The next generation of genetic engineering is about to create even more unexpected outcomes.
This is no joke. Scientists are currently developing gene-silencing sprays that are being billed as the next generation of GMO technology. No longer will biotech firms need to introduce foreign DNA from another species into a plant to make it resistant to chemicals; these products can simply be sprayed on a plant to silence a mobile form of DNA called RNA (ribonucleic acid). RNA are small, mobile pieces of DNA.
Some think that these sprays can be safely rushed to market. “A spray can be used immediately without having to go through the years involved in development of a GM or conventionally bred crop,” says David Baulcombe of the University of Cambridge, who studies gene silencing in plants.
Baulcombe says that the effects are temporary. Is that supposed to allay our concerns? RNA is a fundamental building block for life—needless to say, altering RNA should not be done lightly. Potential side effects range from RNA escaping and affecting native plants and animals, to causing viruses to run rampant. People looking to make a buck off of hacking nature’s programs never talk about the potential consequences.
We are in the Wild West of genetic manipulation, hacking, and experimentation. Government funding for projects using CRISPR, a gene-editing tool, has skyrocketed in recent years, and there’s a mad dash for patents that use the technology. You can even “play God” and experiment with genetic engineering in the comfort of your own home with do-it-yourself CRISPR kits that cost less than $200. Fun for the whole family! What could possibly go wrong?
GMOs have gotten a fair amount of bad publicity, especially after Congress sold out voters by passing a phony GMO labeling law. There is speculation that the Monsanto/Bayer merger currently underway may allow Monsanto to hide from bad PR by rebranding itself. Gene-editing technology may offer another way to escape the GMO label or make it so ubiquitous that labeling is no longer possible.
You can read more about these issues on our GMO Fact Check site.