Are gene-edited foods the future?

March 24, 2020

Plant scientist Dan Voytas leads the way using precision techniques to quickly improve traits in crops we depend on.

Dan Voytas
Last year, Minneapolis-based Calyxt introduced a soybean oil without trans fats for commercial sale. It was the first gene-edited food to reach market. Dan Voytas, a professor of Genetics, Cell Biology and Development, is a cofounder of the company and remains its chief scientific officer. Here’s what he has to say about the future of food, how language shapes perception around biotechnology and food, and the advantages gene editing offers over traditional breeding techniques.

A decade or two from now, how will the food available in our local grocery store change?
There’s an ongoing move toward the “clean label,” meaning you can understand all of the ingredients: Wheat. Flour. Butter. Eggs. Things like preservatives or antioxidants are considered less desirable. Yet, so many of those ingredients are added to food to overcome some inherently negative attribute like discoloration. This is where gene editing comes in. It’s going to improve food ingredients and make them healthier so we don’t have to add chemicals or use additives to achieve the desired outcomes. Locally sourced food is another area we’ll see continue to grow, I believe. At Calyxt, all of our grain is grown in Minnesota, Iowa and the Dakotas, so we can tell what county the oil came from.

What is something you wish was better understood about biotechnology as it relates to food crops?
Food is a sensitive topic. A lot of people have negative connotations of technology — and especially biotechnology — as it relates to food. With the first wave of biotech crops, there was a disconnect. Biotech companies focused on better yields, which oftentimes meant the focus was on more herbicide tolerance and pathogen resistance. What we’re trying to do with gene editing is to actually provide benefits to the consumer by making food that is healthier and more sustainable.

What’s the difference between food that is gene edited versus genetically modified?
There’s some confusion about gene editing and genetically modified organisms [GMOs]. Typically with GMOs, foreign DNA has been added into a plant’s genome. That’s not the case with gene editing, which is similar to traditional breeding, only much faster. Gene editing tends to involve inactivating or removing genes, making one base change at a time, or moving genetic information. There is no foreign DNA in the product. Take corn. Compared to teosinte [a wild ancestor of modern corn], corn has been genetically modified. It’s just that that variation occurred spontaneously over time. Farmers would go out in their fields, pick a better producing corn plant and save that seed to plant the next year. They were accumulating genetic variation and essentially created a brand new species in the process. Language shapes perception and the language we have is not quite up to the task of capturing the many nuances that can happen when introducing genetic variation naturally or through editing. At Calyxt, we simply call it modern breeding.

We’ve been selecting traits for a really long time as you say, so why adopt gene editing?
Speed, precision and control. The big advantage of gene editing is that it’s highly precise. And after the editing is done we can sequence the genome and confirm that we’ve only made this very specific alteration.

What do you say to people that say “Well, we don’t even know what all the genes do yet.”?
There’s an existing regulatory process that really works well to ensure that there are no negative impacts on people, animals or the the environment. Plus, with the genes we are editing, we do know. We have a really good idea of how they function and how the edit will change gene function. — STEPHANIE XENOS