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Category Archives: Genetic Engineering

The Drive for Perfect Children Gets a Little Scary – Bloomberg

Posted: August 25, 2017 at 3:41 am

Theres a lot of innovation going on in China these days, but perhaps not all of it is good. Chinese fertility centers are going well beyond American practices, using genetic diagnosis to influence how children conceived through in vitro fertilization will turn out. On one hand, the potential for improving human health is enormous. On the other hand, I am uneasy at the prospect of the power this gives parents. I dont trust people to take so much control over the future of human nature.

Sometimes you hear it argued that the complex nature of genes will prevent major feats of genetic engineering. That may be selling short future advances in Big Data and biomedicine, but even minor changes in genetic diagnosis and selection could have significant effects. Maybe you cant choose to have a child who will be happy, but you might be able to lower the chance of your kid having depression or social anxiety by some small amount. Over the course of generations, that will exert great influence over the nature of the human experience.

QuickTake Gene Editing

One risk, of course, is that parents will opt for some apparently desirable qualities in their children, and then the experiment will backfire, due to unforeseen genetic connections. Maybe well get happier kids, but they will be less creative, or less driven, or they might care less about others. Those are valid concerns, especially in these early days of genetic engineering. But I have a deeper worry, namely that things can go badly even when parents get exactly what they want.

If you could directly alter your kids genetic profile, what would you want? Its hard to know how the social debate would turn out after years of back and forth, but I was dismayed to read one recent research paper by psychologists Rachel M. Latham and Sophie von Stumm. The descriptive title of that work, based on survey evidence, is Mothers want extraversion over conscientiousness or intelligence for their children. Upon reflection, maybe that isnt so surprising, because parents presumably want children who are fun to spend time with.

Would a more extroverted human race be desirable, all things considered? I genuinely dont know, but at the very least I am concerned. The current mix of human personalities and institutions is a delicate balance which, for all of its flaws, has allowed society to survive and progress. Im not looking to make a big roll of the dice on this one.

Its also not difficult to imagine parents wanting children who are relatively well-behaved. The same research paper found that mothers, after extroversion, preferred the trait of agreeableness in their children, again over both intelligence and conscientiousness.

I was struck by a recent Chinese report that some parents are asking for children who are able to drink socially, for business purposes, and thus trying to avoid some genes that make it difficult to process alcohol. Caveat emptor.

Another risk is that parents may be too risk-averse. Especially if a family has only one or two kids, there may be a strong tendency to try to play it safe in terms of personality traits and cognitive abilities. Yet a greater diversity of human types may serve the greater good and perhaps offer intrinsic value too, by making the world an aesthetically richer and more diverse place. Unfortunately, its not hard to imagine a world where many parents opt against prospective children labeled, if only statistically, as too nerdy, too temperamental or too hard-working.

Parents choices, and their eventual public unveiling, may have harmful effects on social norms. What if it becomes known that a high percentage of parents opted for children with paler skin or straighter hair or a greater chance of being heterosexual? That knowledge could boost stigmas and social divisions, even with stringent anti-discrimination legislation. The parental choices could end up being seen as, in essence, the final court of public opinion.

We might expect that the regulators will say no to the most dangerous applications of genetic engineering, but can we be so sure? The techniques will be available in many different countries, and over time the more lax standards will have greater influence, if only through genetic engineering tourism. Parents are also a potent voting bloc, and if they really desire such choices, they may end up getting their way.

In China, these techniques are already about one-third as cheap as in the U.S., interest in them is growing rapidly, and there is talk of having them covered by national health insurance programs.

There is plenty of justified worry about greater discrimination these days, but were hardly talking about the biggest threats.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author of this story: Tyler Cowen at tcowen2@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Stacey Shick at sshick@bloomberg.net

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ADRIAN Kibbler wonders whether genetic engineering may be used in the future to prevent illness – Ludlow Advertiser

Posted: August 20, 2017 at 5:51 pm

LEANNE Brownhill was a 26-year-old nurse from Ludlow who sadly died young as a result of a genetic heart condition.

She suffered from cardiomyopathy, a disease that comes in three different forms but essentially damages the heart.

It can unfortunately result in the sudden death of young people who might otherwise have appeared to be fit and healthy.

The case that most people will be aware of is that of the footballer Fabrice Muamba, who aged just 23, suddenly collapsed and nearly died in an FA Cup match between his team Bolton Wanderers and Tottenham Hotspur in 2012.

Indeed, when we hear of a young sportsman or woman who has died suddenly then there is a good chance that cardiomyopathy is responsible.

One of the problems with this disease is that it can be difficult to diagnose and can bring with it no obvious symptoms although in some cases there may be shortness of breath or unexplained fainting.

When the disease is diagnosed various treatments are available that can include the use of various drugs and in some cases the fitting on a defibrillator type device to kick in if the heart fails.

However, medical experts are saying that a new technique could free people of this condition that is caused by inheriting a faulty gene.

The latest breakthrough suggests that not only can the faulty gene be identified but that it can also be repaired.

Now it is important to be cautious because even if this can be advanced it is not likely to widely available anytime soon. However, the potential is huge and there would appear to be reason to hope that the technique could also be applied to other inherited conditions.

The medical and scientific issues around this are only a part of the story because this is genetic engineering.

Of course, it is desirable that when people become ill they receive the best possible treatment but this is not the same thing as genetic engineering.

