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  • Prisca

Give CRISPR a chance

Updated: Mar 23, 2019

On Wednesday March 5th, Science for Democracy and enthusiastic young scientists gathered in front of the European Parliament in Brussel to eat CRISPR modified rice pudding to draw attention to: GIVE CRISPR A CHANCE.

In short: What is CRISPR?

CRISPR is a gene-editing tool discovered by the American biochemist Jennifer Doudna and the French microbiologist Emmanuelle Charpentier. For those who really want to know: CRISPR stands for: Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats.

CRISPRs are actually helping bacteria defending against viruses, thus they are part of the bacterial immune system. It helps baceria to detect DNA from invading viruses, which have been attacking before.

Once this system recognizes a specific DNA sequence, an enzyme cuts exactly through this DNA piece in the virus. With that, the attack of the virus is prevented. Scientists are able to take advantage of this system and use it to cut through any gene in, for example, plants in a controlled manner. To give you an example: By cutting or knocking out of an important gene in the flowering process, plants can be genetically modified to flower faster. Next to faster flowering, this tool can also be used to induce plant resistance against pathogens or pests or to enhance drought resistance. But there are numerous application potentials.

What happened on the 25th of July 2018?

On the 25th of July 2018, the European Court of Justice (ECJ, in Luxembourg) decided that any organism edited with the CRISPR system falls under the GMO directive. This did not ban any research on CRISPR, nor did it forbid the ‘creation’ of gene edited crops for research purposes, but it limited the sale and growth of these crops.

What is the difference between CRISPR and GMO?

With CRISPR we can make precise changes in the DNA of e.g. a plant. This is why researchers like to refer to CRISPR also as precision breeding. We can precisely change a specific gene in a crop in contrast to conventional plant breeding. In the last years plant breeding was aiming at random DNA changes that would induce a better trait in a plant (e.g. more resistant to drought, faster flowering, differently shaped fruits, higher resistance to pathogens etc.). Today, plant breeders are using certain techniques, that allow them to induce variations in the DNA, but these changes occur randomly and not only in one single gene, as it would be with precision breeding. While GMO includes the introduction of foreign DNA in a plant, CRISPR is just altering the genetic code exactly in one targeted gene. This means, that CRISPR is used to induced changes in a genome, that would have occurred naturally, while GMO includes crops with foreign DNA and changes, that would not have been arisen naturally. Plants modified with CRISPR do not contain any foreign DNA. Obviously, off-targets can occur with the CRISPR tool. However, the chances in plants are minimal and even if they occur, they can easily be detected and removed. Furthermore, before any new variety of a crop will be on the market, it has to go through a standard safety measurement to exclude any potential risk.

The decision of the ECJ to tag CRISPR edited crops as GMOs disgruntled many scientists and initiated the event: Give CRISPR a chance.

So, what is "Give CRISPR a chance"?

This positive activism event was organized by Science for Democracy (Marco Perduca and Marco Cappato) and young researchers in plant biotechnology from the University of Ghent (Gwen and Nick). In the heart of Europe (Brussel), the consumption of a traditional Belgian dish (rice pudding) prepared with CRISPR modified rice, should raise awareness of the decisions of the ECJ. Inspiration for this peaceful protest was taken from a similar event last summer in Milan, Italy, also organized by Science for Democracy.

“As young plant researchers, we are concerned that this [decision of the ECJ] will restrict the EU from using this tool to meet challenges of today and tomorrow. The ruling of the ECJ is inconsistent, considering that plants obtained by less precise techniques are excluded from being labelled and regulated as GMO’s”
Marco Perduca and Marco Cappato

So on the 5th of March at 12:30 a small crowd gathered in front of the European Parliament on the Place du Luxembourg in Brussel to consume ‘CRISPRed’ rice pudding. After addressing the public to inform about CRISPR, its potentials and benefits on agriculture and food, young researches wanted to consume the rice pudding to show the normality of eating CRISPR modified food. But right before sharing the rice, an inspector of the Belgian authorities appeared to confiscate it. A heated up discussion between the inspector and Science for Democracy started. Just moments later, while the discussion was still on-going, the first young researchers started to share the rice. One followed the other and in just a mere second, all of the CRISPRed rice pudding was shared and eaten. Still, parts of the rice were confiscated and Marco Perduca and Marco Cappato have to justify their actions and explain the origin of the rice in the following months.

Young scientist who held a speech at the event (from left to right): Gwen , Nick , Ramon, Prisca

I also took part in this event by holding a short speech and eating CRISPRed rice myself. You can read up my personal motivation behind this event at the end of the blog.

In case you want to know more:

More information about CRISPR:

Science for Democracy:

If you also disagree with the decision of the ECJ and you want to support young scientists, please sign this petition: GIVE CRISPR A CHANCE

My personal motivation

In parts of my PhD, I am focusing on plant diseases and strategies to make plants more resistant to pathogens and pests. Plant diseases still cause annual yield losses between 20-40% and pesticide use is unavoidable to reduce these losses. However, pesticides can have a negative impact on the environment and can lead to the development of resistant pathogens and pests. In Belgium alone around 6,8 tons of pesticides are used yearly.

One of the crops I am working with is strawberry, because disease management is a never-ending challenge in strawberry cultivation. Strawberry is actually the most pesticide sprayed crop in Belgium. It is 6-7x more sprayed than any other crop, because it’s very prone to diseases. This also makes it the crop with the highest amount of pesticide residues. 98% of strawberries that were tested in a recent report of the EWG showed residues of at least one pesticide. One sample of strawberries even showed traces of 20 different pesticides. But it’s not only strawberry that we are spraying in Belgium - we spray all our crops to cope with the yield losses due to the amount of diseases.: Tomato, potato, spinach, cherries, apple, grapes and many more.

How can we further reduce pesticide use? We can breed for new resistant cultivars. But breeding takes time, is costly and also straining. And this is exactly where CRISPR comes in.

CRISPR is a technique holding the potential to create more resistant crops - and that fast. While breeding a new crop takes at least years, we can do the same with CRISPR in just a few months. This will lead to less pesticide use and to more sustainable agriculture. Based on thorough scientific research, we will be able to create crops – e.g. strawberries that are resistant against its most common pathogen by editing specific genes. We should stop judging the crop by how it was created, but by what potential it holds: being safe, resistant to its most common pathogen, leading to less yield losses and especially less pesticide use and thus bringing us one step closer to sustainable agriculture.

We have this technique, why are we not giving it a chance?

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