Last week’s blog, The CRISPR Revolution, closed with the enticing statement: Join us next week to find out where CRISPR technology can show up in your house! Spoiler alert: it’s unlikely to be hiding under your bed, or to jump out at you from a darkened corner. So far, the most common place to find CRISPR-Cas9 technology is in your mailbox.
CRISPR to the People
Neither snow nor rain nor gloom of night stays these intrepid citizens from conducting genetic engineering experiments in their kitchens.
Since 2016, bio-hacker and general mischief-maker Josiah Zayner has made it his mission to sell CRISPR kits through the mail, allowing a curious public to tinker with strains of E. Coli bacteria in the comfort of their own home. The kits themselves contain a nonpathogenic form of the bacteria, though the real-world implications of mail-order E. Coli aren’t without complications. In 2017, German customs officials halted the import of CRISPR kits that were contaminated with a more dangerous strain of bacteria. To be fair, the hazard level in the contaminated kits was roughly equal to eating an egg salad sandwich from a vending machine. However, the German government weighed the egg salad argument against the potential of a product that is marketed towards novices, and ultimately landed on a firm policy of “Let’s not.”
Is the mailbox the only way that CRISPR tech can find its way into your house? So far, yes. The United States holds an industry-friendly view of gene editing, considering it closer to conventional breeding than genetic modification. This allows the products of gene editing to avoid costly safety testing and other red tape. By contrast, the European Union views gene editing as closer to genetic modification: “As long as DNA manipulation exists, the outcome brings higher risks and uncertainties.”
The products in development that could bring CRISPR to a grocery store near you include soy that is tolerant to drought and salt; cacao with increased pathogen resistance; and — the dream of carnival barkers everywhere — the double-muscled pig.
We might think of organic agriculture as a set of technical requirements, but did you know that all organic farming is based on the four guiding Principles of health, ecology, fairness and care? Which is why it came as quite a shock when the USDA “opened the discussion” on gene editing in organic agriculture. The response from the organic community was swift and excoriating. Beyond Pesticides sums up the basic incompatibility of gene editing and organic: “Organic systems are modeled on natural ecosystems. GE organisms belong in neither [organic nor natural systems].” Also, gene editing relies on the outdated assumption of “one gene—one effect,” ignoring the fact that one gene can influence two or more seemingly unrelated traits. The statement from Beyond Pesticides continues:
“Traditional breeding, like evolution itself, depends on forces acting on the whole organism. Exposure over time to different environments exposes unexpected traits. GE plants are created by manipulation of DNA that may create unanticipated results—results that may not be apparent until, for example, the plant is grown under unforeseen conditions.”
When technology is developed in a controlled environment, it is not always reflective of how that tech will behave in nature. The unforeseen elements of the natural world are too great. And in many labs, those “unforeseens” are exactly the kind of noise that researchers try to eliminate in their experiments.
An adorable study on how to communicate with the public about emerging science and tech concluded that more studies need to be done on how people feel about science and tech (while somewhere, a snake consumes its own tail). This line of research illustrates a crucial cognitive divide, pitting the presentation of complex information in an analytic and reductive way against the innate human capacity to be intuitive and surprising.
In the 1980s, my dad flipped houses. There were entire pages of my address book (it was the eighties) filled with crossed-out and re-written coordinates for him. In my mind, he has never ceased to be a nomad, and there is a gap between us in how we think of “home.” My dad is a hermit crab, one eye always on the lookout for a new and better shell, whereas I’m just a regular hermit. I treat home like a sanctuary. My point being: People feel differently about things, particularly things that are important to them. So when the much-studied layperson rejects GMOs, they might do so for valid and deeply personal reasons. Because of crops that hold traditional and cultural significance, because “breaking bread” together is what community is based on, or because food is one of the things that bind us to the people we love. To the layperson, the prospect of transferring that inheritance to a distant corporation doesn’t sit well in the belly.
It might not be scientific, but it’s perfectly natural.