Some people will argue that if medicine gives us the ability to prevent illness by repairing faulty genes then there is nothing wrong with that. After all medicine enables treatment to be given to babies even when they are in the womb so is this so different?

It has long been the case that babies can be examined for serious medical conditions as part of pre-natal screening and in some cases this can lead to a decision to terminate a pregnancy.

What makes genetic engineering different is that it creates at least potentially the ability to produce a race of perfect people and many of us are very uncomfortable about this.

After all some would argue that it is our difference including in some cases our imperfections that make us special and unique.

No one can give a definitive answer but, for example, would Beethoven have been such a great composer if he not been deaf or Stephen Hawking such a special scientist without his illness?

These are difficult questions but they will become ever more important as medical science advances and what up to now might have been considered science fiction becomes science fact.

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The Impossible Burger wouldn’t be possible without genetic engineering – Grist

Posted: August 11, 2017 at 5:49 pm

The Impossible Burger has had a charmed honeymoon period. Crowds of foodies surged into fancy eateries to try it. Environmentalists and animal rights activists swooned. So did investors: Impossible Foods brought in $75 million during its latest investment round.

Now the backlash is here. The activist organizations Friends of the Earth and the ETC Group dug up documents which they claim show that Impossible Foods ignored FDA warnings about safety and they handed them over to the New York Times.

The ensuing story depicted Impossible Foods as a culinary version of Uber disrupting so rapidly that its running headlong into government regulators. In reality, Impossible Foods has behaved like a pedestrian food company, working hand in hand with the FDA and following a well-worn path to comply with an arcane set of rules.

So why isnt this story a nothingburger?

In a word: GMOs. You see, soy leghemoglobin, or SLH, the key ingredient that makes the Impossible Burger uniquely meaty, is churned out by genetically modified yeast. This is a protein produced with genetic engineering; its a new food ingredient, Dana Perls, senior food and technology campaigner at Friends of the Earth, told me when I asked why theyd singled out Impossible Foods.

The company has never exactly hidden the fact that they used genetic engineering, but they havent put it front and center either. You have to dig into their frequently asked questions to catch that detail and thats a recent edit, according to Perls. When I first looked at the Impossible Foods website, maybe back in March, there was no mention of genetic engineering, she said.(An Impossible Foods spokesperson disputed Perlss claim, saying the FAQ has included references to genetic engineering for at least a year, since before the burgers launch in restaurants. But areview of cached webpages suggests the references were added in June.*)

By tiptoeing around this issue, Impossible Foods set themselves up for a takedown by anti-GMO campaigners. These groups monitor new applications of genetic engineering, watch for potentially incriminating evidence, then work with journalists to publicize it. In 2014, Ecover, a green cleaning company, announced it was using oils made by algae as part of its pledge to remove palm oil a major driver of deforestation from its products. When Friends of the Earth and the ETC Group figured out the algae was genetically engineered, they pinged the same Times writer. Ecover quickly went back to palm oil.

When I asked Impossible Foods founder Pat Brown about the GMO question, he said he didnt think that battle was theirs to fight. After all, the SLH may be produced by transgenic yeast, but it isnt a GMO itself. He also pointed out that this isnt unusual: nearly all cheese contains a GMO-produced enzyme.

But now, Friends of the Earth and the ETC Group have brought their battle to Impossible Foods doorstep. (In a blistering series of responses to the New York Times article, the company charged it was chock full of factual errors and misrepresentations and was instigated by an extremist anti-science group.) The FDA documents handed over to the Times include worrying sentences like this one: FDA stated that the current arguments at hand, individually and collectively, were not enough to establish the safety of SLH for consumption.

If FDA officials say your company hasnt done enough to convince them that a new ingredient is safe, arent you supposed to stop selling it?

Not according to a risk expert at Arizona State University who reviewed the documents released by activists. There are no indications that they should have pulled this off the market, Andrew Maynard told me.

Thats just not how the food safety review process works, said Gary Yingling, a former FDA official now helping Impossible Foods navigate the bureaucracy. In the United States, its up to the companies themselves to determine if an ingredient is safe. (Not everyone likes that system or thinks the FDA is doing enough to protect public safety, but it is the law.)

Impossible worked with a group of experts at universities who decided in 2014 that their burger was safe. SLH, it turns out, grows naturally in the roots of soy plants, and the proteins in the burger look a lot like animal proteins a good indicator of safety.

Impossible could have stopped there: Companies, however, can ask the government to weigh in on their research. Sometimes, the FDA asks for more information, which is what happened with Impossible Foods. Its not unusual for the FDA to determine it cant establish the safety of a new ingredient its happened more than 100 times, with substances like Ginkgo biloba, gum arabic, and Spirulina. The FDA has called for more information in about one in every seven of the ingredients companies have asked it to review.

In the case of SLH, the FDA suggested more tests, including rat-feeding trials. Impossible Foods has finished these tests, and academics who have studied the new data confirmed that its generally recognized as safe. Next, Impossible Foods will bring the new evidence back to the FDA, Yingling said.

The criticism raised in this case is really criticism of a system that allows companies to decide for themselves if a new ingredient is OK to add to our food.

If a company decides something is safe, they can go ahead and do it, said Maynard, the risk expert. So thats a weakness in the system. On the other hand, you can argue that once you start this process with the FDA, they have smart scientists who ask tough questions. You can see in those documents that the level of due diligence that a company has to go through is really pretty deep. You really want to make sure that you have a system that doesnt inhibit innovation, but captures as much potentially harmful things as possible.

