Tag Archives: biotechnology

Gene editing could help save the planet — if scientists can avoid the typos

For the last few years, writers and scientists have marveled at the potential for gene editing to allow farmers to grow more food on less land and allow more of the earth to grow carbon-sucking forests and savannas.

The main advantage of gene editing is precision. It’s right there in the name: Instead of dealing with the randomness of breeding, or the rough power-tool work implied by the term “genetic engineering,” the “editing” suggests that scientists could now change the letters of genetic code with the same ease that a writer corrects typos.

But in late July, FDA scientists found a chunk of bacterial DNA in gene-edited calves, prompting people to wonder if this precision tool wasn’t as precise as advertised. That hopeful vision of a gene-edited future — verdant with pesticide-free, carbon-sequestering crops — flickered.

On Monday, the scientists studying these gene-edited cattle published a paper in the journal Nature Biotechnology explaining what happened. Essentially, this new paper tells us that gene editing precisely tweaked specific letters of DNA, exactly what it was supposed to do. But scientists also used older, cruder tools, and one of those caused the genetic typo. Even so, the end result might be that gene-editing slides into the muck of controversy over GMOs.

To be clear, the cows at the center of this study have nothing to do with creating more productive, pest-resistant foods. The scientists had edited their genes in stem cells, which grew into calves without horns. Farmers usually remove the horns to prevent cattle from injuring each other — goring is a real danger.

When I visited the University of California Davis in 2015, I saw a pair of these black-and-white bull calves standing and chewing in an outdoor pen, like ordinary but adorable bovines. Unlike other calves, however, they wouldn’t have to suffer through a painful dehorning operation, in which a veterinarian burns out their horn buds.

Some cows are naturally hornless: Angus and Hereford breeds, for instance. But those are beef cattle. For dairy you want Holsteins or Jerseys, and these champion milk producers are more carefully bred than the winners of the Westminster dog show. If you started crossing muscled Herefords with black-and-white Holsteins, it would take decades of breeding to move the hornless trait into the dairy line then weed out all the beefy traits.

What if you just plucked a single gene and moved it into dairy cows? With gene editing, you could tweak dairy cows without messing up their finely tuned milk-producing DNA so that they would no longer have to endure dehorning. The Minnesota-based company Recombinetics tried this using a technique called TALENS (you might have heard of CRISPR — this is just a different version of the same thing).

To run with the editing metaphor, Recombinetics basically took out the DNA that laid out instructions for “HORN” and replaced it with 202 letters of DNA that said “HORNLESS.” But first, they attached it to a bacterial plasmid — think of it as a sub-cellular copy machine — that would reproduce this strand over and over again (HORNLESS, HORNLESS, HORNLESS!). Then they injected all those copies into a cow cell — that gave one of those copies a much better chance of bumping into the one spot in the DNA that read HORN. This is where things went wrong. Instead of just replacing HORN with HORNLESS, the plasmid also folded into the cell’s DNA so that it read something like HORNLESS-COPYMACHINE-HORNLESS. That genetic information went into an egg, which went into a cow’s uterus, and, in 2015, grew into a hornless calf. No one noticed until years later.

The calves I saw at Davis were there to be studied by Alison Van Eenennaam, an animal geneticist. Funded by a U.S. Department of Agriculture program to assess the risks of biotech, her team first verified that the hornless trait was being passed down through generations of cattle. “Basically, we found that Mendel knew his shit,” said Van Eenennaam (that’s Gregor Mendel, the scientist from the 1800s who described how traits are inherited).

With this new paper, Van Eenennaam’s team showed that the bacterial plasmid had also been passed down to some of the calves, again following the rules of genetics 101. It doesn’t seem to be causing a problem — it’s fairly normal for DNA from germs and viruses to work its way into genomes (the human genome is about 8 percent virus DNA), and critters can usually just roll with it. But because these cattle had DNA from a bacteria, it meant they were genetically modified organisms, or GMOs in the eyes of government regulators. That, in turn, meant they would have to undergo years of testing. A giant corporation like Bayer could afford that, but not a small startup like Recombinetics. The FDA is now treating gene-edited animals like new drugs, requiring multiple rounds of safety testing, which effectively puts an end to the quest to make hornless dairy cows. Longtime opponents of biotechnology think that would be a good thing. Friends of the Earth recently released a report with Janet Cotter, who runs the consultancy Logos Environmental, condemning gene edited animals.

“The scientific evidence shows that gene editing, particularly in animals, is far from precise.” Cotter said in a statement. “Instead, it can produce unintended changes to genetic material and disrupt genetic processes. Such effects could have far reaching consequences for food safety, so these applications will require a rigorous assessment if they are to be used in agriculture.”

