What is it about?
Scientists have succeeded in changing several genes at the same time in non-domesticated wild tomatoes by using CRISPR ‘gene scissors’. Six genes were cut with the result that small fruits growing on bushy plants were changed into tomatoes that look like the ones currently marketed. The authors reported that they succeeded in bringing about this change within a very short period of time; a change that would otherwise have taken several decades. In addition, the GE tomatoes reportedly have a much higher concentration of healthy compounds.
What is the problem?
This kind of gene manipulation i.e. changing several genes at the same time is called ‘multiplexing’. Even though no additional genes were inserted, the impact was extraordinary: the number of fruits, their size, form and compounds as well as the architecture of the plants were changed in just a few working steps and within a short period of time. The results go far beyond what was possible with previous methods of genetic engineering. However, the risks and the consequences are also far more complex: until now, the aim was to insert additional genes (for example, to make them resistant to herbicides) without altering the overall biology of the plants. Now the intention is to profoundly change the metabolism of the plants on several levels.
Whether these tomatoes just look like normal tomatoes or whether they are safe to eat can only be clarified in thorough investigations. Until now, traditional breeding has developed new varieties step by step over many years and thereby gained a wealth of experience. Now, however, the nuclease CRISPR-Cas can in just one step change multiple copies of a gene as well as change several different genes at the same time. In the very near future and in ever shorter time-scales, the use of tools like CRISPR-Cas may lead to a very large and increasing number of plants and animals with new biological traits being introduced into the food chain.
As we all know, higher speeds need more and not less control. But currently industry and other interested stakeholders are adamant that the new methods of genetic engineering should not be subject to approval processes and risk assessment. If these new plants are marketed without regulation and risk assessment, no farmer or grower will know exactly what they are growing. Consumers would lose their freedom of choice. And not even the regulatory authorities would know which plants were being imported from which countries, or what to look for if the genetically engineered plants did indeed spread uncontrolled and damage the environment.
There have been several media reports on these tomatoes, but hardly any discussion about associated risks. Instead, the focus has been on the interests of consumers thereby creating the impression that there are no commercial interests; but in fact, some of the US scientists involved in the publication and the development of the tomatoes have already applied for a number of patents on plants used in genome editing; these scientists also have close ties to Calyxt, which has already announced that it will be the first company to market soybeans that are genetically engineered with these new methods. Several members of the management of Calyxt previously worked for the US company Monsanto. Media is in danger of inadvertently promoting these products in the interests of industry when they fail to report on the real background to the new methods of genetic engineering.