From the hand of nature to the hand of man

Humans have been tinkering with the genetic make-up of plants and animals for almost 10,000 years through selective breeding. Throughout this period, humans have selected plants and animals that have spontaneously mutated to possess desirable features. This has turned the Wolf into Great Danes and Pomeranians, and turned corn cobs shorter than your thumb into the corn cobs we buy today. But this process takes time. Cross breeding plants to produce hybrids has sped up the process, but all too often this led to plants with unforeseen or undesirable traits. Furthermore, this process was limited by the availability of closely related plant species with desirable traits.

In 1863, an Austrian scientist name Gregor Mendel performed an experiment which became the foundation for modern genetics. However, despite Mendel’s ground-breaking work, we still didn’t understand how traits were passed between generations, or indeed how they originated in the first place.

It’s all in the genes

In the 20th century this began to change. Throughout the 1920s and 1930s, experiments pointed to the source of inheritable traits as being large molecules that were susceptible to alteration by x-rays. In 1943 a team of scientists led by the American Oswald Avery, discovered that by transferring DNA from a first type of bacteria to a second type, the second type could be made to possess the physical traits of the first. In this process, Avery not only founded our modern understanding of DNA  as the source of inheritable traits, but arguably also created the first human genetically manipulated organism.

Despite this breakthrough, the first genetically modified organism (GMO) was not generated for another 30 years. In 1972, a genetically modified (GM) bacterium was created, and in 1973 the first GM animal was created. It took another decade before the first GM plants  were created, and another 13 years until they were commercialised in 1996. The first two GM crops had genes introduced from bacteria to produce plants that were tolerant to weed killer and plants that produced their own pesticide. GM crops were rapidly adopted, and by 2010, 20% of all planted cropland were GM crops.

Despite the proliferation of GM crops, their development and implementation is highly controversial. Many questions have arisen regarding the long-term effects on the environment and human health, while the intellectual property rights associated with GM crops have spawned a myriad of ethical and moral debates.

A move away from GM

Recent advances in the tools available for genetic engineering may help to solve some of the problems associated with GM plants. These tools are offering the potential for a new type of genetic alteration of plants, one more akin to natural selection and hybridisation, albeit with greater specificity and predictability. A process known as genetic, or genome, editing may help address many of regulatory and public hurdles to adoption of GM crops.

Traditional genetic modification transfers whole genes from a distantly related, or unrelated, organism into a plant. However, genetic editing makes precise breaks at pre-determined points in the plant genome allowing the removal or replication of parts of that genome. In this way, genes can be tweaked to function better or can be turned off completely. In essence, genetically edited crops, unlike GM crops, contain no foreign DNA.

The three main new technologies that allow for this new form of genetic editing are zinc-finger nucleases (ZFNs), transcription activator-like effector nucleases (TALENs) and clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats (CRISPR) nucleases. These clumsily named tools provide scientists with an unprecedented ability to precisely manipulate genes in plants. This has already led to the development of  new crops such as mildew-resistant wheat and herbicide-tolerant canola.

Possibilities, pitfalls and patents

The uptake and utilisation of GM crops has largely depended on government regulations and public perception. In countries like the US, GM crops have been widely adopted by farmers. However, the European Union which has strict approval and regulation processes for GM plants and foods, has a considerably lower percentage of GM crops. Locally, South Australia, Tasmania and the  ACT have moratoriums on all commercial GM crop production.

However, genetically edited crops, by virtue of containing no foreign DNA, are not currently covered by many of the existing government regulations. The US department of agriculture has decided that since genetically edited crops are virtually indistinguishable from crops that have naturally changed, or are a product of selective breeding, they do not fall under the umbrella of genetically modified organisms (GMOs), and therefore bypass GMO regulations. A similar approach has been taken in Canada, where the first commercial genetically edited crop is currently growing. Whether the EU and countries like Australia will take the same approach is yet to be known.

The approach used in genetic editing is more like natural selection than traditional genetic modification; however, will this difference be enough to convince an already sceptical public who may view these crops as ‘Frankenfoods’. Public perception of genetically edited crops will depend on the ability of the food industry and scientists to communicate  the technology and inform the public of any need for such foods. In any event, a large determinant of the success of genetically edited plants will be based on the public’s willingness to embrace them.

Issues of intellectual property

One consistent issue that genetically engineered crops will share with GM crops will be that of intellectual property. The controversy surrounding patents on new forms of GM crops and the limitations that these place on farmers, especially in developing nations, has been at the forefront of the ethical debate about GM crops. It is unlikely that this will change with GE crops. In fact, the intellectual property picture is more complex than ever before.

Many of the technologies used to perform genetic engineering, such as CRISPR, ZFNs and TALENs are new discoveries. Unlike the mid-1990s when the first GM crops came onto the market, genetically edited crops are following hot on the heels of innovations in the tools for genetic engineering, and like most new discoveries, these tools are protected by patents.

CRISPR (recently labelled ‘the biggest biotech discovery of the century’) alone is already covered at least 11 granted US patents and the subject of over a 100 more applications, despite only being discovered in mid-2012. Additionally, at least seven companies are actively commercialising this technology. While the technology around ZFNs and TALENs may not be as hotly contested, there are over 24 US patents covering ZFNs, and at least four US patents covering TALENs. All in all, the number of patents simply covering the tools for genetically editing crops will be a maze that will have to be traversed before a product can be generated and commercialised.

With this rapid and disruptive change, there are opportunities for companies and countries willing to accept this technology. The willingness of the US to embrace GM crops in the 1990s, led to the development of a significant local industry. With the lessons learnt from the last 20 years of GM crops, countries like Australia can now make an informed assessment of the possible impacts of this new technology. If willing, Australia could use this new approach to agriculture to improve our ability to produce food, while developing intellectual property which can be exported alongside our world-leading produce to build on our rich history of agriculture.