Gene editing technology has an untapped potential to influence the agricultural industry — from drought and insect resistance to nutrient supplementation and a range of other benefits, the tools unlock potential that many academics, businesses and consumers are only beginning to understand.
The Business Record met with Carmen Bain, rural sociologist at the department of sociology at Iowa State University, and Cory Christensen, technical program leader in the seed business platform at Corteva Agriscience, to understand the building blocks of what gene editing is, how it might affect agricultural producers and what consumers need to know to feel informed.
Listen to our discussion above, or take a peek below at our discussion with Bain and Christensen.
How do you introduce genome editing to newcomers?
Christensen: Genome editing is in the context of the history of mankind being able to use plants and animals. In every generation, a natural variation occurs in DNA. Those are called mutations — it’s kind of a scary word, but a mutation just means one of those letters [in the genome], A, G, C or T, has changed.
For the last couple of decades we’ve had tremendous abilities to peer into the DNA sequence of plants. It used to cost tens of millions of dollars, and take multiple years, to sequence the genome of a living organism. Now we can sequence genomes for thousands of dollars in a matter of weeks. … We can look and compare varieties, we can say, “Here’s what the changes that were made that allowed these particular beneficial characteristics to occur.” What genome editing allows us to do now is use that information to go into the genome and make very specific changes based on this knowledge that we have.
Bain: When you talk to scientists, they give you a much deeper, broader understanding of what gene editing is. I think one of the concerns coming up among some folks that I talk to is that in the media we tend to oversimplify what gene editing is, and so people can walk away thinking it’s this one technique that’s really simple and precise. … What Cory is conveying is that it’s a range of technologies, and it can range from something fairly straightforward to something quite complex. I think one of the challenges moving forward is how we engage in some of those conversations.
What are the techniques we use in gene editing?
Christensen: When we talk about genome editing, we’re actually talking about a whole suite of different tools. There’s been an evolution of those over the past couple of decades, and there are a lot of really complex-sounding names that are out there, like Meganucleases and TALEN and CRISPR.
The one that is gaining the most prominence … and that’s actually getting into popular culture, you see it on the front page of Newsweek and magazines, is CRISPR. That is an acronym that describes how the sequences of genetic information were arranged when they discovered in a bacterial species. It stands for clustered regularly interspaced palindromic repeats, which is why we don’t say that very often.
That has been understood and used in part for a couple of decades, but just more recently starting in around 2012, when some major universities — UC Berkeley, Vilnius, Harvard, MIT — had discoveries in this space that found that particular tool was going to be useful.
What are the challenges of using gene editing tools?
Christensen: Before you can make any change, you need to understand the biology. There are a couple of parts to that. One is, in sequencing, you need to know the sequence of the genome you’re interested in editing, but another part of that is you need to understand what the genes are and what they do.
For many decades the agricultural industry, academia and researchers have been studying various pathways that control functions in plants. Many of those pathways have to do with disease tolerance, oil profiles, protein production, other aspects of stress response. So you start to think, what are the challenges that a producer is going to face in the field? Growing plants and trying to have high-productivity plants growing in the field that are able to withstand the stresses, the nutrient deficiencies that already exist. … There’s a whole other set of characteristics that have to do with things that would be more consumer-oriented, like healthy oils, higher-protein content, reducing antinutritional components or allergens.
Bain: What kinds of traits get developed, especially in the early stages of commercializing different products, is viewed as really important for consumer acceptance. One of the criticisms around GMO [genetically modified organisms] was the kinds of products that were produced [were] largely glyphosate-resistant soybean and corn. The benefits largely accrued to the big biotech and seed companies, or the large farmers. There really were no benefits to consumers — you could argue that it reduced the cost, but it wasn’t a benefit that was immediately perceivable by consumers. The hope here is that some of the earliest products that come out will be products with traits that are recognizably beneficial to different consumers.
Whether that happens or not is a different question, because of course the biggest companies who are involved in developing some of these products — most of the work is targeted toward commodity crops for farmers. … There’s a number of different startups or nonprofit institutions who are doing work on products that could have a perceivable benefit for consumers but also benefits for smallholder farmers in developing countries, if you could develop drought-resistant rice.
Do consumer stakeholders truly understand what this technology does?
Bain: There is some growing understanding, but it’s still very small. Our expectation is that it will remain fairly low until you have some specific products on the market, and that’s when you’ll start to see greater awareness.
When we look at different stakeholder groups — consumer, environmental, agricultural groups — there’s more awareness among those folks, and they can play an important role when educating the public and informing the public about gene editing.
