What is Gene Editing?

If gene editing hasn’t crept into your radar yet, it’s bound to pop up soon.

Gene editing is a new technology that scientists are using to make targeted, precise changes to the DNA of living organisms. While these edits happen at a microscopic (molecular) level, they have the potential to make a significant positive impact on our world.

In the field of medicine, scientists are researching how gene editing can treat diseases such as cancer, sickle cell anemia and a wide range of genetic disorders.  Read How can CRISPR treat disease?

In agriculture, gene editing is used to breed plants and animals, reduce diseases, and minimize the impact of pests and severe weather. Gene editing can also be used to make foods taste better, increase nutrients and prolong shelf-life to reduce waste.

For example, a new type of leafy greens that are higher in nutrients and more flavorful are now available in foodservice. Gene edited tomatoes are sold in Japan. Many more gene-edited foods are on the horizon, with more than 500 products under development globally, according to S&P Global.

As the use of gene editing continues to become more prevalent in food and agriculture, Best Food Facts set out to learn more about it. We reached out to three experts – Dr. Rodolphe Barrangou, Distinguished Professor at North Carolina State University; Dr. Zhongde Wang, Professor at Utah State University; and Dr. Jennifer Kuzma, Goodnight-NC GSK Foundation Distinguished Professor in Social Sciences at North Carolina State University and co-founder and co-director of the Genetic Engineering and Society Center – to get their insight about this new technology.

The series contains three articles:

What is gene editing?

Dr. Barrangou: “It is a set of molecular tools that enables molecular biologists to edit the DNA sequence of virtually any organism on planet Earth, anyway we want at speed and at scale.”

Dr. Kuzma: “It is a set of techniques for very site-specific introductions or changes in the genome at a particular location. You can make very small changes to the genome. Gene editing often relies on enzymes called site-directed nucleases that will cut the DNA in a particular location. Then if you provide an additional DNA template, the genome will copy that change, much like changing a letter in a word or sentence. That’s what distinguishes gene editing from the first generation of genetically engineered crops, which were not as targeted or specific.”

Improvements through history

Gene editing is the latest technique being used to develop better food.

Even before scientists fully understood genes and DNA, they studied genetics searching for ways to make life better. For instance, about 3,000 years ago, farmers in Asia bred horses and donkeys to produce mules for transportation and farm work. The corn we know today was first grown by Indigenous peoples in North America, who bred maize plants to produce better grain. Broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage, kale, kohlrabi and brussels sprouts all came from the wild mustard plant, which farmers bred to develop specific traits. And now, gene editing is accelerating those improvements.

Production animals such as cows, pigs and chickens have been bred to improve the production of milk, beef, bacon and eggs, Dr. Barrangou said. The challenge for scientists is that it takes a long time for a plant or animal to grow and pass the desired traits to its offspring. Gene editing allows researchers to speed the process.

“Instead of waiting years and multiple breeding cycles to have more flavorful tomatoes or higher yielding corn or better tasting kale, or brighter, more oxidant-containing berries and grapes, we can use genome editing technologies to bestow some of those traits upon the species of interest at speed, scale and cost,” Dr. Barrangou said.

Learn more about how gene editing is being used in food:

What’s the difference between GMOs and gene editing?

Dr. Wang: “GMOs refers to any organism whose genome has been modified. The term GMOs was coined before gene editing techniques were available. Gene editing is totally different from the traditional genetic modification methods used in making GMOs in that gene editing is a process of changing the genome with single nucleotide precision while traditional genetic modification tends to introduce DNA from other organisms.”

Read Are GMOs Good or Bad?

What are some of the uses of gene editing that you see as most promising?

Dr. Barrangou: “The ability to recode the code of life of all organisms from very simple basic viruses to microscopic bacteria, fungi, yeast and the like, all the way to sophisticated large organisms like livestock that we eat, plants including crops that we consume and of course, humans for medical applications. And even in environmental stewardship for things like trees and forestry. It is a transformative, disruptive technology that allows humankind to recode the code of life across the planet.”

Dr. Wang: “Developing gene therapy techniques for human medicine, developing new animal models, and improving the genetics of livestock. It could also be very promising in synthetic biology.”

Synthetic biology involves redesigning organisms for useful purposes by engineering them to have new abilities.

Is there anything you would like people to know about gene editing?

Dr. Barrangou: “As scientists, we want to use the best science and technology in the world to solve the grandest problems that we have in humankind. We use the best technologies available to us – the best tools, the most sophisticated data and insights and resources – to tackle those challenges, such as sustainable agriculture, expanding the human lifespan, tackling disease and beating cancer. Growing stuff out of nothing to feed a nutritious diet to billions of people is not a trivial process.”

Gene editing is a technique that precisely alters the genome of an organism to make beneficial changes. This new technology has the potential to prevent or treat human and animal diseases, combat the impacts of climate change and increase the sustainability of the food system.