Risks Posed by Applications of CRISPR Technology in Plant Breeding

The pesticide-seed-biotech industry is rushing to corner the patent – and PR — market on CRISPR technologies used to silence, or turn up, the expression of genes in plants or animals.

The rapidly growing gene-editing toolkit has innate advantages over first-generation genetically engineered (GE) plants. First-gen GE crops were developed by forcibly moving foreign DNA (i.e., DNA from another, unrelated organism) into the genome of crop plants, and then using other foreign DNA in an effort to control the expression of the foreign DNA.

If the desired new trait moved in a GE plant is under-expressed, the crop won’t perform as advertised, and if it is over-expressed, all sorts of odd things can happen, including some bad things for human health and/or the environment.

CRISPR techniques have only been in play for about two years, and so relatively few scientists have had a chance to explore their impacts on plant gene-expression patterns. Just a handful of independent assessments have been published, and they raise an already long-list of concerns.

A solid summary of the challenges in assessing the safety and stability of gene-edited crops has been issued by GM Watch. The piece includes a helpful explanation by Dr. Michael Antoniou of why gene editing raises its own, unique set of risk issues. Antoniou goes on to suggest the suite of tests that should be done on new, gene-editing food crops, in order to rule out unexpected, subtle disruption in gene expression patterns.

In the long-run, gene editing tools will become more precise, and concern over adverse impacts will probably lessen. But in 2017, the industry should go the extra mile and conduct the sophisticated analyses of gene expression patterns recommended by Dr. Antoniou. Absent such a step – and commitment – the industry is one surprise away from a major setback in building confidence in this exciting new set of plant breeding tools.


Claire Robinson, June 1, 2017. “CRISPR-induced mutations – what do they mean for food safety?”, GM Watch, .



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