The trial that will determine our genetic future

US Patent and Trademark OfficeAlan Kotok

❝ Arguments in a trial to determine ownership of CRISPR, a gene editing technology, started Tuesday the 6th in Virginia. The outcome will determine who gets ownership of an incredibly lucrative and incredibly powerful tool that has the potential to “treat” genetic disease.

Two groups are contending for the editing technology patent: on one side is MIT’s Broad Institute and Harvard University, and on the other is the University of California, Berkeley…

❝ Billions of future revenue is at stake in the trial in the US Patent and Trademark Office — essentially a patent court — in Alexandria, Virginia. CRISPR/Cas9 gene-editing technology could be used to genetically modify crops, animals and even fetuses, scientists promise. Previous gene-editing tools have already existed, but none appear to work as quickly or promise such versatility as CRISPR.

And based on the advances so far, CRISPR’s potential is mind-blowing. It could be used to change crop strands to be drought-resistant, or to change disease-carrying parasites to stop the spread of illnesses like malaria. And scientists are hoping it will be able to eliminate genetic disease like cystic fibrosis.

Ethical questions are inevitable – as are the number of scientifically-unqualified “experts and consultants” who will offer their expertise in the years to come. Legitimate science will be represented in the overall discussion by the broad range of researchers from academia to the narrowest of corporate purveyors.

RTFA to get up to speed. The discussion is getting underway.

Russian Dandelion modified for large-scale latex production

Test Garden

Anyone who has picked dandelions as a child will be familiar with the white liquid that seeps out of the stalks as you break them off. Viscous, sticky – and a much sought-after material: natural latex. Around 30,000 everyday products contain natural rubber, everything from car tires, catheter tubes, latex gloves to tops for drinks bottles. Car tires, for instance, would not be elastic enough without the incorporation of natural rubber. The bulk of this material comes from rubber trees in Southeast Asia.

Rubber produced in this way can, however, cause allergic reactions, which is clearly an issue with clinical products. A fungus is also creating concern for rubber cultivators. In South America the infection is now so widespread that large-scale cultivation has become virtually impossible. The disease now also appears to have taken root in Southeast Asia’s rubber belt. Fungicides still provide at least temporary protection. But if the fungus disease was to reach epidemic proportions, chemical crop protection would be rendered useless – experts fear that the natural latex industry could collapse if that were to happen.

Researchers are therefore turning to other sources – such as the Russian dandelion. Germans, Russians and Americans produced rubber from this plant during the Second World War. Once it is cut, latex seeps out, albeit difficult to use as it polymerizes immediately…

“We have identified the enzyme responsible for the rapid polymerization and have switched it off,” says Prof. Dr. Dirk Prüfer, Head of Department at the IME. “If the plant is cut, the latex flows out instead of being polymerized. We obtain four to five times the amount we would normally. If the plants were to be cultivated on a large scale, every hectare would produce 500 to 1000 kilograms of latex per growing season.”

The dandelion rubber has not caused any allergies so far, making it ideal for use in hospitals.

It really knocks me out – how many questions unable to answer back in the day – now become possible to sort with genetic science. This is taking care of a question examined 60-70 years ago and simply set aside.

You could spend a career just wandering back through biologic and botanical science for unresolved experiments which might now be finished.

Averting the food shortage in Beddington’s “Perfect Storm”

Faced with the threat of a booming population going hungry in a warming world, there is quiet confidence among many researchers that technology can provide solutions, reports the BBC’s environment correspondent, David Shukman.

The warning of a “perfect storm” is partly intended to focus attention on the positive role that science can play – and to galvanise politicians to support it.

There is a glimpse of that potential at the Rothamsted plant research centre in Hertfordshire, where 160 years of experiments have repeatedly boosted the key feature of crops – their yield.

BBC correspondents explore the forecast by UK chief scientist John Beddington, of a “perfect storm” of food, water and energy shortages in 2030. They also consider what scientists and members of the public can do to help avert a crisis…

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Is it finally time for EU acceptance of genetically modified crops?

Daylife/Reuters Pictures

The biotechnology industry, claiming the backing of European Union governments, signaled a new effort to win greater leeway to grow genetically modified crops in Europe, a region where citizens have long been skeptical about the safety and value of the technology.

EU experts deadlocked Monday on whether France and Greece should lift their bans on growing the sole bioengineered seed approved for planting: an insect-resistant corn engineered by Monsanto.

Biotechnology industry executives say that a bigger vote expected next week could lead to two additional engineered corn seeds being given permission to be marketed in the EU by year-end. One is produced by Pioneer Hi-Bred International, a unit of DuPont, with Dow AgroSciences. The other is from Syngenta.

Even so, a variety of forces are pushing Europe into re-examining the potential of gene-altered seeds despite a view among many citizens across the trade bloc that the crops are unsafe, dangerous to the environment and represent an unwelcome incursion by corporations into agriculture.

The problem I always have with issues like this is that it comes down to uneducated “common knowledge” vs. whatever is designed by the latest scientific methodology. The protesters are rarely any different from 19th Century weavers destroying machinery.

I spent a significant chunk of years protesting as a political act, for things, against things – definable and verifiable. That even included science and technology used to anti-human ends by politicians. That’s not what this is about.

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