May 3, 2016
The biotechnology industry is carrying out a concerted public-relations campaign to promote the idea that new, so-called “gene editing” technologies are the more accurate, safer successor to now-defunct traditional genetic engineering (GE). But this campaign is founded upon several straight-up myths about the new technology, which is nothing more than the same reckless GE paradigm under another name, says geneticist and virologist Jonathan Latham, Executive Director of the Bioscience Resource Project and editor of Independent Science News.
Echoing industry talking points, mainstream news sources have been publishing article with headlines such as, “Easy DNA Editing Will Remake the World. Buckle Up.”
“The hubris is alarming; but the more subtle element of the propaganda campaign is the biggest and most dangerous improbability of them all: that CRISPR and related technologies are ‘genome editing,'” Latham writes on Independent Science News. “That is, they are capable of creating precise, accurate, and specific alterations to DNA.”
Latham notes that this “public relations blitz” is directed from the top-down, citing a senior representative of the Biotechnology Industry Organisation (BIO) who told the UN meeting on biotechnology in February about the “exquisite specificity” and “precision” of the new gene editing technologies. These talking points are now even being parroted by serious scientific publications, with a recent article in Nature titled, “Super-muscly pigs created by small genetic tweak.”
Latham notes that the words “small” and “tweak” both constitute value judgments, neither of which is in line with the information presented in the article.
The technology in question is known as Clustered Regularly-Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats/CRISPR associated protein 9: CRISPR/cas9, or simply CRISPR for short. It consists of using a guide RNA to direct a DNA-splicing protein to a specific site on the genome. But is it really the miracle innovation it’s billed as?
No such thing as precision
Latham deconstructs three myths of the biotech industry. The first is that CRISPR is so precise that it is not prone to errors. In fact, the opposite is true: CRISPR experiments regularly produce mutations far off on the genome.
“So far, it is technically not possible to make a single (and only a single) genetic change to a genome using CRISPR and be sure one has done so,” Latham writes. In fact, there is no evidence that such a degree of precision is even biologically possible.