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UConn Milking System Gives Cows Udder Control

On 03, Aug 2018 | No Comments | In Blog, Featured, Future of Agriculture | By admin

https://www.nbcconnecticut.com/on-air/as-seen-on/UConn-Milking-System-Gives-Cows-Udder-Control_Hartford-489924321.html

NBC CT: UConn Gene Editing Research Could Benefit Citrus Industry

On 20, Jun 2018 | No Comments | In Blog, Featured, Future of Agriculture | By admin

The Florida citrus industry is having their worst harvest in 73 years, and scientists at the University of Connecticut are stepping in to help.

The poor harvest is in part because of damage from Hurricane Irma, but the devastation started long before that. A disease known as citrus greening has been wreaking havoc for years. UConn researchers are working on a solution.

“Our hope is that we can modify endogenous genes in citrus to create the greening disease’s resistance,” explained University of Connecticut scientist Dr. Yi Li.

Gene editing is often discussed in terms of medical advancements and new health treatments. But gene editing can also benefit the food we eat and agriculture as well. Some of the latest developments are happening in Connecticut.

Florida citrus crops have been falling victim to the greening disease since 2005. The contagious disease is spread by a bacteria found in insects feeding off of citrus crops. The bacteria grows and spreads throughout the trees. But the process is slow – it can take up to five years after a tree is infected for it to show signs of damage. As of today, 75 percent of the Florida citrus crops have been wiped out by this quickly spreading disease that has also made its way to crops in Texas and California.

The UConn scientists are working in conjunction with the University of Florida to find a cure.

“We are basically the technology development lab,” Li said. “And then once we develop the technology people in Florida our collaborators are going to use our technology to genetically modify citrus genome.”

These small, targeted changes to an organism’s original genes produce a specific beneficial result. These genetic alterations can provide plants and animals with beneficial characteristics, just like the disease resistance seen in the citrus crops.

Helping the Florida citrus crop is only part of what’s being done here in the lab. Li and his team have also been implementing their gene editing technique on landscaping products that could soon be used in your own backyard. Their latest project? Slow growing grass.

“We started to breed them to develop these traits that we thought would be beneficial to lawn owners, homeowners, and commercial lawn care people,” explains PhD student Lorenzo Katin-Grazzini, “Such as slow growth to drastically reduce the mowing time that’s needed to really just save cost and time and energy associated with turf grass management.”

Li has also created a genetically modified burning bush, a plant often found in New England that spreads rapidly. Where it grows nothing else can, decreasing the diversity in our forests.

“They either don’t produce seeds or produce very few seeds as such that the birds cannot spread them anymore because there are no seeds,” Li said. “So we hope that those plants are going to be released through horticulture in the next two to three years.”

But the lab at UConn isn’t stopping there.

“I do want to work with more ornamental plants,” Li said. “Particularly invasive plants because I do think that has a huge impact on biodiversity on our environment so if we can use gene editing technology to make that non-invasive that’s what I would like to work on.”

https://www.nbcconnecticut.com/news/local/UConn-Gene-Editing-Research-Could-Benefit-Citrus-Industry-485967231.html

CT Mirror: These CRISPR-modified crops don’t count as GMOs

On 29, May 2018 | No Comments | In Blog, Featured, Future of Agriculture | By admin

Published by the CT Mirror on May 28th, 2018

To feed the burgeoning human population, it is vital that the world figures out ways to boost food production.

Increasing crop yields through conventional plant breeding is inefficient – the outcomes are unpredictable and it can take years to decades to create a new strain. On the other hand, powerful genetically modified plant technologies can quickly yield new plant varieties, but their adoption has been controversial. Many consumers and countries have rejected GMO foods even though extensive studies have proved they are safe to consume.

But now a new genome editing technology known as CRISPR may offer a good alternative.

I’m a plant geneticist and one of my top priorities is developing tools to engineer woody plants such as citrus trees that can resist the greening disease, Huanglongbing (HLB), which has devastated these trees around the world. First detected in Florida in 2005, the disease has decimated the state’s $9 billion citrus crop, leading to a 75 percent decline in its orange production in 2017. Because citrus trees take five to 10 years before they produce fruits, our new technique – which has been nominated by many editors-in-chief as one of the groundbreaking approaches of 2017 that has the potential to change the world – may accelerate the development of non-GMO citrus trees that are HLB-resistant.

