ROSEVILLE, Minn. – In a gleaming laboratory hidden from the highway by a Hampton Inn and a Denny’s restaurant, a researcher with the biotech firm Calyxt works the controls of a boxy robot.
The robot whirs like an arcade claw machine, dropping blips of DNA into tubes with pipettes. It’s building an enzyme that rewrites DNA — and transforming food and agriculture in the process.
Thanks to a cutting-edge technology called gene editing, scientists can now turn plant genes “on” and “off” almost as easily as scientists flip a switch to illuminate the rows of tender soybean plants growing in their lab. Calyxt’s “healthier” soybean, the industry’s first true gene-edited food, could make its way into products such as chips, salad dressings and baked goods by the end of this year.
Unlike older genetic modification methods, the new techniques are precise, fast and inexpensive, and companies hope they will avoid the negative reputation and regulatory hurdles that hobbled the first generation of genetically modified foods.
But the speed of change has startled consumer and environmental groups, who say the new technology has not been adequately vetted, and they have petitioned regulators to add safety reviews.
Advocates and critics alike agree that the 30-year-old legal framework for vetting genetically modified crops has failed to keep pace with innovations. Under current rules, the Agriculture Department does not require field tests or environmental assessments for many of these crops because most of the gene-edited crops to date do not contain foreign genetic material and were not made using the bacteria or viruses that scientists employed in first-generation GMOs.
“This is hard stuff,” said Federico Tripodi, Calyxt’s chief executive. “Consumers accept that technology is good in many aspects of their lives, but technology and food has been something scary. We need to figure out how to engage in that conversation.”
Calyxt’s soybean is the first of 23 gene-edited crops the Agriculture Department has recognized.
Scientists at Calyxt, a subsidiary of the French pharmaceutical firm Cellectis, developed their soybean by turning “off” the genes responsible for the trans fats in soybean oil. Compared with the conventional version, Calyxt said, oil made from this soybean boasts far more “healthy” fats, and far less of the fats that raise bad cholesterol. That has earned praise from the Center for Science in the Public Interest, a consumer group.
With the advent of gene editing, the pace of those crop improvements is accelerating, said Dan Voytas, Calyxt’s chief science officer and a professor of biological sciences at the University of Minnesota.
“I never anticipated the speed at which the field developed,” he said.
For centuries, farmers have bred their healthiest and highest-yielding plants to produce better offspring. In the 1980s, scientists also began to cut and paste DNA between species in what is known as genetic engineering. That sparked a fierce backlash among U.S. consumers, nearly 4 in 10 of whom believe genetically modified foods are bad for their health, said a 2016 Pew Research Center report.
But scientists hope the public will prove less hostile to CRISPR and TALENs, the most prominent of the new gene-editing tools. Both work like tiny genetic scissors, snipping the double helix of a plant’s DNA at pre-coded spots. When the DNA heals, it sometimes deletes or scrambles the gene next to the break — effectively turning that gene “off.”
“I think that despite all the hype over gene editing, everybody but a few science fiction writers has underestimated the magnitude of the revolution they are ushering in,” said Val Giddings, a senior fellow at the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation, a Washington-based think tank. “They will transform dramatically every aspect of the relationship between humans and our environment in overwhelmingly positive ways.”
Bob Braun, 62, one of 75 farmers growing Calyxt soybeans this season, agrees. Within a few years, he predicts, consumers also won’t be worried about the difference between gene-edited and conventional foods. It’s the latest of several revolutions, he reasons, in modern agriculture.
“I think you can go back to any time in human history and find people who were afraid of change,” he said. “When I was a kid, I used to hear the old-timers complaining about tractors.”