Each new innovation creates the potential for new hazards. We can block some of those hazards by taking precautions. But how high should we put the precautionary bar?

Impossible Burger could indeed pose some unknown hazard. We just have to weigh that against the known hazards of the present foodborne diseases in meat, greenhouse gases from animal production, the development of antibiotic resistant bacteria in farms, and animal suffering. These are problems which Impossible Foods is trying to solve.

There are other companies trying to solve these problems. (Friends of the Earth notes that the success of non-animal burgers, like the non-GMO Beyond Burger, demonstrates that plant-based animal substitutes can succeed without resorting to genetic engineering.) But its not yet clear that any of these companies including Impossible Foods will be successful in just generating a profit, let alone in replacing the global meat industry. No one knows which startups will pan out. And well probably need to try and discard lots of new things as we shift to a sustainable path.

Trying new things can be risky. Not trying new things and staying on our current trajectory is even more risky.

*This story has been updated to include a response from Impossible Foods about when references to genetic engineering first appeared in its FAQ, and to add information about the FDAs food safety review process.

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Genetically Engineering Pigs to Grow Organs for People – The Atlantic

Posted: at 5:49 pm

The idea of transplanting organs from pigs into humans has been around for a long time. And for a long time, xenotransplantsor putting organs from one species into anotherhas come up against two seemingly insurmountable problems.

The first problem is fairly intuitive: Pig organs provoke a massive and destructive immune response in humansfar more so than an organ from another person. The second problem is less obvious: Pig genomes are rife with DNA sequences of viruses that can infect human cells. In the 1990s, the pharmaceutical giant Novartis planned to throw as much $1 billion at animal-to-human transplant research, only to shutter its research unit after several years of failed experiments.

Quite suddenly, however, solving these two problems has become much easier and much faster thanks to the gene-editing technology CRISPR. With CRISPR, scientists can knock out the pig genes that trigger the human immune response. And they can inactivate the virusescalled porcine endogenous retroviruses, or PERVsthat lurk in the pig genome.

On Thursday, scientists working for a startup called eGenesis reported the birth of 37 PERV-free baby pigs in China, 15 of them still surviving. The black-and-white piglets are now several months old, and they belong to a breed of miniature pigs that will grow no bigger than 150 poundswith organs just the right size for transplant into adult humans.

eGenesis spun out of the lab of the Harvard geneticist George Church, who previously reported inactivating 62 copies of PERV from pig cells in 2015. But the jump from specialized pig cells that grow well in labs to living PERV-free piglets wasnt easy.

We didnt even know we could have viable pigs, says Luhan Yang, a former graduate student in Churchs lab and co-founder of eGenesis. When her team first tried to edit all 62 copies in pig cells that they wanted to turn into embryos, the cells died. They were more sensitive than the specialized cell lines. Eventually Yang and her team figured out a chemical cocktail that could keep these cells alive through the gene-editing process. This technique could be useful in large-scale gene-editing projects unrelated to xenotransplants, too.

When Yang and her team first inactivated PERV from cells in a lab, my colleague Ed Yong suggested that the work was an example of CRISPRs power rather than a huge breakthrough in pig-to-human transplants, given the challenges of immune compatibility. And true, Yang and Church come at this research as CRISPR pioneers, but not experts in transplantation. At a gathering of organ-transplantation researchers last Friday, Church said that his team had identified about 45 genes to make pig organs more compatible with humans, though he was open to more suggestions. I would bet we are not as sophisticated as we should be because weve only been recently invited [to meetings like this], he said. Its an active area of research for eGenesis, though Yang declined to disclose what the company has accomplished so far.

Its great genetic-engineering work. Its an accomplishment to inactivate that many genes, says Joseph Tector, a xenotransplant researcher at the University of Alabama at Birmingham.

Researchers like Tector, who is also a transplant surgeon, have been chipping away at the problem of immune incompatibility for years, though. CRISPR has sped up that research, too. The first pig gene implicated in the human immune response as one involved in making a molecule called alpha-gal. Making a pig that lacked alpha-gal via older genetic-engineering methods took three years. Now from concept to pig on the ground, its probably six months, says Tector.

Using CRISPR, his team has created a triple-knockout pig that lacks alpha-gal as well as two other genes involved in molecules that that provoke the human immune systems immediate hyperacute rejection of pig organs. For about 30 percent of people, the organs from these triple-knockout pigs should not cause hyperacute rejection. Tector thinks the patients who receive these pig organs could then be treated with the same immunosuppressant drugs that recipients take after an ordinary human-to-human transplant.

Tector and David Cooper, another transplant pioneer, were both recently recruited to the University of Alabama at Birmingham for a xenotransplant program funded by United Therapeutics, a Maryland biotech company that wants to manufacture transplantable organs.

Cooper has transplanted kidneys from pigs engineered by United Therapeutics to have six mutations, which lasted over 200 days in baboons. The result is promising enough that he says human trials could begin soon. These pigs were not created using CRISPR and they are not PERV-free, though recent research has suggested that PERV may not be that harmful to humans. It will be up to the FDA to decide whether pig organs with PERV are safe enough to transplant into people.

