the politically fraught label of “genetically modified organism,” or GMO?
The answer is not obvious. Every species is a genetically modified form of an ancestral species, that’s just how evolution works. What’s more, evidence continues to accumulate that horizontal gene transfer—the movement of genes between two species—is more common than previously thought. This is all to say nothing of the fact that humans have been shaping the genomes of everything from corn to corgis through selective breeding since before we knew what a gene was.
This discussion might seem very academic, but it has real-world relevance where legislation and regulation are concerned.
Consider the situation described in Nature by editor David Cyranoski. He writes about a team of South Korean researchers led by Jin-Soo Kim of Seoul National University who have improved upon CRISPR, the latest and greatest gene-editing technique. Their version of the technique allows them to disable selected plant genes without the risk of leaving any foreign DNA behind. (The typical CRISPR technique in plant science today makes use of an Agrobacterium bacteria to introduce a special gene for producing a DNA-cutting enzyme—bits of the bacterium’s DNA or special gene can end up in the plant’s genome as a result.)
As Cyranoski points out, other teams around the world have been developing techniques that let them edit plant genomes without introducing unwanted foreign DNA—using nanoparticles, for instance, instead of Agrobacterium to deliver the necessary DNA-cutting proteins.
The applications of these techniques remain similar, if a bit more limited, than other methods of gene editing. Disease-resistant versions of wheat and rice are some of the first goals for a disabling-only version of gene editing (see “A Potato Made with Gene Editing”).
Scientifically, it’s an incremental improvement. Politically, it could make a huge difference. It comes back to the question of how, precisely, to define a genetically modified organism. If it hinges on the presence of “foreign” DNA, then Kim and his team have devised a technique that would spare their creations from regulatory hell. The European Union, in particular, is notorious for its extremely precautionary stance toward genetically modified crops. For now, debates about how to define genetic modification for regulatory purposes in the EU and around the globe are ongoing (see “On the Horns of the GMO Dilemma”).
Cyranoski lays out the confused state of affairs in the U.S.:
“In the United States, editing plants with Agrobacterium is currently a trigger for regulation by the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service, yet plants edited in other ways have bypassed regulations. But rules may change there too: in July, the White House launched a multiyear initiative to review federal regulations on agricultural biotechnology.”
There is, however, one arena in which the fate of this technique is already sealed: the court of public opinion. The fervor surrounding genetically engineered organisms and their risks, both real and imagined, shows no sign of quieting down. As potent a rhetorical device as cross-species (i.e. transgenic) engineering makes, it’s not the linchpin of people’s fears. The sanctity of the species boundary isn’t what drives people to pick up their signs and march the streets.
The opposition to genetic modification of food crops is fueled by a potent mix of distrust for industry, the misguided veneration of “nature,” psuedo-religious eating habits, legitimate (if often outsized) fears about ecological disaster, and a healthy dose of garden-variety ignorance. Consider the image used by Nature when publishing this article to the Web: plants in petri dishes. It’s a perfect microcosm of the “unnaturalness” that so scares many people around the world. My point being, any technique that involves modifying a plant’s genetic code that’s more technologically sophisticated than traditional breeding is going to trigger our societal anxiety about biotech. And even if certain advanced techniques dodge formal regulation in the short-term, they’re not going to escape the roiling anti-biotech public sentiment.
Until the public climate shifts, I’m worried the fruits of geneticists’ labor won’t have a fair shot at taking root, no matter where their genes come from.