As gene editing technology, or CRISPR, continues to advance, its perception in the public eye will be critical to its success in agriculture. Eric Williams is a partner and patent attorney at the law firm of Barnes & Thornburg in Indianapolis. He also holds a doctorate in pharmacy. He was the keynote speaker at the Midwest Pork Conference held in early December and told attendees that farmers need to start learning about this technology sooner rather than later.
“I don’t think the science is slowing down any and I think that things are accelerating where gene edited products, or gene editing of animals, is going to become so commonplace that farmers need to know, and producers need to know, what’s going on, so they can adapt their practices.”
He worries that the perception of gene editing will fall in line with that of GMO’s. While GMO’s have been tested and proven to be safe, there are still those who reject the idea and are quite vocal about it. Many of those people believe gene editing is the same as genetically modifying, which is not the case. Williams says it is the animal or plants own genome that is being edited, not other foreign DNA being introduced.
“The analogy I like to use is Microsoft Word because when you misspell a word time and time again in a document, you can do a global find and replace. So, in other words, the document finds all the misspellings of a particular word and replaces them with the correct spelling. CRISPR technology is exactly like that. You tell the body where the misspelling is in your genetic code and then it replaces it with the correct spelling of the genetic code.”
He says that it’s important to know that using gene editing is just getting us to a better place for animals and consumers sooner.
“I like to think of CRISPR as an advanced breeding technique because really what you’re doing is science has identified the genes that are responsible for a particular trait and you’re just able to accelerate the development of that trait in the final product. So, those things would have happened over hundreds of years of natural breeding but using the technologies of gene editing you’re able to get there a lot faster.”
Williams says he hopes that the US is on the forefront regarding CRISPR technology, and that regulations on gene edited products are clear from the beginning.