If it happens, routine pig-to-human transplants could truly transform healthcare beyond simply increasing the supply. Organs would go from a product of chancesomeone young and healthy dying, unexpectedlyto the product of a standardized manufacturing process. Its going to make such a huge difference that I dont think its possible to conceive of it, says Cooper. Organ transplants would no longer have to be emergency surgeries, requiring planes to deliver organs and surgical teams to scramble at any hour. Organs from pigs can be harvested on a schedule, and surgeries planned for exact times during the day. A patient that comes in with kidney failure could get a kidney the next dayeliminating the need for large dialysis centers. Hospital ICU beds will no longer be taken up by patients waiting for a heart transplant.

With the ability to engineer a donor pig, pig organs can go beyond simply matching a human organ. For example, Cooper says, you could engineer organs to protect themselves from the immune system in the long term, perhaps by making their own localized dose of immunosuppressant drugs.

‘Big Pork’ Wants to Get In on Organ Transplants

At last Fridays summit, Church speculated about making organs resistant to tumors or viruses. When an audience member asked about the possibility of genetically enhancing pig organs to work as well as Michael Phelpss lungs or Usain Bolts heart, he responded, We not only can but should enhance pig organs, even if were opposed to enhancing human beings … They will go through safety and efficacy testing, but part of efficacy is making sure theyre robust and maybe they have to be as robust as Michael Phelps in order to do the job.

Xenotransplantation will raise ethical questions, of course, and genetically enhancing pigs might come uncomfortably close to the plot of Okja. These enhancements are hard to fathom for now because scientist dont yet know what genes to alter if they wanted to make, for example, super lungs. Its taken decades of research to pinpoint the handful of genes that could make pig organs simply compatible with humans. But the technical ability to make any editsor even dozens of edits at oncewith CRISPR is already here.

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When genetic engineering is the environmentally friendly choice – GreenBiz

Posted: August 10, 2017 at 5:47 am

This article originally ran on Ensia.

Which is more disruptive to a plant: genetic engineering or conventional breeding?

It often surprises people to learn that GE commonly causes less disruption to plants than conventional techniques of breeding. But equally profound is the realization that the latest GE techniques, coupled with a rapidly expanding ability to analyze massive amounts of genetic material, allow us to make super-modest changes in crop plant genes that will enable farmers to produce more food with fewer adverse environmental impacts. Such super-modest changes are possible with CRISPR-based genome editing, a powerful set of new genetic tools that is leading a revolution in biology.

My interest in GE crops stems from my desire to provide more effective and sustainable plant disease control for farmers worldwide. Diseases often destroy 10 to 15 percent of potential crop production, resulting in global losses of billions of dollars annually. The risk of disease-related losses provides an incentive to farmers to use disease-control products such as pesticides.

One of my strongest areas of expertise is in the use of pesticides for disease control. Pesticides certainly can be useful in farming systems worldwide, but they have significant downsides from a sustainability perspective. Used improperly, they can contaminate foods. They can pose a risk to farm workers. And they must be manufactured, shipped and applied all processes with a measurable environmental footprint. Therefore, I am always seeking to reduce pesticide use by offering farmers more sustainable approaches to disease management.

It often surprises people to learn that GE commonly causes less disruption to plants than conventional techniques of breeding.

What follows are examples of how minimal GE changes can be applied to make farming more environmentally friendly by protecting crops from disease. They represent just a small sampling of the broad landscape of opportunities for enhancing food security and agricultural sustainability that innovations in molecular biology offer today.

Genetically altering crops the way these examples demonstrate creates no cause for concern for plants or people. Mutations occur naturally every time a plant makes a seed; in fact, they are the very foundation of evolution. All of the food we eat has all kinds of mutations, and eating plants with mutations does not cause mutations in us.

A striking example of how a tiny genetic change can make a big difference to plant health is the strategy of “knocking out” a plant gene that microorganisms can benefit from. Invading microorganisms sometimes hijack certain plant molecules to help themselves infect the plant. A gene that produces such a plant molecule is known as a susceptibility gene.

We can use CRISPR-based genome editing to create a “targeted mutation” in a susceptibility gene. A change of as little as a single nucleotide in the plants genetic material the smallest genetic change possible can confer disease resistance in a way that is absolutely indistinguishable from natural mutations that can happen spontaneously. Yet if the target gene and mutation site are carefully selected, a one-nucleotide mutation may be enough to achieve an important outcome.

A substantial body of research shows proof-of-concept that a knockout of a susceptibility gene can increase resistance in plants to a wide variety of disease-causing microorganisms. An example that caught my attention pertained to powdery mildew of wheat, because fungicides (pesticides that control fungi) are commonly used against this disease. While this particular genetic knockout is not yet commercialized, I personally would rather eat wheat products from varieties that control disease through genetics than from crops treated with fungicides.

Plant viruses are often difficult to control in susceptible crop varieties. Conventional breeding can help make plants resistant to viruses, but sometimes it is not successful.

Early approaches to engineering virus resistance in plants involved inserting a gene from the virus into the plants genetic material. For example, plant-infecting viruses are surrounded by a protective layer of protein, called the “coat protein.” The gene for the coat protein of a virus called papaya ring spot virus was inserted into papaya. Through a process called RNAi, this empowers the plant to inactivate the virus when it invades. GE papaya has been a spectacular success, in large part saving the Hawaiian papaya industry.

Mutations occur naturally every time a plant makes a seed; in fact, they are the very foundation of evolution.

