(September 12th, 2016) The letters “GMO” usually trigger negative reactions in most people, particularly when it comes to food. But the CRISPR/Cas9 technique challenges the definition of GMO and was recently even used to create a tasty meal. Stefan Jansson at Umeå University had it for dinner.
What is a genetically modified organism? According to EU legislation, it's “an organism in which the genetic material has been altered in a way that does not occur naturally”. The legislation also lists several techniques that introduce foreign DNA into a cell to create a GMO. For a molecular biologist, one word in this legislation sticks out: introduce. Importantly, the legislation, adopted in 2001, did not foresee that researchers would, one day, be able to modify an organism genetic make-up without introducing foreign DNA. The discovery of the CRISPR/Cas9 system, however, catapulted us into a new era, in which it is possible to delete virtually any gene you wish for, in any organism. The best of it: You don’t leave any traces because for this gene editing technique you don't need homologous DNA that integrates into the genome.
The importance of the CRISPR system for molecular biology is beyond doubt but its application has also led to a fiery debate: Does the technique create GMOs or not? One of the leaders in Europe in this discussion is Stefan Jansson. In 2014, he coordinated an open letter to call more attention to the work with genetically-modified plants in Europe.
Jansson works and lives in Sweden, he is a professor in Plant Cell and Molecular Biology at Umeå University, in the north of the country. “In Sweden, plants, which have genes cut out with CRISPR, are fully legal,” Jansson clarifies. “Only if the EU would decide that they should fall under the GMO definition, they would be illegal. But that has not happened so far, and will hopefully never happen either.”
Jansson’s latest project to promote CRISPR mutant plants is a real novelty. He created “the world’s first CRISPR-edited plants” and ate them for dinner – together with a radio reporter.
The promotional enterprise started with a friend, who gave him a bag of seeds of CRISPR-edited cabbage. Because Jansson's friend isn’t that lucky to live in a country that legalised CRISPR-edited plants, he wants to stay anonymous. All we get to know is that this cabbage has a deletion in the coding region of a certain gene, to be kept secret. Jansson took them home and planted the seeds in pots, but he was careful: “I marked the pots not to confuse them with all the other pots, sharing the space on the window sill in my conservatory.”
As the seedlings grew bigger he moved them into the garden - the cabbage plants still looked normal. When the plants had matured, Jansson invited Gustaf Klarin from Radio Sweden for the historical moment of harvesting and cooking the cabbage. “I was cooking the first dinner based on a CRISPR genome-edited plant in the world,” Jansson proudly remembers.
And what was the delicious meal? “I thought long and hard on how to cook this novel meal and came to the conclusion to try something completely new – at a venture. It would be a shame if the first meal ever using 'future plants' would taste awful, but that’s a risk I was willing to take.” So, he fried the cabbage together with other vegetables and herbs from his garden and arranged them with pasta and Västerbotten cheese, a local hard cheese. “To our delight – and to some extent, to my surprise – the meal turned out really nice. Both of us ate with great relish. Gustaf even thought the cabbage was the best tasting vegetable on the plate. And I agreed.” The recipe, together with a diary of the entire cabbage cultivation experiment, can be found on Jansson’s blog.
Obviously, both of them survived and even enjoyed eating the genetically-modified food but what does the rest of Sweden or maybe Europe think? “I have not heard any negative comments so far, the relatively few that I talked to have thought it was a fun thing,” Jansson tells. Luckily, there aren't many GMO activists in Sweden, so he didn’t get threats of any kind. But Jansson adds that the Swedish Board of Agriculture has asked him to give more information. “Just to make sure that we have not been breaking any rule on the way here. But when I told them about the technical details, they were content with that.” This is a good sign for the CRISPR forefront, since it shows that, at least in Sweden, “CRISPRy” plants are allowed to be grown and eaten.
The European Union has not taken position on CRISPR-edited plants yet. But the American authorities stated that they agree with the Swedish interpretation of GMO plants. It might also be important to keep in mind that CRISPR leaves no traces when deleting a gene. So, even if these “future plants”, as Jansson calls them, will be seen as GMOs, it would probably be impossible for someone who cultivates them to be convicted.
Photo: S. Jansson