It would be easy enough to screen out plasmids before putting gene-edited eggs into a cow’s womb. That’s a routine procedure, said Van Eenennaam. But she worries that won’t quell fears that gene editing is sloppier than expected. Treating gene-edited animals like drugs is not proportionate with the risk, Van Eenennaam said, and would prevent breakthroughs that might help us meet the challenge of climate change, whether it’s cows that don’t belch methane, or corals that can survive heat., Van Eenennaam said.

“The debate has pretty much blocked the technology in animals through my whole career. I was hoping gene-editing would be different,” she said. “I have students who are excited about gene editing for disease-resistance — but now I feel like it’s Ground Hog Day. Here we go again.”

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Gene editing could help save the planet — if scientists can avoid the typos

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Biotechnology in Our Lives – Jeremy Gruber & Sheldon Krimsky


Biotechnology in Our Lives

What Modern Genetics Can Tell You about Assisted Reproduction, Human Behavior, and Personalized Medicine, and Much More

Jeremy Gruber & Sheldon Krimsky

Genre: Science & Nature

Price: $1.99

Publish Date: June 1, 2013

Publisher: Skyhorse


For a quarter of a century, the Council for Responsible Genetics has provided a unique historical lens into the modern history, science, ethics, and politics of genetic technologies. Since 1983 the Council has had leading scientists, activists, science writers, and public health advocates researching and reporting on a broad spectrum of issues, including genetically engineered foods, biological weapons, genetic privacy and discrimination, reproductive technologies, and human cloning. Biotechnology in Our Lives examines how these issues affect us daily whether we realize it or not. Written for the nonscientist, it looks at the many applications of genetics on the world around us by posing questions such as: • What should we know about genetics and childbirth? • Can our genes keep us from qualifying for health insurance? • Can gene therapy cure cancer? • Is behavior genetically determined? • Why would the FBI want our genes? • Are foreign genes in our food? • And much more Ultimately, this definitive book on the subject also encourages us to think about the social, environmental, and moral ramifications of where this technology is taking us.

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Biotechnology in Our Lives – Jeremy Gruber & Sheldon Krimsky

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Infographic: How Renewable Fuel Combats Climate Change


Infographic: How Renewable Fuel Combats Climate Change

Posted 18 September 2015 in


Simply put: the Renewable Fuel Standard is the only law on the books combating climate change. According to a recently released study by the Biotechnology Industry Organization, the RFS has significantly lowered carbon emission levels and displaced nearly 1.9 billion barrels of foreign oil in the decade since it’s passage.

With so much progress on the line, the United States can’t afford to turn its back on renewable fuel.

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Infographic: How Renewable Fuel Combats Climate Change

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Is spider silk the fabric of the future?

Is spider silk the fabric of the future?

By on 4 Jun 2015 4:38 pmcommentsShare

What would you rather wear: water guzzling cotton, petroleum-based polyester, or a crazy strong wonder material that comes from spider butts?

The correct answer is spider butts — I mean, spider silk. (Before you jump to the comments, I should say that I know that spider silk doesn’t actually come from spiders’ butts; it comes from their “spinning ducts.” But, come on, spider butts is way more fun to say.)

San Francisco-based company Bolt Threads is planning to have spider-silk clothing available as early as next year, according to Bloomberg Business. The company, founded five years ago by a group of graduate students at UC San Francisco, is pitching the nature-made textile as an eco-friendly alternative to some of the gross fabrics that we wear now.

But here’s the catch: Bolt’s spider silk doesn’t actually come from spiders. It turns out those little eight-legged monsters are terrible at textile mass production. Here’s more from Bloomberg:

Scientists, at least those who aren’t arachnophobes, have tried to mass-produce spider silk for decades with little success. Spiders are territorial and cannibalistic—try to farm them, and they end up eating each other. But scientists have long believed that if spiders would only cooperate, fabric made from their silk would be well-suited for use in military and medical equipment, like wound sutures or artificial tendons, as well as in high-performance athletic clothing and other garments.

When the Bolt crew first started out, they actually bought a bunch of spiders from an insect dealer in Florida and let them spin their silk all over the office. (Not surprisingly, that method of production proved untenable.)

Instead, the researchers genetically engineered yeast to produce the same material through fermentation. They can even specify the softness, stretch, and strength of the material, Bloomberg reports. Oh, and they also have a sweet office:

Bolt Threads occupies offices across the San Francisco Bay, in Emeryville. A copy of Charlotte’s Web is in the lobby, and a chandelier made of silkworm cocoons hangs in the conference room. The real action is in a series of interlinked labs, where billions of bioengineered yeast cells ferment, excreting their protein fibers into slurries of water, salt, and sugar. In another room, centrifuges filter out the silk from the liquid. A larger room will hold 200-liter fermentation units for producing silk in greater quantities. Bolt is working with manufacturing partners such as the Michigan Biotechnology Institute in Lansing, which will do larger-scale fermentation in 4,000-liter tanks using Bolt’s process, and Unifi, a yarn manufacturer based in Greensboro, N.C., which will spin Bolt’s fibers into apparel-ready yarn and textiles.