HLB yellow dragon citrus greening disease has infected orchards in Florida and around the world devastating the citrus crops.
GENETICALLY MODIFIED VS. GENE EDITED

You may wonder why the plants we create with our new DNA editing technique are not considered GMO? It’s a good question.

Genetically modified refers to plants and animals that have been altered in a way that wouldn’t have arisen naturally through evolution. A very obvious example of this involves transferring a gene from one species to another to endow the organism with a new trait – like pest resistance or drought tolerance.

But in our work, we are not cutting and pasting genes from animals or bacteria into plants. We are using genome editing technologies to introduce new plant traits by directly rewriting the plants’ genetic code.

This is faster and more precise than conventional breeding, is less controversial than GMO techniques, and can shave years or even decades off the time it takes to develop new crop varieties for farmers.

There is also another incentive to opt for using gene editing to create designer crops. On March 28, 2018, U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue announced that the USDA wouldn’t regulate new plant varieties developed with new technologies like genome editing that would yield plants indistinguishable from those developed through traditional breeding methods. By contrast, a plant that includes a gene or genes from another organism, such as bacteria, is considered a GMO. This is another reason why many researchers and companies prefer using CRISPR in agriculture whenever it is possible.

CHANGING THE PLANT BLUEPRINT

The gene editing tool we use is called CRISPR – which stands for “Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats” – and was adapted from the defense systems of bacteria. These bacterial CRISPR systems have been modified so that scientists like myself can edit the DNA of plants, animals, human cells and microorganisms. This technology can be used in many ways, including to correct genetic errors in humans that cause diseases, to engineer animals bred for disease research, and to create novel genetic variations that can accelerate crop improvement.

Yi Li inspects his CRISPR altered plants in his lab. Xiaojing Wang, CC BY-SA

To use CRISPR to introduce a useful trait into a crop plant, we need to know the genes that control a particular trait. For instance, previous studies have revealed that a natural plant hormone called gibberellin is essential for plant height. The GA20-ox gene controls the quantity of gibberellin produced in plants. To create a breed of “low mowing frequency” lawn grass, for example, we are editing the DNA – changing the sequence of the DNA that makes up gene – of this plant to reduce the output of the GA20-ox gene in the selected turf grass. With lower gibberellin, the grass won’t grow as high and won’t need to be mowed as often.

The CRISPR system was derived from bacteria. It is made up of two parts: Cas9, a little protein that snips DNA, and an RNA molecule that serves as the template for encoding the new trait in the plant’s DNA.

To use CRISPR in plants, the standard approach is to insert the CRISPR genes that encode the CRISPR-Cas9 “editing machines” into the plant cell’s DNA. When the CRISPR-Cas9 gene is active, it will locate and rewrite the relevant section of the plant genome, creating the new trait.

But this is a catch-22. Because to perform DNA editing with CRISPR/Cas9 you first have to genetically alter the plant with foreign CRISPR genes – this would make it a GMO.

A NEW STRATEGY FOR NON-GMO CROPS

For annual crop plants like corn, rice and tomato that complete their life cycles from germination to the production of seeds within one year, the CRISPR genes can be easily eliminated from the edited plants. That’s because some seeds these plants produce do not carry CRISPR genes, just the new traits.

But this problem is much trickier for perennial crop plants that require up to 10 years to reach the stage of flower and seed production. It would take too long to wait for seeds that were free of CRISPR genes.

My team at the University of Connecticut and my collaborators at Nanjing Agricultural UniversityJiangsu Academy of Agricultural SciencesUniversity of FloridaHunan Agricultural University and University of California-San Diego have recently developed a convenient, new technique to use CRISPR to reliably create desirable traits in crop plants without introducing any foreign bacterial genes.

We first engineered a naturally occurring soil microbe, Agrobacterium, with the CRIPSR genes. Then we take young leaf or shoot material from plants and mix them in petri dishes with the bacteria and allow them to incubate together for a couple of days. This gives the bacteria time to infect the cells and deliver the gene editing machinery, which then alters the plant’s genetic code.