Christensen: At Corteva our primary customers are producers, so we deal with a lot of commodity crops — corn, soybean, cotton, canola, sunflower. … But we’ve tried to reach out, interact, let people know that this technology is coming and create public forums. We sponsored a conference called CRISPR Con, it’s like Comic Con but for CRISPR where a big cross section of society could come together and have a discussion. One of the things that is really important for people … is knowing that others will be able to participate in the technology — it’s not going to be something that’s closely held. So Corteva was a company that really early had secured the freedom to operate intellectual property rights to some of these discoveries. … One thing that we’ve done is we’ve made sure that anybody is able to access that technology — so we’re able to sublicense that to other companies, and we’ve licensed that to competitors, small companies, big companies, academics, anybody.
Bain: What Cory is talking about is such an important issue. One of the fundamental criticisms of GMOs was about who controlled the technology, that they were just a tiny handful of companies who had the resources to control the technology and then were able to use it purely for their benefit.
In this case, [gene editing] technology itself facilitates greater access by different stakeholders because it’s relatively easier and cheaper and so forth. You also have the leadership of companies like Corteva who have gone down this path of open licensing. There are many folks who think this is going to be really important for facilitating public trust and public acceptance, because it is going to allow not just the big companies, but the small startups, universities, nonprofits, organizations working with poor farmers in developing countries because they’re going to have the access to that technology, which will allow them to develop traits.
What went wrong in terms of the messaging around GMO adoption?
Bain: Part of the issue was the sense that industry proponents didn’t really listen to concerns that people had around the technology. There was very much the attitude around GMOs, which was simply, “This is safe, there’s nothing wrong with it, and … the people who don’t like GMOs are purely being unscientific.”
There was this approach — it’s called the information deficit model. The approach was that people just simply don’t understand the science, they simply don’t have all the facts, and if we can just get out and we tell them what the facts are, here’s the risks and here’s the benefits, then they’ll accept it.
The problem is the information deficit model doesn’t work for a couple of reasons. One is typically that people can have nonscientific concerns around a technology, which the information deficit model doesn’t address. Also, that people’s fundamental concerns are often not about the technology but with whether they trust the organization and the institutions who are developing the technology and advocating and regulating on its behalf.
What we see today is much more self-reflection about how can we have more of a dialogue so it’s not “You’re stupid, let me tell you the facts.” The industry has to listen. They have to think about what the different concerns are — sometimes these are value concerns, sometimes these are social concerns or concerns about regulation, nothing to do with the science. How can we have that kind of discussion with people?
Is there a clear understanding of the limits of what gene editing technology can do?
Christensen: It’s the very early days for the technology. I think we’re understanding what the potential of it is. … You can’t go in and make a change unless you know what change needs to be made in order to produce the desired outcome. Provided we can successfully navigate the next couple of years while we’re still understanding it and the public is getting comfortable with it … that potential will grow and grow because our understanding of biology will continue to grow. It’ll be a preferred tool to produce desirable biological outcomes if you have the knowledge.
We have the idea that a genome is something that is static and never changing, [but] these genomes are changing all the time. If you look at a plant and its progeny or siblings, there’s going to be many changes in the DNA. Every generation, new changes come up … so when we’re doing genome editing, are we doing anything that’s really far out of the range of things that can occur naturally? For the most part, no, we’re not. We do a lot of testing anytime we make a product to make multiple generations, we grow it in thousands of locations to make sure the performance is what we expect.
It’s distinct from GMOs. … When we talk about GMOs, what we’re referring to is taking a gene from one species and putting it in another, typically a bacterium. In the case of many of the products that are GMO products on the market today, they’re herbicide-tolerant, or [have] insect control traits. … When it comes to genome editing, what we’re typically talking about doing is making changes within the genome of a plant that are consistent with the kinds of things you could see if you looked at cross genomes of that same species.
What do you think will happen in this field in the next 10 years?
Christensen: I think there’s a sense by many parties … where this is going to be so powerful, so important, so useful that we have to get this right.
The challenge never goes away — you always have to be thinking about how are we benefiting society — so you can’t lose sight of that. I am optimistic that we will get there, and we will be able to use this technology even if some of the applications are foreclosed because of regulatory considerations. This technology is too important — it’ll be used in academia, it’ll be used somewhere, it will produce really valuable things.
Bain: I think to help deliver that vision we have to respect that we live in a pluralistic society, and what some people view as being official, the best thing since sliced bread … not everyone will view it as that. We have to respect those people who decide not to choose that technology, or choose to opt out. I don’t think we’ve had that discussion yet, and I think it’s going to be an important discussion moving forward — how do we respect those groups of people who go, “Thanks, but no thanks.”
Editor’s note, June 19: This story has been updated to correct the spelling of Cory Christensen’s name. We apologize for our error.