Of course, any plan to mass produce anything raises a lot of questions: How much water and energy will it take to put us all in spider silk tees? Could spider silk have any negative health impacts? Will spiders confuse us all for giant prey caught in giant webs? And most importantly — is there any chance (any chance AT ALL) that a shy, 25-year-old reporter who’s kind of a nerd could get superpowers from wearing spider silk clothing?

A Bay Area Startup Spins Lab-Grown Silk

, Bloomberg Business.



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New Study: EPA Inaction Causing an Increase in GHG Emissions


New Study: EPA Inaction Causing an Increase in GHG Emissions

Posted 25 September 2014 in


As world leaders gather in New York for the UN Climate Summit this week, citizens around the globe are looking for leadership to combat climate change. Bringing the climate challenge into sharp relief, a new report from the Biotechnology Industry Organization explains that greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions are actually expected to increase as a result of EPA inaction on the Renewable Fuel Standard (RFS) – a turn of events that threatens to undermine President Obama’s clean energy legacy.

The report notes that:

Inaction on the 2014 RFS regulatory rule will lead to increased GHG emissions of 21 million metric tons CO2 equivalent.
The increased GHG emissions are equal to putting an additional 4.4 million cars on the road, or having current cars drive an additional 50 billion miles, or opening 5.5 new coal-fired power plants.
The “blend wall” should not be a consideration for setting the RFS, because the United States is using more transportation fuel in 2014 than previously projected.

Since 2005, the RFS has opened up the market to new fuel sources, supporting hundreds of thousands of jobs and reducing our dependence on foreign oil. Advanced biofuels, like ethanol made from corn waste, emit 96% fewer greenhouse gases than gasoline and are an important part of our nation’s clean energy economy.

President Obama: Save the Renewable Fuel Standard and your clean energy legacy.

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New Study: EPA Inaction Causing an Increase in GHG Emissions

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Neil deGrasse Tyson Tells GMO Critics to “Chill Out”

Mother Jones

Cosmos star Neil deGrasse Tyson is known for defending climate science and the science of evolution. And now, in a video recently posted on YouTube (the actual date when it was recorded is unclear), he takes a strong stand on another hot-button scientific topic: Genetically modified foods.

In the video, Tyson can be seen answering a question posed in French about “des plantes transgenetiques”—responding with one of his characteristic, slowly-building rants.

“Practically every food you buy in a store for consumption by humans is genetically modified food,” asserts Tyson. “There are no wild, seedless watermelons. There’s no wild cows…You list all the fruit, and all the vegetables, and ask yourself, is there a wild counterpart to this? If there is, it’s not as large, it’s not as sweet, it’s not as juicy, and it has way more seeds in it. We have systematically genetically modified all the foods, the vegetables and animals that we have eaten ever since we cultivated them. It’s called artificial selection.” You can watch the full video above.

In fairness, critics of GM foods make a variety of arguments that go beyond the simple question of whether the foods we eat were modified prior to the onset of modern biotechnology. They also draw a distinction between modifying plants and animals through traditional breeding and genetic modification that requires the use of biotechnology, and involves techniques such as inserting genes from different species.

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Neil deGrasse Tyson Tells GMO Critics to “Chill Out”

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One of the Biggest Opponents of GMO Labeling Is Offering More Non-GMO Products

Mother Jones

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Cargill, a giant privately held food manufacturer, is one of the biggest enemies of laws requiring companies to label products that contain genetically modified ingredients. But even as it fights GMO-labeling laws in state legislatures and courthouses around the country, Cargill is introducing more GMO-free products.

Last week, Cargill announced its newest non-GMO crop, soybean oil, which will join corn and beans on Cargill’s list of unmodified products.

Gregory Page, the chairman of Cargill’s board, sits on the executive board for the Grocery Manufacturers Association (GMA), the big-food lobbying group that recently sued Vermont for passing a bill requiring food manufacturers to label genetically modified foods. The company warns on its website that mandatory labeling can be “misleading” to consumers who might believe genetic modification and bioengineering in food is dangerous. A GMO label does not provide any meaningful information about the food, Cargill argues, because GMO foods are “substantially equivalent” to non-GMO foods.

But despite this, Cargill seems to see the benefit in offering consumers the option of eating unmodified foods. “Despite the many merits of biotechnology, consumer interest in food and beverage products made from non-GM ingredients is growing, creating opportunities and challenges for food manufacturers and food service operators,” Ethan Theis, a spokesman for the company, told the Toronto-based Digital Journal last week. Even the fiercest opponents of GMO labeling are willing to offer non-GMO products when consumers’ cash is on the line.

