The Modern Day and Future Benefits Of Gene Editing

Issue 5, Volume 113

By Seth Fenton 

With the constant growth of the population, the high demand for food and new medicine has become a prominent issue. However, a relatively new biological technology, gene editing, seems to hold the solutions to this ongoing problem. Genetically modified organisms (GMOs) have increased our medical capabilities by allowing the mass production and development of a wide variety of proteins necessary for different medicines. The unique engineering of genes has also drastically changed the food industry as our world of seven billion people has outgrown its ability to sustain itself. Gene editing has been proven to play an important role in a variety of industries and is a crucial technology in our constantly evolving society.

As of right now, the modern-day gene editing technologies generally utilized are clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats (CRISPR) and transcription activator-like effector nucleases (TALEN). The CRISPR technique utilizes a bacterial immune system protein called cas-9. In prokaryotes, this protein cleaves viral DNA, protecting bacteria from being killed by viruses. In a scientific environment, this precise cutting power can be utilized to snip individual or very small groups of nucleotides. TALEN also performs incredibly precise cuts but in a different way. They are sequence-customizable nucleases, and thus are able to destroy exact segments of DNA. These cut strands of DNA can be replaced relatively easily by hijacking the cell repair practice. Despite their differences, both techniques are versatile, inexpensive, and can be easily utilized to perform very precise edits.

Genetic modification plays a vital part in assisting the mass production of certain medications. The major medication used to treat diabetes, insulin, exemplifies the medical uses of cell factories, as it can only be produced in large quantities with the help of genetic modification. Bacteria that have insulin-creating genetic machinery added can be carefully cultivated and provided with massive amounts of raw materials to produce large amounts of this protein quickly. Its capabilities have solved most of the technological problems with insulin production. For instance, the high price of insulin due to the artificial scarcity and lack of production induced by aggressively defended big drug company patents was solved. In addition, a vast number of other medical substances can be produced using cell factories’ tissue plasminogen activator (tPA), which helps break up blood clots and certain vaccines.

Gene editing has become increasingly important—it is estimated that roughly 90 percent of corn, soybeans, and sugar beets grown for commercial sale are genetically modified. They are staple foods on our planet, and the increased productivity brought by genetic engineering can save millions from malnutrition. The massive increase in agricultural production will put more food in circulation, thereby driving down food prices and feeding more people. Enhancing plant immune modifications also provides a level of resiliency against crop blights, which will only increase in severity due to monocropping and climate change. Taking all of these benefits together, gene editing provides us with a resilient food supply chain and a significantly enhanced food production infrastructure.

Despite the clear benefits, there are many people who object to the use of genetically modified crops. These groups tend to have one of two overarching arguments. The first is health: a lot of detractors of GMOs believe that they either haven’t had enough testing or cause a variety of health issues. This pretty much always rings false though, since any GMO marketed for human consumption has been rigorously tested by international agencies. No health issues have been observed to be caused by the consumption of GMOs in nations that have approved them for commercial sale. The only health concern that exists at all is from cross-contamination between GMOs created for animal feed and GMOs grown for human consumption, but that has only been observed in very small amounts and is relatively easy to prevent.

The second argument is centered around environmental damage. GMOs risk a small amount of damage to the environment due to the proliferation of non-native genes. However, their environmental damage can be easily mitigated, and they do far less environmental damage than other products like pesticides. They are probably the least environmentally damaging way to massively increase the health, safety, and amount of food we have.

Despite the current benefits it already holds, gene modification is set to further expand in both fields. Vaccines developed for certain types of cancer and generated by edited bacteria and plants have long been tested but haven’t quite come into widespread use yet. The same goes for the new DNA vaccines, which have a vast variety of applications but are not as widely used. As bacterial manufacturing continues to spread, these techniques will be used for a wider variety of medications. In fact, without a future significant boost in bacterial productivity, certain experimental medications will be nearly impossible to mass produce.

As we learn more about the genomes of common crops and continue to improve our genetic modification capabilities, these crops will continue to get more productive, more blight resistant, and require fewer nutrients to grow. Gene editing has had a revolutionary impact on the pharmaceutical and food industries. By giving us bacterial cell factories, it has provided us with new ways to mass produce and create medications. By providing our crops with better immune systems and more nutritional efficiency, it has increased the resilience and productivity of our food infrastructure. This allows us to feed far more people in difficult environmental circumstances, addressing the issue of overpopulation. Though this technology is only in its infancy, its benefits will grow and diversify over time.