Through time, researchers discovered that even just a very small fragment from one viral gene can stimulate RNAi-based resistance if precisely placed within a specific location in the plants DNA. Even better, they found we can “stack” resistance genes engineered with extremely modest changes in order to create a plant highly resistant to multiple viruses. This is important because, in the field, crops are often exposed to infection by several viruses.

Does eating this tiny bit of a viral gene sequence concern me? Absolutely not, for many reasons, including:

Microorganisms often can overcome plants biochemical defenses by producing molecules called effectors that interfere with those defenses. Plants respond by evolving proteins to recognize and disable these effector molecules. These recognition proteins are called “R” proteins (“R” standing for “resistance”). Their job is to recognize the invading effector molecule and trigger additional defenses. A third interesting approach, then, to help plants resist an invading microorganism is to engineer an R protein so that it recognizes effector molecules other than the one it evolved to detect. We can then use CRISPR to supply a plant with the very small amount of DNA needed to empower it to make this protein.

This approach, like susceptibility knockouts, is quite feasible, based on published research. Commercial implementation will require some willing private- or public-sector entity to do the development work and to face the very substantial and costly challenges of the regulatory process.

The three examples here show that extremely modest engineered changes in plant genetics can result in very important benefits. All three examples involve engineered changes that trigger the natural defenses of the plant. No novel defense mechanisms were introduced in these research projects, a fact that may appeal to some consumers. The wise use of the advanced GE methods illustrated here, as well as others described elsewhere, has the potential to increase the sustainability of our food production systems, particularly given the well-established safety of GE crops and their products for consumption.

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Global: Engineering the Future of Our Food – STRATFOR

Posted: at 5:47 am

Biotechnology company, AquaBounty Technologies, sold 4.5 metric tons of genetically modified salmon Aug. 4 on the open Canadian market. The seminal transaction occurred after Canadian authorities approved the fish for human consumption in 2016. The sale marks a long-awaited victory for the company that has spent the better part of three decades working to bring their fast-growing salmon to dinner tables.

The modifications, which incorporate genes from two additional species of fish (the Chinook salmon and ocean pout), enable the salmon to grow in about half the time as non-engineered species. AquaBounty already has plans to expand its Panamanian production to facilities in Prince Edward Island, Canada. Additionally, the company is awaiting approval to begin production at recently acquired facilities in Indiana. Proponents see this type of engineering as a solution to growing uncertainty over supply in the market. Traditional salmon producing areas, however, have voiced objections to growing competition in a market.

Those objections have stalled the sale of the AquaBounty product in the United States, despite approval from the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) six months before the Canadian government. Specifically, debate surrounding labeling requirements (heavily backed by Alaskan Senator Lisa Murkowski) have delayed the sale of genetically modified salmon. But this is just the beginning. The journey from tank to table is important for more than just the salmon industry. Livestock producers of a number of different species also are waiting in anticipation for how this will play out. Genetic engineering trials for pigs, cattle and goats are underway. How fast policy catches up to technological developments will in part dictate the rate of adoption of biotechnology throughout the agricultural sector (in the United States and globally). This case, and other early endeavors, have the ability to set the precedent for others to follow, especially as genetic engineering techniques improve and become cheaper.

As we see genetic engineering techniques progress and knowledge spread about the purpose of specific genes, policy surrounding the sale of manipulated organisms will become crucial to the sector. In January, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration opened up a commenting period (that closed in June) on expanding the scope of its “Guidance for Industry #187.” In non-legal speak, that is the directive on requirements for genetically modified or engineered labeling. In addition to the recombinant DNA technology that was prevalent in the later part of the 20th century (and what AquaBounty used to develop the salmon in question), the new language would include improved methods, including the much-touted CRISPR.

Meanwhile, the continued development of biotechnology remains a key strategy for both the United States and China, and both countries will likely remain undeterred from this approach moving forward. External drivers, demographics, changing dietary patterns and climate change are going to force producers to do more with less. Biotechnology (gene editing and the increased knowledge of genomic purpose) allow for better control of beneficial traits, whether it is a faster growing fish or pigs that emit less phosphorus. As its relevance grows, we will also see an increased emphasis on biotechnology in trade negotiations, especially as policies and protocols seek to better address emerging technologies.

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Genetic Engineering with Strict Guidelines? Ha! – Discovery Institute

Posted: August 9, 2017 at 4:47 am

Human genetic engineering is moving forward exponentially and there is still no meaningful societal, regulatory, or legislative conversation about whether, how, and to what extent we should permit the human genome to be altered in ways that flow down the generations.

But dont worry. The Scientists assure us, when that can be done, there will (somehow) be STRICT OVERSIGHT. From the AP story:

And lots more research is needed to tell if its really safe, added Britains [Robin] Lovell-Badge. He and [Johns Hopkins University bioethicist Jeffrey] Kahn were part of a National Academy of Sciences report earlier this year that said if germline editing ever were allowed, it should be only for serious diseases with no good alternatives and done with strict oversight.

Please!No more! When I laugh this hard it makes mystomach hurt.

Heres the problem: Strict guidelines rarely are strict and they almost never offer permanent protection. Theyare ignored, unenforced, or stretched over time until they, essentially, cease to exist.

Thats awful with actions such as euthanasia. But wecant let that kind of pretense rule the day withtechnologies that could prove to be among themost powerful and potentially destructive inventions in human history. Indeed, other than nuclear weapons, I cant think of a technology with more destructive potential.

Strict oversight will have to include legal limitations and clear boundaries, enforced bystiff criminalpenalties, civil remedies, and international protocols.