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One of the Biggest Opponents of GMO Labeling Is Offering More Non-GMO Products

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What the State of the Union Missed


What the State of the Union Missed

Posted 29 January 2014 in


Viewers of last night’s State of the Union address got the impression that President Obama supports an “all of the above” approach to America’s energy policy. But despite this rhetoric, the President’s own Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) plans to cut back on renewable fuel in 2014 by slashing obligations under the Renewable Fuel Standard. This proposal threatens severe economic and environmental effects: drivers will pay billions in increased fuel costs, oil companies stand to increase their profits by more than $10 billion and, according to a recent analysis, 30 million additional metric tons of carbon dioxide will be released into the air as a result of increased petroleum consumption. That’s the equivalent of 5,600,000 more cars on the road.

By signaling a retreat on renewable fuel, the Administration is also threatening the immense progress the industry has made toward commercialization of advanced fuels like cellulosic ethanol. This map, based on data from the Biotechnology Industry Organization, details 68 facilities and more than $5.9 billion of investment in the fuels of tomorrow:

We hope the Administration and the EPA listen to the thousands of comments sent by farm families, small business owners, labor groups and environmental advocates in defense of renewable fuel and revise their proposal for the sake of a clean energy future.

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What the State of the Union Missed

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Five pest species now immune to GMO corn and cotton

Five pest species now immune to GMO corn and cotton


Yum, genetically engineered corn and cotton.

That isn’t what most people would think. (Especially the cotton bit. And especially the GMO bit.)

But a growing number of pests appear to share this sentiment. They’ve developed immunity to corn and cotton crops genetically engineered to contain the pesticide Bt, so they’re now munching away with impunity.

As of 2010, five of 13 major pest species had become largely immune to the Bt poisons in GMO corn and cotton, compared to just one species in 2005, scientists write in a paper published in the journal Nature Biotechnology.

“Three of the five cases are in the US, where farmers have planted about half of the world’s Bt crop acreage,” reports Business Standard. “[The study] indicates that in the worst cases, resistance evolved in 2 to 3 years; but in the best cases, effectiveness of Bt crops has been sustained more than 15 years.”

The scientists, who analyzed 77 studies conducted on five continents, also found that other species appear to be developing resistance.

Perhaps as alarming as the growth in the number of Bt-resistant species is the growth in the amount of land upon which Bt crops are planted. From the paper:

Nature Biotechnology

Click to embiggen.

So not only are farmers wasting money on GMO seeds that don’t perform as advertised, but they are then spraying their crops with more insecticides to help overcome bugs’ growing resistance. Meanwhile, nobody really knows what those Bt genes are doing to other animals that eat them. Such as pigs. And us.

John Upton is a science fan and green news boffin who tweets, posts articles to Facebook, and blogs about ecology. He welcomes reader questions, tips, and incoherent rants: johnupton@gmail.com.

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Meet Roy Blunt, the senator from Missouri — and Monsanto

Meet Roy Blunt, the senator from Missouri — and Monsanto

After much hemming, hawing, and Hulking, some crack reporters have solved the case of the Monsanto rider, the new law that gives GMO crops legal immunity.

It was Sen. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) in the boardroom with the inappropriate relationships with Big Ag lobbyists!

Politico first broke the Blunt story, but Tom Philpott at Mother Jones highlights just how cozy the Missouri senator is with the GMO giant, who he “worked with” to write and pass the rider.

“If Sen. Blunt plans to continue carrying Monsanto’s water in the Senate, the company will have gained the allegiance of a wily and proven political operator,” he writes. More from MoJo:

The admission shines a light on Blunt’s ties to Monsanto, whose office is located in the senator’s home state. According to OpenSecrets, Monsanto first started contributing to Blunt back in 2008, when it handed him $10,000. At that point, Blunt was serving in the House of Representatives. In 2010, when Blunt successfully ran for the Senate, Monsanto upped its contribution to $44,250. And in 2012, the GMO seed/pesticide giant enriched Blunt’s campaign war chest by $64,250.

This is all so obvious that even Monsanto “appears a touch embarrassed,” according to The Guardian.

In a statement, [Monsanto] says: “As a member of the Biotechnology Industry Organisation (BIO), we were pleased to join major grower groups in supporting the Farmer Assurance Provision, including the American Farm Bureau Federation, the American Seed Trade Association, the American Soybean Association, the American Sugarbeet Growers Association, the National Corn Growers Association, the National Cotton Council, and several others.”

The good news? Well, at least the “Monsanto Protection Act” expires on Sept. 30 along with the underlying spending bill onto which it was tacked. The Hulk may be a genetically modified beast, but he’s not all-powerful. Now someone please get me Thor’s hammer.

Susie Cagle writes and draws news for Grist. She also writes and draws tweets for



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