The Future

5 misconceptions about CRISPR to clear up

So, what exactly is CRISPR? It has been in the news recently, but the ins and outs of the technology seem to have been a bit lost in the information overload. There are a few misunderstandings about what it's all about, so here's to clearing up the facts!

1. CRISPR ‘edits’, it doesn’t ‘modify’

Yes, there’s a difference! Unlike GM, CRISPR edits and removes specific sections of the pre-existing DNA.1 It edits what’s already there! GM actually introduces foreign DNA from one organism into another, therefore modifying the DNA.2 Furthermore, this foreign DNA can come from effectively any species of organism - bacteria, plants, insects, you name it.

2. CRISPR is more precise than GM, and it’s only getting started

If these two faced off in a game of darts, CRISPR would definitely win. It’s much more precise than GM in a few ways. Unlike GM, CRISPR only works with pre-existing genes. The technology “rewrites” what is already there in your DNA by singling out those specific genes. It does this by working with the four bases that make up genes, A, T, C and G, with the technology now having progressed to a point where it can even recognise individual bases,3 and it’s becoming widespread practice to do so.4 In comparison, GM lacks such precision as it has a much broader, hit-and-hope approach.5 If you want to find out more about GM, read our article on how that particular branch of biotech works.

3. It’s starting to get the same regulations as GM

Up until very recently, there was actually very little regulation on CRISPR compared to GM. This was mainly due to how young the technology was, having only been around since 2013.6 This all changed in July 2018 when EU courts ruled that CRISPR will be subject to the same rules as GM.7 However, this obviously isn’t applicable to countries such as the US or China, so the future of global research regulation is still yet to be seen.

4. CRISPR is cheap as chips

When you think of a new food technology, you could assume that it might come with an increase in costs, but CRISPR is actually cheaper and more affordable than other current bioengineering techniques. The reason is that it doesn’t need a massive, expensive lab with loads of equipment, it just needs the correct RNA fragment and the right chemicals and enzymes.8 I guess my bank account wouldn’t mind CRISPR.

5. CRISPR isn’t the saviour of food just yet

Despite being a hot favourite in the race to solve global food issues, potentially increasing yields and resistance to environmental stresses to match our global appetite,9 CRISPR still has a long way to go. That race is a marathon, not a sprint, and CRISPR is only just at the starting line.

Despite being a more precise and easier technique than its predecessor (GM), that doesn’t mean it’s foolproof. CRISPR can act in unwanted areas of the genome just like GM. And, just because it’s more precise, that doesn’t mean it’s always so, with studies showing it can sometimes create incorrect deletions.10 We are still a long way from being in control of the genes in our food and being able to predict their behaviour fully, but we’re getting there. And with CRISPR, that day may not be as far off as we once thought.

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