Monsanto, ‘the most hated corporation in America,’ plans to take the science of genetic manipulation to a whole new level. According to a March 27 article in Business Insider, the agrichemical giant has joined forces with Pairwise Plants – a California start-up company helmed by a pair of Harvard scientists – and plans to invest a whopping $100 million in a form of gene-editing technology.
While the new technology, known as CRISPR, is being hailed by some as a way to correct genetic diseases, many natural health advocates question its safety – and whether our food is an appropriate target for gene-editing.
Three days after the collaboration was announced, a published study showing that CRISPR induced unexpected mutations in mice was retracted. The timing is highly suspicious, to say the least – especially in light of Monsanto’s long and disgraceful history of suppressing damaging research.
Monsanto: CRISPR-made produce to hit grocery store shelves within 10 years
The gene-editing tool CRISPR (an acronym for Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats) allows scientists to manipulate DNA to produce traits such as flavor, longer shelf life, convenient sizing or tolerance to drought and disease.
In other words, unlike traditional GMO methods – which add genes from another organism – gene-editing changes (or deletes) existing genes.
Monsanto plans to “gene-edit” corn, soy, wheat, cotton and canola – major crops used in an extensive variety of foods. (Of course, they will then have exclusive rights to the “edited” crops).
The company’s stated goal is to be the first to get CRISPR-made produce into the U.S. marketplace – and to do so within the next 5 to 10 years.
And, they are pulling out all the stops in pursuit of this goal.
Not only has Monsanto invested $100 million in Pairwise, but they are providing leadership as well. The collaboration between the two companies is so cozy that Tom Adams – the head of Monsanto’s biotechnology department – is slated to lead Pairwise as Chief Executive Officer.
Unpredicted mutations appear in study – as safeguards fail
Natural health experts and GMO critics – including the non-profit organization GM Watch – warn that CRISPR could cause unpredictable mutations.
Their suspicions appear to have been confirmed by an explosive study published last May in Nature Methods, in which CRISPR caused hundreds of unintended, “off-target” mutations in mice.
The mice had originally undergone CRISPR gene editing to correct a genetic defect. When researchers sequenced their genomes – their entire collection of genes – they found that two of the mice had sustained more than 1,500 mutations involving the nucleotide (a small block of DNA).
CRISPR technology is believed to be so precise and predictable that the USDA has already given the “green light” to CRISPR-produced foods.
Yet, computer algorithms used by scientists to screen for possible unintended mutations completely failed to predict them. In addition, the mutations were “off-target,” meaning they didn’t occur in the genes that had been edited in the first place.
Leading authority on genetic modification had been expecting these results
Commenting on the study, Dr. Michael Antoniou – a molecular geneticist and authority on genetic modification – called the results “unsurprising.” Chillingly, he remarked that there “wasn’t a question” of unintended mutations appearing. “The only question,” remarked Dr. Antoniou, “is how many.”
These mutations, of course, could have unintended effects. For example, said Dr. Antoniou, the disruption of an enzyme’s function could lead to unpredictable biochemical reactions.
Dr. Antoniou maintains that the entire genome sequences of gene-edited organisms should be submitted to biosafety authorities – and that long-term toxicity studies should also be performed.
GM Watch agrees, stating that new genome editing should be at least as strictly regulated as the original genetic modification technique.
But, the story doesn’t end there.
Scientific study retracted in the wake of biotech corporate announcement
Three days after the announcement of Monsanto’s collaboration with Pairwise, the study was retracted from online versions of Nature Methods.
A month later, on April 27, 2018, it was retracted from the printed journal.
Nature Method’s editors explained that “multiple groups” had questioned the researchers’ interpretation that the nucleotide changes were due to CRISPR treatment.
And, without more analysis of the rodents’ genetic background, no one could claim certainty. Ultimately, the editors ruled that the changes discovered by the researchers were actually due to “normal genetic variation.”
Undeterred, the study’s authors are currently carrying out follow-up studies using whole genome sequencing.
Although the study, “Unexpected Mutations after CRISPR-Cas 9 editing in vivo,” has been retracted, you can still view it here.
“Gene editing” may sound less sinister than “genetic modification.” But, for many, it still adds up to “Frankenfood.”
Sources for this article include: