Monsanto announced on Thursday that it has struck a deal which will allow the biotech giant to use the gene-editing tool CRISPR/Cas9 on agricultural products. It is the first company to receive approval to deploy CRISPR/Cas9 for agricultural use.
The license was approved by the Broad Institute, a genomic research center maintained by MIT and Harvard, and will be used by Monsanto to create genetically modified plants that are tailored to its needs. The "wide array of crop improvements" that Monsanto sees as enabled by CRISPR/Cas9 could mean anything from drought resistant crops to agricultural products that are designed to taste and look more appealing to the consumer.
"Genome-editing techniques present precise ways to dramatically improve the scale and discovery efficiency of new research that can improve human health and global agriculture," said Issi Rozen, the Broad Institute's Chief Business Officer. "We are encouraged to see these tools being used to help deliver responsible solutions to help farmers meet the demands of our growing population."
CRISPR/Cas9 has been taking the world by storm since it was first developed in 2013 by researchers at the Broad Institute. The gene-editing technology works by taking advantage of a property of DNA called clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats, or small repetitions of DNA base sequences. These sequences produce an enzyme called Cas9, which essentially functions as a pair of genetic scissors which can cut the DNA sequences at certain points to add or remove small DNA segments.
Yet the ease with which researchers and companies like Monsanto could use gene-editing technology to irreversibly fuck with living things like people and plants has also raised concern that the technology might become widely deployed without understanding the consequences. This is why the "responsible use" of CRISPR/Cas9 cited by Rozen is a key stipulation in Monsanto's latest move to corner the GMO industry (as the most recent acquisition of the chemical company Bayer, Monsanto and its affiliates now control a full 25 percent of the world's seeds and pesticides).
Monsanto has never been a company that has been particularly lauded for doing responsible things, and its forays into genetically modified plants have had a number of unintended consequences, such as encouraging pesticide resistant "super bugs" and weeds. In order to ensure more responsible use of this powerful gene-editing tool, the agreement prohibits Monsanto from using CRISPR/Cas9 to promote gene drives (where a genetically modified trait, such as pesticide resistance, is intentionally spread through an entire plant population), the production of sterile "terminator" seeds, or the production of tobacco to be used for smoking.
Gene drives were recently cited as a concern in a National Academy of Sciences report on the topic since genetically modified plant traits could ravage ecosystems in ways that aren't yet fully understood. The terminator seeds previously developed by Monsanto have been condemned by agricultural workers around the globe because they require the farmers to buy a new round of seeds from Monsanto every year since the seeds produced naturally by their crops are sterile. Although Monsanto worked on developing terminator seeds throughout the 90s, the company insists they will never be sold commercially.
While these restrictions on the use of CRISPR/Cas9 in agriculture are a step in the right direction, it's hard to shake the feeling that the deployment of a controversial and fledgling technology in the hands of a perennially controversial corporation might not lead to the best results.