Skip to Content
Biotechnology

Gene Editing Could Rewrite the GMO Debate

CRISPR and Talen are giving plant scientists a fast and cheap new way to create genetically modified foods.
December 19, 2017
Photo by Roxana Perdue

Decades of fretting over the safety and virtue of genetically modified organisms have led to a perverse outcome. Plant scientists in academia and startup companies have largely shied away from creating new GM crop varieties because it takes, on average, more than a hundred million dollars and over a decade to get such a plant approved by regulators in the United States, and also because the idea of GMO food has elicited public outrage. As a result, a few large agricultural and chemical producers like ­Monsanto—or MonSatan, if you prefer—dominate the GM industry, making a killing off herbicide- and insect-resistant corn and soybeans.

The outcome has been just what GMO critics most dreaded: many farmers depend on a few large companies, whose researchers focus on traits designed to improve profits rather than produce healthier foods for consumers. For noncorporate researchers, meanwhile, genetic engineering of plants has been expensive and risky. That stunts progress in plant breeding just as climate change and population growth are putting growing pressure on agriculture (see “Why We Will Need Genetically Modified Foods”).

That’s why the work described in “These Are Not Your Father’s GMOs”, by our senior biomedicine editor, Antonio Regalado, is so important. Regalado explains how a leading plant geneticist is using gene editing to create a healthier soybean that farmers in South Dakota and elsewhere are beginning to plant and harvest. New gene-editing tools, either CRISPR or the slightly older TALEN, don’t insert a foreign gene into the plant to create a new trait (as typically happens with conventional GMOs) but, rather, tweak the plant’s existing DNA. The engineered crops thus sidestep the lengthy regulatory process and could avoid the stigmas surrounding GMOs entirely.

Gene editing is cheap, powerful, and precise. Most important, it puts many more plant scientists back in the game of creating new varieties of crops, dreaming up blight-resistant potatoes, tastier tomatoes, drought-tolerant rice, and higher-fiber wheat. Until now, there has been little progress in commercializing such agricultural innovations, which are likely to represent far smaller and less lucrative markets than herbicide-resistant corn and soybeans. Getting gene editing into the hands of a far larger group of scientists could return us to the original vision for genetic engineering as an invaluable tool for growing healthier and cheaper foods, helping to feed the world’s growing population.

Or will it? That depends on public perception. Will gene editing be viewed as a state-of-the-art tool for improving crops, or an easier and faster way to create franken­foods? One can only hope it’s the former, and that plant science can fully enter the modern age of genomics, leaving fears of GMOs and MonSatan in the shadows.

Deep Dive

Biotechnology

How scientists want to make you young again

Research labs are pursuing technology to “reprogram” aging bodies back to youth.

Human brain cells transplanted into baby rats’ brains grow and form connections

When lab-grown clumps of human neurons are transplanted into newborn rats, they grow with the animals. The research raises some tricky ethical questions.

Inside the billion-dollar meeting for the mega-rich who want to live forever

Hope, hype, and self-experimentation collided at an exclusive conference for ultra-rich investors who want to extend their lives past 100. I went along for the ride.

The debate over whether aging is a disease rages on

In its latest catalogue of health conditions, the World Health Organization almost equated old age with disease. Then it backed off.

Stay connected

Illustration by Rose Wong

Get the latest updates from
MIT Technology Review

Discover special offers, top stories, upcoming events, and more.

Thank you for submitting your email!

Explore more newsletters

It looks like something went wrong.

We’re having trouble saving your preferences. Try refreshing this page and updating them one more time. If you continue to get this message, reach out to us at customer-service@technologyreview.com with a list of newsletters you’d like to receive.