CRISPR regulation review: is it irrational?

Andrea Belli MSc


Next generation genetic manipulation techniques provide research groups tools for deep modification of different organisms. How do different countries regulate these technologies? Are current regulations rational or are they driven by illogical fears?



From the beginning of human history, tribes and populations have striven to modify other species to make them more useful for our purposes. From dogs to cows, from horses to wheat, over the millennia people selected the best traits of domesticated animals and plants, crafting brand new species. Despite the ancient origins of this practice, only in recent times have we managed to learn how this is possible on a molecular level. Both animals and plants have been successfully genetically modified for decades. The first transgenic mouse with foreign DNA inserted into its embryo was born in the 1970s (Jaenisch et al. 1974) and an exogenous DNA sequence was inserted into a tobacco genome in the 1980s (Caplan et al. 1983). The organisms resulting from the introduction of DNA sequences are called “genetically modified organisms” (GMOs). Since the 1970s, many advances in genetic engineering have made possible the spread of GMOs around world. The majority of GM crop species contain genes that make them either tolerant to herbicides or resistant to insect attack.  

However, since the first commercialization of transgenic plants and animals, significant safety concerns have been raised both in the scientific community and by society. How will these new animals and plants interact with the environment? How might transgenic products interact with our bodies?  

Because of these doubts, GMOs have been more or less strictly regulated all over the world, despite the fact that in more than 30 years, no harm to human health has been found in populations with near-daily GMO consumption. A major environmental concern associated with GM crops is their potential to create new weeds through gene hybridization with wild relatives, or simply by persisting in the wild themselves. While a ten-year study initiated in 1990 demonstrated that there is no increased risk of invasiveness or persistence in wild habitats for GM crops (oilseed rape, potatoes, corn, and sugar beet) and traits (herbicide tolerance, insect protection) compared to their unmodified counterparts, the researchers stated that these results “do not mean that genetic modifications could not increase weediness or invasiveness of crop plants, but they do indicate that productive crops are unlikely to survive for long outside cultivation” (Government of Canada 1994).    

CRISPR: a new technology for genome editing  

A few years ago, new technologies for genome editing made a game-changing appearance. In 2011-2013, advanced research laboratories at the University of Vienna, the Vilnius University of Lithuania, the University of California–Berkeley, and MIT (Cambridge, Massachusetts) developed the revolutionary technology called CRISPR (Clustered Random Interspaced Palindromic Repeats) which can selectively find, cut, and replace specific sections of DNA relatively simply and economically (Deltcheva et al. 2011; Sapranauskas et al. 2011; Cong et al. 2013). As with many other powerful biotechnology advances, CRISPR’s numerous benefits have not shielded it from serious conc

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