The European Court of Justice ruled Wednesday that organisms obtained by mutagenesis, or gene editing, are considered genetically modified organisms (GMOs), which mean they fall under the same strict EU rules that govern GMOs.
The decision is a victory for organic farming associations and environmentalists wary of "GMO 2.0" techniques such as CRISPR gene editing that alter an organism's DNA.
"These new 'GMO 2.0' genetic engineering techniques must be fully tested before they are let out in the countryside and into our food," Mute Schimpf, food and farming campaigner at Friends of the Earth Europe said in a press release. "We welcome this landmark ruling which defeats the biotech industry's latest attempt to push unwanted genetically-modified products onto our fields and plates."
The biotech industry and other gene editing proponents believe the novel technique can revolutionize food production, medicine and other areas. Compared to older GMO technology, which typically involves inserting genetic material from one species to another, gene editing uses "molecular scissors" to edit DNA of live organisms. For instance, scientists have created a mushroom that resists browning by using the genome-editing tool CRISPR-Cas9.
"It is damaging to the ability of the EU's biotech hub to innovate and disconnects it from developments in the rest of the world," VCL continued.
The case was brought to the European Court of Justice by French farmer unions that argued organisms obtained by mutagenesis should not be exempt from GMO rules under French law.
Today's decision means that GMO 2.0 foods and crops are subject to existing EU laws for GMOs, including safety assessments, clear labelling and traceability.
However, the court ruled that exemptions could be made for mutagenesis techniques that have been conventionally been used in a number of applications and have along safety record. In light of the decision, Schimpf of Friends of the Earth urged the EU and national lawmakers to "ensure that all new genetically modified products are fully tested, and they must also support the small-scale, nature-friendly agriculture we urgently need."
Bart Staes, the MEP of the Greens/EFA group, also applauded the decision.
"Just because the industry has come up with new ways to modify organisms does not mean that these techniques should be exempt from existing EU standards on GMOs," he said in a press release. "Recent scientific studies show that these new techniques might not be as accurate as the industry claims them to be, that's why it's essential that they come under the same labelling requirements and impact assessments as existing GMOs.
These new patented organisms may have unintended effects, as well [as] the potential to increase our dependence on the agri-chemical industry, and therefore must be stringently monitored by the European Food Safety Authority for any risks to human, animal and environmental health."
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Experimental CRISPR Study Exploits “Selfish” Genes
Poor Paste Performance
CRISPR is often described as a “cut and paste” tool for DNA. But so far, the gene editing tech has proven far better at cutting than pasting — its gene insertion success rate is around a dismal one percent.
Now, a team of researchers is conducting an experimental study to see if they can improve this rate by exploiting transposons, so-called “jumping genes” that do nothing but selfishly copy and paste themselves throughout the genome — and so far, it seems to be working.
The researchers, who hail from Harvard, MIT, and the National Institutes of Health, detail their work in a study published on Thursday in the journal Science.
They started by pairing a transposon called Tn7 with the CRISPR Cas12 enzyme and directing it to a specific part of a bacteria’s genome.
When it arrived at the target location, the Tn7 gene inserted itself into the genome without making any deletions — with a success rate of 80 percent, vastly higher than CRISPR’s current one percent.
Jump to Humans
Eventually, “jumping genes” might make it possible to correct faulty genes in the human genome. But right now, it’s unclear whether the system works outside of bacteria.
“It’s still in the experimental phase,” University College London geneticist Helen O’Neill, who wasn’t involved in the research, told New Scientist. “But it’s quite exciting.”
READ MORE: Powerful CRISPR upgrade uses ‘jumping genes’ to directly insert DNA [New Scientist]
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