In 2020, CRISPR Won the Nobel Prize for Revolutionizing Medical Science. Now, It’s Coming to a Salad Near You

  • Scientists have used CRISPR technology to edit mustard greens and alter their flavor.

  • It’s not the first food to be edited this way, but it could be the first to hit U.S. stores.

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Pablo Martínez-Juarez

Foods made using CRISPR, a gene-editing technology, will soon hit U.S. stores.

Mustard greens. Bayer, a German pharmaceutical company, and Pairwise, the food gene-editing start-up behind CRISPR, recently announced a breakthrough in the sale of genetically modified food. Specifically, the two companies have finalized a licensing agreement for the commercialization of CRISPR-edited varieties of mustard greens.

According to Bayer and Pairwise, the companies modified the flavor of mustard greens to make them more appealing. Although rich in nutrients, not everyone enjoys the flavor of this vegetable in a salad, especially when consumed raw.

This new variant has a “less-pungent” taste because it was modified by CRISPR's gene-editing technology. The companies first reached an agreement to use this technology in the agricultural and food industry last year, focusing on corn at that time.

The origins of CRISPR. Mustard greens aren’t the first foods to be edited with this technology. CRISPR/Cas9 is among the key gene-editing tools, a technology that led its developers, Emmanuelle Charpentier and Jennifer Doudna, to win the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 2020.

In 2021, the first food modified using this method was introduced in the market: a tomato enhanced to contain gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA), which was sold in Japan.

NGTs vs. GMOs. There’s a debate about whether to use CRISPR to edit genes in food and whether this should be classified in the same way as transgenes or genetically modified organisms (GMOs). The use of CRISPR for food gene editing is considered to be part of new genomic technologies (NGTs).

The main difference between “traditional” GMOs and NGTs using CRISPR lies in how the organism’s genetic structure is modified. Traditional GMO technology involves inserting external genes into organisms. CRISPR, on the other hand, works in a more “subtle” way by making changes to existing genes in the organism's DNA.

Not just a matter of terminology. While there's an debate around terminology, the issue may have broader implications in at least two ways. The first concerns how we perceive this genetically modified food. The discussion on GMOs is already highly polarized. Linking these two concepts seems likely to involve a simplistic analysis based on analogies rather than an objective assessment of the pros and cons of similar technologies.

The second implication is legal. Governments worldwide have been creating laws regarding genetically modified organisms for years. Deciding whether or not to classify NGTs as transgenic from a legal standpoint could either facilitate their approval for sale or complicate the process.

Image | Jinomono Media via Unsplash

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