Gene-editing offers a taste of change

In the near future, scientists will engineer food that grows faster and does not spoil.

This is the promise of CRISPR/Cas 9, a game-changing gene-editing tool.

Bioengineered food could end world hunger. And, at least in theory, it would be perfectly safe.

It’s all possible in the New Gilded Age.

Advances in compute power and data analytics led to the full reading of the human genome in 2003. Ever since, scientists have been building on the seminal event.

In the 1980s, scientists discovered how some bacteria used gene-editing to defend against viral DNA. The bacteria used special enzymes to cut, copy and store bits of viral DNA for future reference.

Twenty years later, researchers determined the DNA of any organism could be snipped. By 2012, biologists Jennifer Doudna and Emmanuelle Charpentier demonstrated how CRISPR could precisely edit an organism’s genome.

It changed everything.

With CRISPR, scientists can literally edit organisms, removing the bits that lead to unfavorable outcomes.

Ethicists worry about a rush toward designer babies. And there have been some disturbing developments on that end in China. However, the real opportunity in the near term has always been agriculture.

Coming to a market near you — scientists have figured out how to build a better tomato.

Organisms are constantly undergoing this process naturally. They evolve. It just takes time. Gene editing speeds the process, shaving off years, decades and even millennia.

This is very different from GMOs, or genetically modified organisms. GMOs introduce foreign organisms to improve outcomes. Think of the end product as a Frankenstein.

For example, in 1994 Calgene won approval to sell the Flavr Savr tomato. Too make a Flavr Savr, scientists genetically modified a garden variety tomato with aminoglycoside 3-phosphotransferase II, a compound that kept the fruit from rotting.

The tinkering sabotaged the process that makes tomatoes turn squishy. But the less-squishy tomatoes never did catch on with a skeptical public. The company was later sold to Monsanto.

Speaking recently to Wired, Jennifer Doudna noted CRISPR has the potential to speed up new crop development by several orders of magnitude.

In May, scientists at Cold Harbor Laboratory in New York published a report showing how gene editing might finally solve the pesky tomato problem.

Wild tomato plants drop their fruit. When the fruit hits the ground, it gets bruised or worse. So farmers harvest tomatoes early to prevent damage.

Then, to facilitate mechanical pickers, breeders played with the tomato plant’s root structure. They wanted the fruit to hang on the branches longer. But nature got in the way. The new plants produced so many branches that harvesting became harder and yields actually declined.

The Cold Harbor researchers found the gene responsible for weird branches and edited it away. They created a new tomato plant without extra branches that does not drop the fruit.

In 2015, Penn State researchers used CRISPR to remove the gene that caused white button mushrooms to discolor over time. Digital Trends reports the group asked government regulators if the mushrooms fell under their purview. They did not. The mushrooms could legally go to market.

It’s not surprising that Monsanto and Dupont, two of the industry heavyweights, have been enthusiastic early supporters of gene editing. It’s cheaper, faster and does not suffer the stigma of transgenic modification. It’s also safer.

Products are coming to market, soon.

Gene editing is a game-changing, emerging technology. It would have been impossible two decades ago. Now it is on the horizon. It will create many new business models. It will create new companies and sectors.

And don’t assume the spoils will be limited to agricultural giants. This will impact equipment makers, land owners and software developers. The implications are many.

Check back in coming weeks for ways to play this theme in the stock market. But a good way to start from the ag perspective is with major crops giants like Monsanto (MON) and Syngenta (SYT).

Best wishes,

Jon Markman


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Comments 8

  1. H. Horace Newberry June 14, 2017

    An intestinal tract operates as a host to micro-orgasms breaking down foods we eat into absorbable-nutrimental-byproducts through processes such as fermentation and many other digestive-biological-decay functions which are essentially identical to spoilage.

    The whole idea in nature is to obtain spoilable foods & consume them before they spoil elsewhere other than our intestinal system.


  2. Jeff June 15, 2017

    You have got to be kidding. If you have more food available, then the population equilibrium shoots up. And then you have food shortage and starvation, again! ” Feed The Children” etc. only results in more children to starve in the future. Or worse.
    Why are so many thinking once again that the ideal world is just around the corner? War and all human ills
    can only increase from here. And no, medical advances to keep more defective people alive will not fix anything.
    It will only cause more problems and make humanity even weaker.


  3. Ted F June 15, 2017

    Yeah this is all nice, I’m sure the farmers in the family are waiting with baited breath. Monsanto said they had this in the pipeline a couple of years ago. But what will this do to food costs? To move this stuff all over the globe is difficult as there may not be the infrastructure, let alone the available crop land in some regions. Then there is the politics.


  4. John Draughon June 15, 2017

    The CBC said people don’t like bitter vegetables . They implied that the bitter taste would be genetically engineered away. The problem is…a Harvard study found that bitter tasting vegetables prevent and even cure diabetes. My pharmacist says doctors prescribe baking soda pills as a treatment for diabetes because it counteracts acid. These projects can be dangerous.
    (The CBC did not receive my warning email and ignored my phone call about the diabetes issue. [They blocked my emails after I complained that they eliminated the audio of a video clip, which audio revealed US war crimes. I said they handled it with “kid gloves”.] So you’ll only hear about this here)


  5. Sharon June 15, 2017

    And WE will be their Guinea Pigs to see if this stuff is safe? If Monsanto is involved, I don’t want any part of it! We already know how lethal their tinkering is. I will stick to my own Heirloom seeds Thank you very much.
    This planet produces plenty of food to feed the people of the world. It’s a matter of getting it to the ones who need it at a cost they can afford. The Best solution is to have everyone growing their own food. Not always practical in today’s urban settings, and some places actually prohibit it for some ridicules reason.


  6. Hapuna June 15, 2017

    The two companies that you mention are beyond evil. They have no remorse for killing bee hives or Indian farmers. They want to monopolize all seed and are patenting all living organisms that they can to assure their bottom line. They want to completely monopolize the entire food supply.
    They are corrupting the food chain with food that is hurting not just humans but many other species. They incorporate a cancer causing chemical (glyphosate) into the food we eat. The have stolen farmer’s land in Canada who had GMO seeds migrate onto their land. Their products are bad for the environment and bad for humans and other animals.
    I will never knowingly buy or eat any foods that were grown using their products. I value my health and the earth.
    Money is not the bottom line, Mr. Markman. Health is the bottom line.


  7. R. June 15, 2017

    Bioengineered food is most assuredly unhealthy. Monsanto and Syngenta can GTH.


  8. DANIEL JOHNSON June 16, 2017