Home LATEST NEWS The Crispr genetic scissor arrives in agriculture

The Crispr genetic scissor arrives in agriculture

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The researcher quickly spotted the one she wanted to show us. A sheep with a red ear tag stands out. It exceeds all its congeners by at least a head.

It’s a Crispr sheep. It grows 40% faster than all the others. »

A quote from Alison Van Eenennaam, geneticist

To obtain this sheep, the researcher intervened at the very early stages of its embryonic development. Using the Crispr genetic scissor, she inactivated a key gene involved in cell growth. She then introduced this doctored embryo into a surrogate sheep.

It is a question of feed efficiency: this ewe transforms each kilogram of food it ingests better than the others. »

A quote from Alison Van Eenennaam, geneticist
Alison Van Eenennaam at the farm.

Alison Van Eenennaam created this Crispr ewe at the University of California, Davis Experimental Farm.

Photo: TurnedNews.com / Gilbert Bégin

The Crispr genetic scissor is the new star of gene editing. It makes it possible to modify the genes of a cell with a still unequaled precision. After having revolutionized genetic research, the first Crispr applications are arriving in agriculture.

No foreign DNA

Until now, classic genetic modifications consisted of introducing a foreign gene into the genome of a cell to give it a new character.

This is the case with Monsanto’s transgenic corn, for example, and, more recently, with AquaBounty’s transgenic salmon raised in Prince Edward Island.

But Crispr doesn’t need any foreign DNA. Rather, it modifies the genome in place. The Crispr chisel cuts DNA at the desired location on a gene and then guides its rewriting.

Crispr thus makes it possible to correct a mutation, replace or add a DNA sequence at a specific location in the genome.

A revolution in progress

Researchers everywhere are currently working to improve farm animals with Crispr.

In the United States, the Acceligen firm of Minnesota has just obtained the green light from the American health authorities to market short-haired cows so that they are more tolerant of hot temperatures.

We have also edited the genome of pigs so that they resist the PRRS virus, a common disease in animal husbandry.

Crispr applications for animal welfare abound.

In addition to manipulations on ewes, Alison Van Eenennaam has just completed the study of lines of polled cows from a bull manipulated by genome editing.

Breeders burn the horns at birth for safety reasons. It would be a step forward for animal welfare to market polled cows. »

A quote from Alison Van Eenennaam, geneticist

Ethical limits

The promises that Crispr brings are great. But the genetic improvement of livestock raises ethical questions about the manipulation of living things.

Crispr is changing our relationship with farm animalssays Lyne Létourneau, Vice-Dean of the Faculty of Science, Agriculture and Food at Laval University.

This specialist in animal ethics participated in the drafting of European guidelines that mark out research in genome editing. While she finds the Crispr shear a fabulous tool, she draws attention to its all-out appeal to improve animal welfare.

It prevents us from seeing fundamental problems that are linked to deficient breeding conditions. »

A quote from Lyne Létourneau, Vice-Dean at the Faculty of Science, Agriculture and Food, Université Laval

The researcher gives as an example the lines of blind chickens developed at the end of the 1990s. These chickens obtained by traditional selection and not by Crispr were intended to reduce the stress of chickens raised in excessively high densities.

Although this experiment has been abandoned, it would now be easy to breed such chickens with Crispr. Ethically, this example shows the limitations of focusing solely on animal welfare to promote the acceptability of DNA modification techniques like Crisprexplains the researcher.

According to her, Crispr should not be used to manufacture custom animals to overcome the problems encountered in factory farms.

Lyne Létourneau in front of a computer.

Lyne Létourneau of Laval University seeks to mark out research in the manipulation of the genome and deplores the fact that ethical questions are not sufficiently debated.

Photo: TurnedNews.com / Gilbert Bégin

But then, how far should we go in manipulating the genome in breeding?

The specialist talks about respecting the integrity of animals and their physical attributes as a guide in gene editing research.

The risk is to lose sight of the fact that what we have on our plate is a living and sensitive being. »

A quote from Lyne Letourneau

Crispr plants hit the fields

If Crispr calls into question our relationship with animals, plants resulting from genome editing also raise their share of issues.

Researcher Dominique Michaud from Laval University is associate editor of a major scientific journal. He sees several scientific articles about Crispr every day.

We see many applications related to plant resistance to drought and increased yields. »

A quote from Dominique Michaud, researcher at Laval University
Dominique Michaud in his laboratory.

Researcher Dominique Michaud saw the very first GMOs arrive in the field 25 years ago.

Photo: TurnedNews.com / Gilbert Bégin

Just like GMOs appeared 25 years ago, the first Crispr applications to reach the food chain will be through plants.

For example, researchers have developed hyper-productive rice, mushrooms that no longer turn brown and vines that are more resistant to a deadly fungus.

Crispr is also the dream tool of the great agrochemicals. Corteva, the world’s second-largest seed company, is testing with genome-edited corn.

The arrival of Crispr plants will first be in field crops, because these are plants that have a high commercial value. »

A quote from Dominique Michaud, researcher at Laval University

Again genetically modified organism?

But how do we regulate these gene-edited products? Are these new genetically modified organism?

Europe cut short the semantic debate and ruled that any product resulting from the manipulation of the genome must be considered a genetically modified organism.

In the United States, we have chosen another avenue. Health authorities have concluded that organisms manipulated with Crispr are not genetically modified organism since they do not contain DNA from another organism.

As for Canada, the status of these novel foods is about to change. The federal government is reviewing its regulations on this subject. So far, the concept novel foods which is at the heart of the Canadian regulations encompassed both the genetically modified organism and products that could be obtained by gene editing. Not anymore.

The reason? The modifications made by Crispr in a plant would be equivalent to those obtained by conventional breeding and selection.

Thus, Crispr plants and seeds could be marketed without any assessment of their harmlessness or their safety for the environment.

Contamination in the fields

For interest groups like Vigilance genetically modified organismthis federal reform is only intended to facilitate the marketing by the industry of new seeds genetically modified organism.

Thibault Rehn asserts that excluding Crispr plants from the regulations will increase the presence of genetically modified organism in the fields, as well as the use of the pesticides that accompany them.

After 25 years of cultivation genetically modified organism100% of the plants sown are genetically modified to tolerate herbicides such as Roundup. »

A quote from Thibault Rehn, Coordinator, GMO Vigilance
Thibault Rehn.

Thibault Rehn coordinator at Vigilance OGM

Photo: MAPAQ

Same opposition for the Organic sector of Quebec. This organization, which brings together organic producers and processors, sent an important petition to the federal government to denounce this reform.

It is feared that the new Crispr plants will contaminate their fields and thus compromise their export markets, in addition to undermining consumer confidence.

These groups are now asking the federal government to impose the identification of Crispr seeds and to ensure the traceability of all these products.

Learning from the past

Despite fears and reluctance, experts say it’s only a matter of time before Crispr products hit the farms. If ethicists like Lyne Létourneau affirm that this tool is a step forward, they nevertheless warn against the triumphalist discourse that sometimes accompanies breakthroughs in genetic engineering.

Crispr is just a tool. It alone will not solve world hunger. »

A quote from Lyne Letourneau

The researcher now wants to see applications that will not only benefit industrialists or farmers, as was the case with GMO corn or soy 25 years ago. Let’s use Crispr to develop applications that also benefit animals, consumers and societyconcludes Lyne Létourneau.

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