While the production of genetically engineered crops (also known as GMOs) is currently banned across Europe and in over 30 countries around the world due to health and biodiversity concerns, in the United States they are still quite prevalent.
It’s estimated that over 90 percent of our corn, soy, canola and sugar beets are GMO, most of them engineered to withstand large amounts of Monsanto’s flagship Roundup herbicide, which includes the “probable human carcinogen,” glyphosate.
The process for making these GMOs involves the insertion of DNA from a different species in order to add new characteristics, such as Roundup resistance, to a plant. Prior to their approval the FDA’s own scientists warned the agency about possible unintended consequences and health risks, but they chose to approve the crops anyway.
These GMOs remain unlabeled, a right afforded in over 60 countries.
Now, a major new study is raising concerns about unintended consequences of a new type of genetic modification process — genome editing, which is said to be more specific but actually induces hundreds of unpredictable genome mutations, they say.
Study: CRISPR GMO (Gene Editing) Process May Cause Unintended Mutations
According to a new study from researchers from the Columbia University Medical Center and two other universities, the newest type of genetic modification process mentioned above, using the CRISPR technique aka gene editing, is capable of inducing hundreds of “unintended mutations” in the genome of an organism, in this case mice.
Thus far, CRISPR has been used to create relatively small quantities of GMO (aka gene edited in this case) plants such apples, potatoes and mushrooms — the former two are being sold without labels and all are not tested for long term safety.
Gene edited animals are also being developed.
Critics worry that this new type of GMO, which is created by scientists capable of “tinkering” with our food supply and “turning off” so-called undesired traits in natural foods, could become commonplace while consumers are once again left in the dark about what they may be eating.
According to the study, we may not know the whole picture about this new type of GMO process’s effects on our health after all.
“We feel it’s critical that the scientific community consider the potential hazards of all off-target mutations caused by CRISPR, including single nucleotide mutations and mutations in non-coding regions of the genome,” said co-author Stephen Tsang, MD, PhD, the Laszlo T. Bito Associate Professor of Ophthalmology and associate professor of pathology & cell biology in the Institute of Genomic Medicine and the Institute of Human Nutrition at Columbia University Medical Center, as quoted in this article from the university.
In the case of this study, an entire genome of mice that had undergone CRISPR gene editing was sequenced, with the goal of looking for all mutations, including those that only altered a single nucleotide, the Columbia article said.
Typically computer algorithms are used to predict possible mutations but in this case they were unable to notice what the researchers found discovered: more than 1,500 single-nucleotide mutations and more than 100 larger deletions and insertions in the genome.
That means that scientists tinkering with genes of different plants and animals may be missing serious side effects that could have harmful long-term consequences for the organisms, and potentially for others who consume them.
“These predictive algorithms seem to do a good job when CRISPR is performed in cells or tissues in a dish, but whole genome sequencing has not been employed to look for all off-target effects in living animals,” said co-author Alexander Bassuk, MD, PhD, professor of pediatrics at the University of Iowa according to the Columbia article.
In the study it was found that CRISPR gene editing had successfully corrected a gene that causes blindness, but the many aforementioned collateral mutations were later found.
Proponents of this new type of genetic modification process say that the new technique can create medical breakthroughs as well as new types of traits in foods (such as with the new “non-browning” CRISPR created GMO apple).
Opponents say that the ease of use with this technology may create a veritable “Wild West” of new experimentations with our food supply, animals and medical techniques.
The potential for misuse is great because the profits are so high: for example, the company that created CRISPR GMO apples, Okanagan Specialty Fruits of Canada, immediately cashed in to the tune of $41 million (with $10 million upfront) after creating a product that was widely protested against and approved despite the lack of long term independent safety testing and transparent labeling.
While in this case the research was done on animals, the question now is whether future CRISPR GMO producing scientists will inadvertently trigger harmful mutations in novel GMO plants and animals.
Dr. Tsang says that those who study these lab created organisms may be oblivious to the true effects.
“Researchers who aren’t using whole genome sequencing to find off-target effects may be missing potentially important mutations,” Dr. Tsang says. “Even a single nucleotide change can have a huge impact.”
One researcher, Vinit B. Mahajan of Stanford University, believes in the potential of the process, but added that the inevitable side effects should always be considered.
“We’re still upbeat about CRISPR,” says Dr. Mahajan. “We’re physicians, and we know that every new therapy has some potential side effects—but we need to be aware of what they are.”
Dr. Tsang urged caution going forward and a change in the way the effects of these GMOs are studied for safety purposes.
“We hope our findings will encourage others to use whole-genome sequencing as a method to determine all the off-target effects of their CRISPR techniques and study different versions for the safest, most accurate editing,” he said.
The researchers also noted that the mice appeared to be okay health-wise, despite the gene mutations.
But cases of harm to animals from gene editing have been recorded in the past.
In 2015 the magazine Nature released an article touting the benefits of “super muscly pigs” created by a similarly “small genetic tweak,” through CRISPR gene editing. What the magazine failed to mention is that 30 of the 32 gene-edited (GMO) pigs actually died prematurely, and had difficulty giving birth.
For skeptics of gene editing and GMOs, including those in the natural and organic food movement, the answer to this issue is simple: the precautionary principle should be applied and all foods created using this still developing technology should be properly labeled, so consumers can decide (at the very least).
But that hope has dissipated over the years, in the U.S. at least, due to growing corporate influence, government collusion and millions spent by chemical companies to stop GMO labeling.
Time will tell if gene editing and CRISPR GMOs will receive the same preferential treatment.
For more information on the research team’s findings, check out the full article by clicking here.