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Human genome-editing debate may prove beneficial for similar advances in livestock and crops

Here is the first post from our new blogger, Lisa Willemse. Feel free to leave some comments to welcome her to the fold and read a little bit about her background.

The spectre of undesirable inherited traits as a result of DNA disruption via genome editing in human germline has placed the technique – and the ethical debate – on the front page of newspapers around the globe. Calls for a moratorium on further research until both the ethical implications can be worked out and the procedure better refined and understood, will undoubtedly temper research activities in many labs for months and years to come.

On the surface, it’s hard to see how any of this will advance similar research in livestock or crops – at least initially.
Groups already wary of so-called “frankenfoods” may step up efforts to prevent genome-edited food products from hitting supermarket shelves. In the EU, where a stringent ban on genetically-modified (GM) foods is already in place, there are concerns that genome-edited foods will be captured under this rubric, holding back many perceived benefits. This includes pork and beef from animals with disease resistance, lower methane emissions and improved feed-to-food ratios, milk from higher-yield or hornless cattle, as well as food and feed crops with better, higher quality yields or weed resistance.

In the US, genome editing has thus far eluded the regulation for GMOs, in large part because the technique snips, disrupts or adds to the organism’s own DNA without the use of introduced (i.e. foreign) virus or genetic material. This loophole has enabled development and commercialization of a variety of food and non-food crops, such as a healthier french fry potato and denser-wood pine trees – developments that have some calling for a complete overhaul of the GMO regulation, while at the same time, has presented a boon of opportunities for companies.

Even if these debates cause concern and an initial tailoring of research, it’s unlikely to have serious long-term impacts in Canada. The wild west of genome editing does not extend north of the border. In Canada, genome-edited organisms fall under Health Canada’s umbrella of “genetically modify” as defined by the agency’s Food and Drug Act: “to change the heritable traits of a plant, animal or microorganism by means of intentional manipulation.” Such distinction requires approval and testing by Health Canada before becoming available for consumption. Assuming these tests meet standards, there is every indication that they will be approved – as the landmark approval for an herbicide-tolerant canola suggests. The more comprehensive, albeit more cumbersome Canadian system does ensure adequate safety testing, even If the time lag could potentially place Canadian farmers, businesses and researchers at a disadvantage to their American neighbours. If the regulations around genome editing do go under review and change in the US, it may level the playing field, but it will also become a deterrent to small businesses and university enterprises who can currently take advantage of the more cost-effective US model – and bring the results of their findings north for approval.
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Still, at the heart of the human germline editing is the notion of a permanent genetic change that can be passed on to offspring, leading to concerns of designer babies and other advantages afforded only to those who can pay. This is far less of a concern in genome-editing involving crops and livestock, where the overriding aim is to increase food supply for the world’s population at lower cost. Given this, and that research for human medical benefits has always relied on safety testing and data accumulation through experimentation in non-human animals, it’s more likely that any moratorium in human studies will place increased pressure to demonstrate long-term safety of such techniques on those who are conducting the work in other species.

Human genome-editing debate may prove beneficial for similar advances in livestock and crops

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