Is CRISPR the next big thing in international development?

7 September 2018

The gene editing technology CRISPR/cas9 has been creating a buzz in the biotech science world over the last few years. More recently, it has become a significant new field in the context of the bioeconomy and could, potentially, become a game changer for international development. Viewed by some as a new innovation with massive opportunities, others are taking a more critical position towards CRISPR and gene editing.

What actually is gene editing and how is it related to global development?

CRISPR (the full meaning is Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats) is a revolutionary technology which works like a pair of molecular scissors. It enables geneticists and medical researchers to edit parts of the genome of plants and animals (or humans) by removing, adding or altering sections of the DNA sequence. It can alter what are seen as defects in living organisms to stop the perpetuation of diseases such as malaria and non-desired traits such as low drought tolerance of crops.

I must admit, until a few months ago I had no idea about CRISPR. Then, in the context of a research project funded by the German Environment Agency (UBA) in which we are attempting to assess the requirements for a sustainable bioeconomy for the implementation of the Sustainable Development Goals, I came across a news item on gene editing in Brazil: In January this year, millions of Brazil’s peasants and rural movements protested against a new regulation by Brazil’s National Technical Commission on Biosafety, which will allow the release of gene edited organisms into the environment. Brazil became effectively the first country in the world to establish a legal channel for the release of gene drives into the environment.  

Then, in the May/June 2018 issue of Foreign Relations, Bill Gates published an article in which he promoted the use of CRISPR as a way for humanity to overcome some of the biggest and most persistent challenges in global health and development. CRISPR has the potential to be used  to eradicate Malaria by successfully creating gene drives that cause female mosquitos to become sterile or to inhibit mosquitoes’ ability to transmit malaria—for example, by introducing genes that could eliminate the Plasmodium parasites. The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation has also been backing research into the use of gene editing in agriculture, including the C4 Rice Project which applies innovative scientific approaches such as CRISPR to the development of high yielding rice varieties helping smallholder farmers adapt to climate change. The article also makes the case that the benefits of emerging technologies such as gene editing should not be reserved only for people in developed countries, but should be used to save millions of lives and empower millions of people to lift themselves out of poverty.

CRISPR  potential applications in African agriculture

We are already seeing how CRISPR can change international development.  For example, agricultural companies are beginning to use CRISPR to design crops to be used in African countries to counter food shortages and plant, animal and human diseases. Furthermore, CRISPR technology is erasing barriers to genome editing and could revolutionise plant and animal breeding. For example, a recent British startup, Tropic Biosciences UK LTD, is using gene editing techniques to re-engineer the Cavendish banana to fight off bacteria and fungi which threaten the banana industry in East African countries. There are also cassava gene-editing research projects going on in Uganda and Kenya. CRISPR can eliminate genes that cause the cassava brown streak disease, which can wipe out entire fields of the staple plant, potentially creating better crops and helping smaller farmers to secure their food supply. Other research is aiming to transform livestock breeding in Africa. CRISPR could make livestock resistant to diseases like trypanosomiasis, which causes fever, weight loss and sometimes death in cattle.

All these developments sound extremely promising, but…

Not so fast - some roadblocks ahead

While the United States Department of Agriculture concluded in April 2018 that it would no longer regulate crops that have been genetically edited and are treated like plants with naturally occurring mutations and thus are not subject to special regulations and raise no special safety concerns, the European Court of Justice ruled in July 2018 that organisms obtained through mutagenesis are genetically modified and therefore CRISPR gene editing will face the same rules as GMOs. Many researchers in the field of molecular biology have described this ruling as a deathblow for gene-editing research in Europe (the STEPS Centre published a detailed analysis of the ruling and the commotion it created among GM proponents here).

At the same time, a systematic investigation of CRISPR/Cas9 genome editing in mouse and human cells, which was published in Nature Biotechnology in July 2018, discovered that the technique appears to frequently cause unexpected side effects, including extensive mutations and genetic damage. Changes in the DNA of living organisms were seriously underestimated in the past, casting doubt on the safety of the technology.

A new research agenda for development studies

Its versatility and high level of efficiency have already made CRISPR a very successful and extremely practical tool that has the potential to solve some of humanities’ most pressing challenges. The coming years will show exactly what CRISPR can do and what it can be used for. For us as researchers and practitioners in the field of international development, we would all be well advised to spend more time understanding and evaluating this potentially double-edged sword as new developments and applications are picking up very quickly.

Some important research questions for the context of Development Studies could be:

  • What are the appropriate criteria to evaluate CRISPR and other gene editing applications for global development, to ensure a holistic evaluation of the chances and potentials, but also the inherent risks?
  • In how far can CRISPR contribute to achieving the Sustainable Development Goals? Could it potentially reduce tensions and trade-offs between SDG 2 Zero Hunger and SDG 15 Life on Land?
  • A number of political economy questions apply to CRISPR in the same way as too any other emerging technology: Who will be the winners and the losers when the technology makes further breakthroughs and becomes commercialised?
  • What are the ethical implications of CRISPR in global development? On the one hand, as highlighted by Bill Gates, the benefits should not be withheld and developing countries should not be denied the opportunities it could provide to human development. On the other hand, is it ethical to use developing countries as test laboratory?

 

We hope to answer some of these questions in future in the research project Requirements for a Sustainable Bioeconomy in the Context of SDG Implementation.

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