In some Agrobacterium infected cells, the Agrobacterium basically serves as a Trojan horse, bringing all the editing tools into the cell, rather than engineering plants to have their own editing machinery. Because the bacterial genes or CRISPR genes do not become part of the plant’s genome in these cells – and just do the work of gene editing – any plants derived from these cells are not considered a GMO.

After a couple of days, we can cultivate plants from the edited plant cells. Then it take several weeks or months to grow an edited plant that could be planted on a farm. The hard part is figuring out which plants are successfully modified. But we have a solution to this problem too and have developed a method that takes only two weeks to identify the edited plants.

GENETICALLY DESIGNED LAWNS
The shorter lawn grasses on the left (perennial ryegrass) need to be mowed less frequently than their conventional counterpart, shown on the right. The shorter grasses were produced using a traditional plant breeding technique. Yi Li is currently using the CRISPR technique to create grasses of other species that require less maintenance.
Yi LiCC BY-SA

One significant difference between editing plants versus human cells is that we are not as concerned about editing typos. In humans, such errors could cause disease, but off-target mutations in plants are not a serious concern. A number of published studies reported low to negligible off-target activity observed in plants when compared to animal systems.

Also, before distributing any plants to farmers for planting in their field, the edited plants will be carefully evaluated for obvious defects in growth and development or their responses to drought, extreme temperatures, disease and insect attacks. Further, DNA sequencing of edited plants once they have been developed can easily identify any significant undesirable off-target mutations.

In addition to citrus, our technology should be applicable in most perennial crop plants such as apple, sugarcane, grape, pear, banana, poplar, pine, eucalyptus and some annual crop plants such as strawberry, potato and sweet potato that are propagated without using seeds.

We also see a role for genome editing technologies in many other plants used in the agricultural, horticultural and forestry industries. For example, we are creating lawn grass varieties that require less fertilizer and water. I bet you would like that too.

Yi Li is a Professor of Plant Science at the University of Connecticut.

60 Minutes: CRISPR: The gene-editing tool revolutionizing biomedical research

On 04, May 2018 | No Comments | In Blog, Future of Agriculture | By admin

A new tool could be the key to treating genetic diseases and may be the most consequential discovery in biomedicine this century.

It’s challenging to tell a story about something that’s invisible to the naked eye and tricky to explain. But it’s one we undertook, because rarely does a discovery come along that could revolutionize medicine.  It’s called CRISPR and it stands for Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats. CRISPR sounds more like a refrigerator compartment than a gene-editing tool, but it’s giving scientists power they could only imagine before – to easily edit DNA – allowing them to reprogram the genetic code of living things. That’s opening up the possibility of curing genetic diseases. Some researchers are even using it to try to prevent disease entirely by correcting defective genes in human embryos. We wanted to see for ourselves, so we went to meet a scientist at the center of the CRISPR craze.

“There are about 6,000 or more diseases that are caused by faulty genes. The hope is that we will be able to address most if not all of them.”

Bill Whitaker: This is CRISPR?

Feng Zhang: This has CRISPR in it.

Bill Whitaker: So– this is what’s revolutionizing science and biomedicine?

Feng Zhang: This is what many people are using– in research — and trying to develop treatments.

Bill Whitaker: That’s wild.

Feng Zhang: Yeah.

That little vial is igniting a big revolution that is likely to change the way doctors treat disease in the future. One of the brains behind it, is baby-faced Feng Zhang.

crisprpreview.jpg

Feng Zhang speaks with correspondent Bill Whitaker

 CBS NEWS

At 36, he’s already a tenured professor at MIT and a scientific celebrity because he figured out a way to override human genetic instructions using CRISPR.

Bill Whitaker: So, the CRISPR is not the liquid, the CRISPR is in the–

Feng Zhang: It’s dissolved in the liquid. There are probably billions of molecules of CRISPR…

Bill Whitaker: Billions?

BOTH: In here.

Feng Zhang: That’s right. And the way we use it is we take the liquid and apply it to cells.

