Microbiologist John van der Oost is one of the pioneers concerning the new ground-breaking gene editing technology CRISPR-Cas. He will be one of the speakers at the upcoming F&A Next event.
For his work on CRISPR-Cas, Van der Oost received the Advanced Grant of the European Research Council and the Spinoza Prize, which can be seen as the European and Dutch Nobel prize respectively.
Mr van der Oost is a microbiologist at the Wageningen University & Research in the Netherlands and is one of the researchers who has unravelled the mechanism of CRISPR-Cas. CRISPR-Cas is a new technology that makes it possible to change genetic material very accurately and efficiently. For example, specific properties in plants can be specifically removed or implemented. This new gene editing technology requires the same, strict, treatment as other GMO’s in the European Union. Something Mr van der Oost cannot understand. According to him it is a barrier for innovation in Europe.
The European status of CRISPR-Cas is ‘outrageous’, according to him: “Unbelievable that the technology is being perceived as less safe than the classic breeding technologies.” Mr van der Oost refers to the ruling of the European Court of Justice last year that new plant breeding techniques, such as CRISPR-Cas, require the same treatment as other GMO’s in Europe. This treatment means there are a lot of strict rules to bring products, bred with CRISPR-Cas, on the European market. As a result, these products, vegetable and plant-based products in particular, can’t or can hardly be brought onto the European market.
The microbiologist finds it very frustrating to see that regulators in the EU are more conservative than in the United States or Japan. “In these countries the development continues, because CRISPR-Cas can just be applied. For Europe’s competitiveness, this is disastrous. The ones who want to innovate are penalised by the ruling of the European Court. The Court favours the ones who hold back innovation.” Mr van der Oost characterises CRISPR-Cas as ground-breaking. “It is immense how many applications are possible with CRISPR-Cas. It can be used in plant breeding, but also in microbiology, for example for producing biofuels or medicines, and in human health as gene therapy.” That is why the researcher finds it so unbelievable that the European Union is putting on the ‘breaks’ for a development that is as safe as current plant breeding methods, according to Mr van de Oost.
He illustrates the safety of CRISPR-Cas with an example of tomato breeding. “To get to the tomato we can buy in the supermarket, years of classic breeding were needed from the wild tomato that grows in the jungle in South America. The DNA of different tomatoes were changed in all those years, initially by crossing varieties, and since about 50 years by exposing seeds to radiation or chemical substances. By doing this, finally about 2% of the genetic information of the wild tomato has changed to get the tomato we can buy in the supermarket.” The same tomato can be created with CRISPR-Cas but with much less, tens instead of millions, adjustments in the genetic material, according to Mr van der Oost. “In my opinion it is therefore unimaginable that CRISPR-Cas is being perceived less safe than other breeding techniques that make a lot more changes in the DNA.” He adds that in particular the small changes that are made by CRISPR-Cas can also occur spontaneously in nature. The microbiologist finds that the EU pays too much attention to the process of the new gene editing technique. “It is about the end product. With minimal adjustment we can breed tomatoes from the wild tomatoes which are better in all kinds of properties.”
Mr van der Oost also sees benefits for biodiversity and variety of species by using CRISPR-Cas. Because we can determine the characteristics of tomatoes very accurately, we can develop many different varieties based on many different wild varieties.” That has the advantage that there are tomatoes that can withstand certain bacterial and fungal diseases, but also tomatoes that are tastier, that have a higher nutritional value or a higher yield. “Techniques like CRISPR-Cas can make the difference when it is needed to produce enough food in the future, also at places where it is hard now to grow food.” Mr van der Oost names the example of crops that are more resistant against salt water or drought: “When you know the gene that is responsible for that certain property, it is relatively simple to adjust that with CRISPR-Cas.”
Not only for plant breeding, CRISPR-Cas is an important invention. Also as application for humans it can prevent or cure diseases. “If we can do it without making mistakes, in my opinion, there is nothing against it. That is why it must be certain that there are no negative effects paired with it.” He names the example of the Chinese babies who were born recently after being adjusted as embryos with CRISPR-Cas. “If that goes wrong, it is not only tragic for the babies, but that will also lead to significant delay in the development of CRISPR-Cas in general.”
CRISPR-Cas also has ethical objections. Mr van der Oost often calls them groundless. “Opponents rely on non-scientific facts. That is why we need to keep explaining how it works, that it is safe and that change in DNA is a natural phenomenon.” The microbiologist uses a part of the money he got by winning the Spinoza-prize for fuelling the discussion at high schools about gene technology. “We have to start at the base when explaining how the technique works. The GMO-discussion and the opinion about GMO in Europe is stuck. Supporters and opponents have put their heels in the sand. Neither do politicians seem to know the scientific facts. I would like to talk with them to explain.” Also the opinion that GMO gives a better position to big companies like Bayer, plays an important role, he says. “While the ruling of the Court is something that plays into the hands of those big companies. The smaller companies cannot meet the stringent safety requirements that apply to CRISPR-Cas because of the high costs. The big companies can.” To find a compromise in the discussion, Mr Van der Oost proposes to draw the line of regulation at implementing other DNA: simple adjustments to eliminate genes also occur in nature, and should not be part of the GMO-regulation. “It is like this in the US and Japan. It seems to me like a very reasonable agreement to still be able to use the many advantages of CRISPR-Cas.”
On 15-16 May 2019, the 4th edition of F&A Next will be held on the Campus of Wageningen University & Research in The Netherlands. The event was launched in 2016 to stimulate innovation and entrepreneurship. Start-ups, companies and investors get the opportunity to network, debate and get inspired. During the 2 days, presentations and panel discussions will be held and the most promising food and agri start-ups will present themselves. F&A Next is an initiative by Rabobank, Wageningen University & Research, Anterra Capital and StartLife. Registration is now open.