They wont be easy to craft and it will take significant time to work through all of the scientific and ethical conundrums.But we havent yet made a beginning. If we wait until what may be able to be done actually can be done, it will be too late.

Photo: Genetically engineering mice, via Wikicommons.

Cross-posted at The Corner.

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When genetic engineering is the environmentally friendly choice – Genetic Literacy Project

Posted: August 8, 2017 at 3:48 am

Thisarticleoriginally appeared at Ensia and has been republished here with permission.

Which is more disruptive to a plant: genetic engineering or conventional breeding?

It often surprises people to learn that GE commonly causes less disruption to plants than conventional techniques of breeding. But equally profound is the realization that the latest GE techniques, coupled with a rapidly expanding ability to analyze massive amounts of genetic material, allow us to make super-modest changes in crop plant genes that will enable farmers to produce more food with fewer adverse environmental impacts. Such super-modest changes are possible with CRISPR-based genome editing, a powerful set of new genetic tools that is leading a revolution in biology.

My interest in GE crops stems from my desire to provide more effective and sustainable plant disease control for farmers worldwide. Diseases often destroy 10 to 15 percent of potential crop production, resulting in global losses of billions of dollars annually. The risk of disease-related losses provides an incentive to farmers to use disease-control products such as pesticides. One of my strongest areas of expertise is in the use of pesticides for disease control. Pesticides certainly can be useful in farming systems worldwide, but they have significant downsides from a sustainability perspective. Used improperly, they can contaminate foods. They can pose a risk to farm workers. And they must be manufactured, shipped and applied all processes with a measurable environmental footprint. Therefore, I am always seeking to reduce pesticide use by offering farmers more sustainable approaches to disease management.

What follows are examples of how minimal GE changes can be applied to make farming more environmentally friendly by protecting crops from disease. They represent just a small sampling of the broad landscape of opportunities for enhancing food security and agricultural sustainability that innovations in molecular biology offer today.

Genetically altering crops the way these examples demonstrate creates no cause for concern for plants or people. Mutations occur naturally every time a plant makes a seed; in fact, they are the very foundation of evolution. All of the food we eat has all kinds of mutations, and eating plants with mutations does not cause mutations in us.

Knocking Out Susceptibility

A striking example of how a tiny genetic change can make a big difference to plant health is the strategy of knocking out a plant gene that microorganisms can benefit from. Invading microorganisms sometimes hijack certain plant molecules to help themselves infect the plant. A gene that produces such a plant molecule is known as a susceptibility gene.

We can use CRISPR-based genome editing to create a targeted mutation in a susceptibility gene. A change of as little as a single nucleotide in the plants genetic material the smallest genetic change possible can confer disease resistance in a way that is absolutely indistinguishable from natural mutations that can happen spontaneously. Yet if the target gene and mutation site are carefully selected, a one-nucleotide mutation may be enough to achieve an important outcome.

There is a substantial body of research showing proof-of-concept that a knockout of a susceptibility gene can increase resistance in plants to a very wide variety of disease-causing microorganisms. An example that caught my attention pertained to powdery mildew of wheat, because fungicides (pesticides that control fungi) are commonly used against this disease. While this particular genetic knockout is not yet commercialized, I personally would rather eat wheat products from varieties that control disease through genetics than from crops treated with fungicides.

The Power of Viral Snippets

Plant viruses are often difficult to control in susceptible crop varieties. Conventional breeding can help make plants resistant to viruses, but sometimes it is not successful.

Early approaches to engineering virus resistance in plants involved inserting a gene from the virus into the plants genetic material. For example, plant-infecting viruses are surrounded by a protective layer of protein, called the coat protein. The gene for the coat protein of a virus called papaya ring spot virus was inserted into papaya. Through a process called RNAi, this empowers the plant to inactivate the virus when it invades. GE papaya has been a spectacular success, in large part saving the Hawaiian papaya industry.

Through time, researchers discovered that even just a very small fragment from one viral gene can stimulate RNAi-based resistance if precisely placed within a specific location in the plants DNA. Even better, they found we can stack resistance genes engineered with extremely modest changes in order to create a plant highly resistant to multiple viruses. This is important because, in the field, crops are often exposed to infection by several viruses.

Does eating this tiny bit of a viral gene sequence concern me? Absolutely not, for many reasons, including:

Tweaking Sentry Molecules

Microorganisms can often overcome plants biochemical defenses by producing molecules called effectors that interfere with those defenses. Plants respond by evolving proteins to recognize and disable these effector molecules. These recognition proteins are called R proteins (R standing for resistance). Their job is to recognize the invading effector molecule and trigger additional defenses. A third interesting approach, then, to help plants resist an invading microorganism is to engineer an R protein so that it recognizes effector molecules other than the one it evolved to detect. We can then use CRISPR to supply a plant with the very small amount of DNA needed to empower it to make this protein.

This approach, like susceptibility knockouts, is quite feasible, based on published research. Commercial implementation will require some willing private- or public-sector entity to do the development work and to face the very substantial and costly challenges of the regulatory process.

Engineered for Sustainability

The three examples here show that extremely modest engineered changes in plant genetics can result in very important benefits. All three examples involve engineered changes that trigger the natural defenses of the plant. No novel defense mechanisms were introduced in these research projects, a fact that may appeal to some consumers. The wise use of the advanced GE methods illustrated here, as well as others described elsewhere, has the potential to increase the sustainability of our food production systems, particularly given the well-established safety of GE crops and their products for consumption.