For the last seven years, Zhang has been working on CRISPR at the Broad Institute in Cambridge, Massachusetts. It’s a research mecca brimming with some of the brightest scientific minds from Harvard and MIT on a mission to fight disease. CRISPR is making medical research faster, cheaper, easier. Zhang’s colleagues predict it will help them tackle diseases like cancer and Alzheimer’s.  

Bill Whitaker: How many diseases are we talking about that this could be used to treat?

Feng Zhang: There are about 6,000 or more diseases that are caused by faulty genes. The hope is that we will be able to address most if not all of them.

Bill Whitaker: Most if not all of them?

Feng Zhang: That’s the long-term hope.

Bill Whitaker: So we’re talking diseases like Huntington’s—

Feng Zhang: Uh-huh.

Bill Whitaker: Sickle Cell.

Feng Zhang: Yup. ALS—hemophilia.

Eric Lander: I think CRISPR, it’s fair to say, is perhaps the most surprising discovery and maybe most consequential discovery in this century so far.

lander-walk-talk-2.jpg

Eric Lander, director of the Broad Institute, speaks with correspondent Bill Whitaker

 CBS NEWS

To understand exactly what CRISPR is, we went to Eric Lander for a quick science lesson. He’s director of the Broad and Zhang’s mentor. He’s best known for being a leader of the Human Genome Project that mapped out all of our DNA, which is like a recurring sequence of letters.

Eric Lander: During the Human Genome Project, we could read out all the human DNA, and then, in the years afterwards, find the misspellings that caused human diseases. But we had no way to think about how to fix ’em. And then, pretty much on schedule, this mind-blowing discovery that bacteria have a way to fix those misspellings, appears.

Bill Whitaker: This comes from bacteria?

Eric Lander: This comes from bacteria.  Bacteria, you know, they have a problem. And they came up with a real clever solution. When they get infected by viruses, they keep a little bit of DNA, and they use it as a reminder. And they have this system called CRISPR that grabs those reminders and searches around and says, “If I ever see that again, I am gonna cut it.”

Zhang used that same bacterial system to edit DNA in human cells. Our DNA is made up of chemical bases abbreviated by the letters A, T, C, and G. As you can see in this animation from Zhang’s lab at MIT, a mutation that causes disease reads like a typo in those genetic instructions. If scientists can identify the typo, they can program CRISPR to find it and try to correct it.

Bill Whitaker: You program it? You say–

Feng Zhang: That’s right.

Bill Whitaker:  “I’m looking for this string of letters.”

Feng Zhang: Uh-huh.

Bill Whitaker: And the CRISPR will go in, and out of all of the billions and billions and billions of– of letters on your DNA, find the exact ones that you have programmed?

Feng Zhang: That’s right. CRISPR will allow you to– do many different things. You can cut it– to edit it.

Bill Whitaker: So you can snip out the bad part and you can add something that you want as well?

Feng Zhang: That’s right. You can give the cell a new piece of DNA that carries the sequence you want to incorporate into the genome.

Bill Whitaker: You say this so matter of factly. This is amazing.

Feng Zhang: It is pretty cool.

Bill Whitaker: How many other labs around the world are working with CRISPR like this?

Feng Zhang: Many. One of the things that we have been doing is to make the tool available to researchers. To date I think we have gotten it out over– 45,000 times, to 2,200 labs, in 61 countries.

Bill Whitaker: What are they doing with it?

Feng Zhang: They are using it to do everything.  A lot of applications of CRISPR. It’s really a Swiss army knife.

Cue the worldwide CRISPR frenzy. At the University of California, scientists used a form of CRISPR to edit mosquitos so they can’t transmit malaria. Their colleagues are modifying rice to better withstand floods and drought. In China, scientists tweaked a gene in beagles to make them more muscular.

crispr-full.jpg

A CRISPR vial from Zhang’s lab made its way to Dr. Kang Zhang. He is an ophthalmologist and a professor at the University of California, San Diego and wanted to see what all the hype was about.

Bill Whitaker: What did you think when you first heard of CRISPR?

Kang Zhang: I was a little bit skeptical.

Bill Whitaker: Why skeptical?

Kang Zhang: It worked so well. Too well to be believable.

He decided to experiment on mice with retinitis pigmentosa, a genetic form of blindness. He conducted a vision test using a mouse with the disease.

