Gene-editing: to detect or not detect, that is not the question
By Sarah Agapito
It has been a lot in the news recently that organisms and products of a specific type of genetic engineering, named gene-editing, is not possible to be detected, traced, and labelled throughout the food chain. The reasons raised are many: these products are similar to natural ones and therefore difficult to distinguish, genetic changes are so small and therefore difficult to detect, the same genetic changes can be achieved by conventional breeding and therefore it is difficult to identify, etc.
The fact is that none of these reasons have proven to be real. Similarity of a gene-edited organism to a natural organism depend on many aspects than the single analysis of small DNA sequences. If the rational is valid, then we are similar to monkeys to a point in which it is difficult to distinguish. And changes may be intended to be small but unintended changes might also arise during the editing process; and these should be investigated through proper risk assessment. Unintended DNA changes arising from CRISPR editing systems are consensus in the scientific literature, and there is a name for these phenomena, called off-target effects.
Analytical technologies have evolved to detect and identify a single DNA nucleotide change in virtually any organism and these have been commercialized and used in large scale, such as those DNA tests for breast cancer associated gene mutations. The truth is that gene-editing is a promising technology because it can outperform any other genetic technology. Conventional breeding is not a technology, nature is not a technology. An organism cannot the limited to the analysis of small DNA sequences. Pick a gene in your genome, I bet this is the same in chimpanzees. We need to broaden the scope of our analyses and understanding to be successful.
There is plenty of scientific evidence already that shows that detection and identification of gene-edited organisms and products are possible. There should be, of course, adaptation of protocols, testing of different methodologies, validation, harmonization, etc. All the steps we know every time a new testing method becomes available, just like the different covid tests that have been developed in the past two years.
At FoodPrint Project (www.foodprintproject.org), we are dedicated to solving these analytical gaps. We will compare several methodological strategies; we will test them against some real-case examples and we will engage several stakeholders to this debate. As a purely scientific project, we take the freedom to explore innovative ideas, beyond the scope of any regulatory agency in Europe. We aim at answering another question: How to detect?