“Gene-editing” or “genome-editing” describes a range of new techniques to alter the genetic material of plants, animals, and microbes, such as bacteria. The most common of these techniques currently used in experiments is called CRISPR. The techniques raise many of the same risk questions as earlier techniques of genetic engineering, and raise the same environmental, social, economic and ethical concerns.
The new techniques can make it easier and faster to genetically engineer (genetically modify) a wider range of organisms, for more purposes. They are powerful research tools that are being used to better understand gene function and, in particular, to genetically modify mice and other research animals to study human diseases. They are also being used to promise new GM foods. The biotechnology industry argues that gene editing should not be classified as genetic modification, and should not be regulated or labelled.
“Gene editing” or “genome editing” refers to the modification of the genome at a specific, targeted location. Using enzymes that act as molecular scissors to cut DNA along with natural DNA repair mechanisms of cells, the genome can be modified by adding, deleting or altering parts of the DNA sequence. This can be distinguished from approaches that introduce new genetic material into unspecified locations within the genome, though most genome editing techniques still use familiar genetic engineering tools such as the use of recombinant DNA (a combination of DNA elements from multiple sources) and also involve transformation of plant cells (uptake of the DNA by a cell).
As seen with previous genetic engineering (genetic modification or GM) techniques, the disruption of the genome via genetic engineering can have long-distance effects on the balance of global expression of genes.
Claims that these technologies are safer than other GM techniques are unproven. Each gene editing technique each bring their own set of risks and uncertainties. Whilst many of these are the same as with older genetic engineering techniques, there are also serious additional concerns. There is a strong scientific case for classifying all these techniques as genetic engineering (genetic modification or GM) and regulating their use with as much rigour as previous and current GM techniques.
Is gene editing precise?
The term “editing” is misleading because it implies a level of precision that is not currently, and may never be possible. It suggests the ability to rewrite the genetic code and to simply cut and paste DNA but, in reality, the results are still determined by processes in the organism that we neither fully understand nor control.
It is commonly said that gene editing is capable of creating precise, accurate and specific alterations to DNA but this is technically inaccurate. Gene editing can more efficiently target sites in the genome but the enzymes used in gene editing have been shown to cut DNA in the wrong spots and create off-target mutations. After a cut is made, the cell’s DNA repair mechanisms are in control of what happens next for the organism. The results are alterations – such as deletions, insertions, and rearrangements – at the intended site, but also at unintended, off-target sites.
Precise edits, even if possible, do not necessarily yield precise outcomes. Even a simple genetic “tweak” can have wide-ranging effects on an organism’s genome.
Any attempt to engineer genomes with such invasive methods can cause unexpected and unpredictable effects.
Unexpected large deletions or rearrangements of DNA can take place at the intended editing site or elsewhere, and can disrupt the function of non-target genes. Unwanted changes may slip by undetected. Even the intended alteration can inadvertently alter other important genes, causing changes in chemistry or protein production that can be important for food and environmental safety. Gene editing may also have unintended impacts on an organism’s ability to express or suppress other genes. The orchestration of gene function in an organism is part of a complex regulatory network that is poorly understood.
The biotechnology industry argues that gene editing should not be classified as genetic modification and that the products should therefore be exempt from regulation.
In July 2018, the European Court of Justice ruled that “gene edited” organisms (obtained by directed mutagenesis techniques) are genetically modified organisms (GMOs) and therefore subject to existing GMO regulations.
Canada assesses the risks of genetically engineered organisms under regulations for “Novel Foods” and “Plants with Novel Traits”. Most, but not necessarily all, gene edited products will be covered by these regulations because the Canadian government regulates products if they have a “novel” trait, regardless of the process used to make them.
The U.S. government is not conducting risk assessments before gene edited products are approved. European regulations for genetically modified organisms cover gene editing.
- Statement: Products of new genetic modification techniques should be strictly regulated as GMOs, The European Network of Scientists for Social and Environmental Responsibility, September 27, 2019.
- Gelinsky, Eva, and Angelika Hilbeck. “European Court of Justice ruling regarding new genetic engineering methods scientifically justified: a commentary on the biased reporting about the recent ruling.” Environmental sciences Europe vol. 30,1 (2018). “Regulation is being portrayed as a ban on research and use, which is factually incorrect”
- Report: Gene Drives. A report on their science, applications, social aspects, ethics and regulations, The European Network of Scientists for Social and Environmental Responsibility, May 2019
- Report: Gene-edited organisms in agriculture: Risks and unexpected consequences, Friends of the Earth USA, 2018.
- Statement: Products of new genetic modification techniques should be strictly regulated as GMOs, European Network of Scientists for Environmental and Social Responsibility, September 2017.
- Article: God’s Red Pencil? CRISPR and The Three Myths of Precise Genome Editing, Jonathan Latham, Independent Science News, 2016.
- Report: Genetic Engineering in Plants and the “New Breeding Techniques (NBTs)”: Inherent risks and the need to regulate, EcoNexus, Dr. Ricarda Steinbrecher, December 2015.