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Experts Call on US to Start Funding Scientists to Genetically Engineer Human Embryos – Gizmodo

Posted: August 5, 2017 at 5:48 am

Edited human embryos. Image: OHSYU

This week, news of a major scientific breakthrough brought a debate over genetically engineering humans front and center. For the first time ever, scientists genetically engineered a human embryo on American soil in order to remove a disease-causing mutation. It was the fourth time ever that such a feat has been published on, and with the most success to date. It may still be a long way off, but it seems likely that one day we will indeed have to grapple with the sticky, complicated philosophical mess of whether, and in which cases, genetically engineering a human being is morally permissible.

On the heels of this news, on Thursday a group of 11 genetics groups released policy recommendations for whats known as germline editingor altering the human genome in such a way that those changes could be passed down to future generations. The statement, from groups including the American Society for Reproductive Medicine, said that doctors should not yet entertain implanting an altered embryo in a human womb, a step which would be against the law in the United States. But they also argued that there is no reason not to use public money to fund basic research on human germline editing, contrary to a National Institutes of Health policy that has banned funding research involving editing human embryo DNA.

Currently, there is no reason to prohibit in vitro germline genome editing on human embryos and gametes, with appropriate oversight and consent from donors, to facilitate research on the possible future clinical applications of gene editing, they wrote. There should be no prohibition on making public funds available to support this research.

Safety, ethical concerns and the impact germline editing might have on societal inequality, they wrote, would all have to be worked out before such technology is ready for the clinic.

Genetic disease, once a universal common denominator, could instead become an artifact of class, geographic location, and culture, they wrote. In turn, reduced incidence and reduced sense of shared risk could affect the resources available to individuals and families dealing with genetic conditions.

If and when embryo editing is ready for primetime, the group concluded that there would need to be a good medical reason to use such technology, as well as a transparent public debate. Some have questioned the medical necessity of embryo editing, arguing that genetic screening combined with in vitro fertilization could allow doctors to simply pick disease-free eggs to implant, achieving the same results via a method that is less morally-fraught.

In February, the National Academy of Sciences released a 261-page report that also gave a cautious green light to human gene-editing, endorsing the practice for purposes of curing disease and for basic research, but determining that uses such as creating designer babies are unethical. Other nations, like China and the UK, have forged ahead with human embryo editing for basic research, though there have been no published accounts of research past the first few days of early embryo development.

Given the way the culture, religion and regional custom impact attitudes toward genetically-engineering human life, its safe to say that this debate will not be an easy one to settle. As the policy recommendations point out, views on the matter vary drastically not just across the US, but around the world, and yet one nation making the decision to go ahead with implanting edited embryos will create a world in which that technology exists for everyone.

In the meantime, though, there are still more than a few kinks to work out in the science before were faced with these questions in the real world.

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A Blueprint for Genetically Engineering a Super Coral – Smithsonian

Posted: August 3, 2017 at 11:49 pm

In a healthy reef, coral symbionts make food for the coral animal.

A coral reef takes thousands of years to build, yet can vanish in an instant.

The culprit is usuallycoral bleaching, a disease exacerbated by warming watersthat today threatens reefs around the globe. The worst recorded bleaching eventstruck the South Pacific between 2014 and 2016, when rising ocean temperatures followed by a sudden influx of warm El Nio waters traumatizedthe Great Barrier Reef.In just one seasonbleaching decimated nearly a quarter of thevast ecosystem, which once sprawled nearly 150,000 square miles through the Coral Sea.

As awful as it was, that bleaching event was a wake-up call, says Rachel Levin, a molecular biologist who recently proposed a bold technique to save these key ecosystems. Her idea, published in the journal Frontiers in Microbiology, is simple:Rather than finding healthy symbiontsto repopulate bleached coral in nature, engineer them in the lab instead.Given that this would requiretampering with nature in a significant way, the proposal is likely to stir controversial waters.

But Levin argues that with time running out for reefs worldwide, the potential value could wellbe worth the risk.

Levin studied cancer pharmacology as an undergraduate, but became fascinated by the threats facing aquatic life while dabbling in marine science courses. She was struck by the fact that, unlike in human disease research, there were far fewer researchers fighting to restore ocean health. After she graduated, she moved from California to Sydney, Australia to pursue a Ph.D. at the Center for Marine Bio-Innovation in the University of New South Wales, with the hope of applying her expertise in human disease research to corals.

In medicine, it often takes the threat of a serious disease for researchers to try a new and controversial treatment (i.e. merging two womens healthy eggs with one mans sperm to make a three-parent baby).The same holds in environmental scienceto an extent.Like a terrible disease [in] humans, when people realize how dire the situation is becoming researchers start trying to propose much more, Levin says.When it comes to saving the environment, however, there are fewer advocates willing to implementrisky, groundbreaking techniques.

When it comes to reefscrucial marine regions that harbor an astonishing amount of diversity as well as protect land massesfrom storm surges, floods and erosionthat hesitation could be fatal.

Coral bleachingis often presented as the death of coral, which is a little misleading. Actually, its the breakdown of the symbiotic union that enables a coral to thrive. The coral animal itself is like a building developer who constructs the scaffolding of a high rise apartment complex. The developer rents out each of the billions of rooms to single-celled, photosynthetic microbes called Symbiodinium.

But in this case, in exchange for a safe place to live, Symbiodinium makes food for the coral using photosynthesis. A bleached coral, by contrast, is like a deserted building. With no tenants to make their meals, the coral eventually dies.

Though bleaching can be deadly, its actually a clever evolutionary strategy of the coral. The Symbiodinium are expected to uphold their end of the bargain. But when the water gets too warm, they stop photosynthesizing. When that food goes scarce, the coral sends an eviction notice. Its like having a bad tenantyoure going to get rid of what you have and see if you can find better, Levin says.

But as the oceans continue to warm, its harder and harder to find good tenants. That means evictions can be risky. In a warming ocean, the coral animal might die before it can find any better rentersa scenario that has decimated reef ecosystems around the planet.

Levin wanted to solve this problem,by creatinga straightforward recipe for building a super-symbiont that could repopulate bleached corals and help them to persist through climate changeessentially, the perfect tenants. But she had to start small. At the time, there were so many holes and gaps that prevented us from going forward, she says. All I wanted to do was show that we could genetically engineer [Symbiodinium].

Even that would prove to be a tall order. The first challenge was that, despite being a single-celled organism, Symbiodinium has an unwieldy genome. Usually symbiotic organisms have streamlined genomes, since they rely on their hosts for most of their needs. Yet while other species have genomes of around 2 million base pairs, Symbiodiniums genome is 3 orders of magnitude larger.

Theyre humongous, Levin says. In fact, the entire human genome is only slightly less than 3 times as big as Symbiodiniums.

Even after advances in DNA sequencing made deciphering these genomes possible, scientists still had no idea what 80 percent of the genes were for. We needed to backtrack and piece together which gene was doing what in this organism, Levin says. A member of a group of phytoplankton called dinoflagellates, Symbiodinium are incredibly diverse. Levin turned her attention to two key Symbiodinium strains she could grow in her lab.

The first strain, like most Symbiodinium, was vulnerable to the high temperatures that cause coral bleaching. Turn up the heat dial a few notches, and this critter was toast. But the other strain, which had been isolated from the rare corals that live in the warmest environments,seemed to be impervious to heat. If she could figure out how these two strains wielded their genes during bleaching conditions, then she might find the genetic keys to engineering a new super-strain.

When Levin turned up the heat, she saw that the hardySymbiodinium escalated its production of antioxidants and heat shock proteins, which help repair cellular damage caused by heat. Unsurprisingly, the normal Symbiodinium didnt. Levin then turned her attention to figuring out a way to insert more copies of these crucial heat tolerating genes into the weaker Symbiodinium, thereby creating a strain adapted to live with corals from temperate regionsbut with the tools to survive warming oceans.

Getting new DNA into a dinoflagellate cell is no easy task. While tiny, these cells are protected by armored plates, two cell membranes, and a cell wall. You can get through if you push hard enough, Levin says. But then again, you might end up killing the cells. So Levin solicited help from an unlikely collaborator: a virus. After all, viruses have evolved to be able to put their genes into their hosts genomethats how they survive and reproduce, she says.

Levin isolated a virus that infected Symbiodinium, and molecularly altered it it so that it no longer killed the cells. Instead, she engineered it to be a benign delivery system for those heat tolerating genes. In her paper, Levin argues that the viruss payload could use CRISPR, the breakthrough gene editing technique that relies on a natural process used by bacteria, to cut and paste those extra genes into a region of the Symbiodiniums genome where they would be highly expressed.

It sounds straightforward enough. But messing with a living ecosystem is never simple, says says Dustin Kemp, professor of biology at the University of Alabama at Birmingham who studies the ecological impacts of climate change on coral reefs. Im very much in favor of these solutions to conserve and genetically help, says Kemp. But rebuilding reefs that have taken thousands of years to form is going to be a very daunting task.

Considering the staggering diversity of the Symbiodinium strains that live within just one coral species, even if there was a robust system for genetic modification, Kemp wonders if it would ever be possible to engineer enough different super-Symbiodinium to restore that diversity. If you clear cut an old growth forest and then go out and plant a few pine trees, is that really saving or rebuilding the forest? asks Kemp, who was not involved with the study.

But Kemp agrees that reefs are dying at an alarming rate, too fast for the natural evolution of Symbiodinium to keep up. If corals were rapidly evolving to handle [warming waters], youd think we would have seen it by now, he says.

Thomas Mock, a marine microbiologist at the University of East Anglia in the UKand a pioneer in genetically modifying phytoplankton, also points out that dinoflagellate biology is still largely enshrouded in mystery. To me this is messing around, he says. But this is how it starts usually. Provocative argument is always goodits very very challenging, but lets get started somewhere and see what we can achieve. Recently, CSIRO, the Australian governments science division, has announced that it will fund laboratories to continue researching genetic modifications in coral symbionts.

When it comes to human healthfor instance, protecting humans from devastating diseases like malaria or Zikascientists have been willing to try more drastic techniques, such as releasing mosquitoes genetically programmed to pass on lethal genes. The genetic modifications needed to save corals, Levin argues, would not be nearly as extreme. She adds that much more controlled lab testing is required before genetically modified Symbiodinium could be released into the environment to repopulate dying corals reefs.

When were talking genetically engineered, were not significantly altering these species, she says. Were not making hugely mutant things. All were trying to do is give them an extra copy of a gene they already have to help them out … were not trying to be crazy scientists.

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