Bill Whitaker: This is the blind mouse?

Kang Zhang: This is the blind mouse. And– obviously, you can see that he is ignoring the rotating stripes.

His researchers injected CRISPR into the eye of another blind mouse. The CRISPR was programmed to find the main gene associated with the disease and turn it off. It takes three months to see the results.

Kang Zhang: Now, let’s see how he’s responding to the light.

Bill Whitaker: He’s following it around.

Kang Zhang: Yes.

Bill Whitaker: Look at that. You’re sure that he is seeing these lights?

Kang Zhang: This is actually a very commonly used test for vision.

Bill Whitaker: How much of their sight do they recover?

Kang Zhang: About 30, sometimes even 50% of the sight for– for mice.

The next phase of Dr. Zhang’s research is to see how CRISPR works on one of our closer relatives. He sent us this video from his lab in China where he’s studying monkeys with retinitis pigmentosa. The blind monkey ignores the food. He says this monkey was treated with CRISPR and it’s easy to see the difference. Dr. Zhang hopes to try this on humans soon.

If CRISPR is used to treat disease or make a drug it could mean big bucks. The Broad and Feng Zhang hold a primary patent for CRISPR’s use in human cells in the United States. But no technology is developed in a vacuum. Biochemist Jennifer Doudna at the University of California, Berkeley and her team made landmark CRISPR discoveries.

This week, they are challenging Zhang and the Broad in court for the rights arguing in part that Zhang’s advance was derived from her team’s breakthrough. It’s a high stakes battle. CRISPR is projected to be a multi-billion dollar market in a decade.

Bill Whitaker: Does that mean big business for you?

Feng Zhang: I think we’re– we’re still– quite a ways away from developing– CRISPR into a real therapeutic.

Bill Whitaker: I think you’re being a little bit modest. I mean this is sparking an incredible boom in biomedicine. And you’re in the center of it.

Feng Zhang: I think there is still really a lot of work that still needs to be done,  developing the systems so that they are efficient enough, making sure that they are safe enough, but these are things that– that we’re working hard to– to make possible.

“While it’s not gonna affect somebody who might be dying of a disease today, this is gonna have a real effect over the course of the next decade and couple of decades.”

But, what if it were possible to stop disease from even occurring? That sounds like science fiction, but a team of researchers in Portland, Oregon say with CRISPR, it’s now a reality.

Bill Whitaker: You correct it at the very, very earliest stages of life.

Shoukhrat Mitalipov: Right.

Bill Whitaker: In the womb.

Shoukhrat Mitalipov: Even before the womb.

Manipulating embryos has been the focus of Shoukhrat Mitalipov’s career. He runs the Center for Embryonic Cell and Gene Therapy at Oregon Health and Science University. Mitalipov is a maverick. He regularly makes headlines with his innovative, sometimes controversial methods to prevent genetic disease.

Shoukhrat Mitalipov: Preventing is always more effective– so there would be no– no recurrence of new disease. Particularly when we’re talking about heritable– diseases that parents pass to children.

So Mitalipov and an international team of scientists decided to use CRISPR on human embryos to correct a single genetic mutation that causes a deadly heart disease called hypertropic cardiomyopathy.

They got healthy eggs from donors and sperm from a man who carries the disease. At the same time the eggs are fertilized, they also get an injection of CRISPR. Mitalipov enlarged the microscopic procedure over three hundred times so we could see it.

Shoukhrat Mitalipov: Here we have our pipette with sperm inside, which has been already exposed to CRISPR.  And this is a egg. And so what we need to do is pierce through, and then we break membrane. And now –

Bill Whitaker: Release the sperm into the egg.

Shoukhrat Mitalipov: Yeah. And now this is the sperm coming in.

Bill Whitaker: Wow.

Shoukhrat Mitalipov: Now it’s inside there.

Bill Whitaker: Just like that, that egg has been CRISPRed?

Shoukhrat Mitalipov: CRISPRed, fertilized.

Bill Whitaker: And you have changed the genetic destiny of that embryo.

Shoukhrat Mitalipov: Yes, we believe so.

These embryos will never be implanted, but they are grown in an incubator for three days and then checked to see if they carry the disease mutation.

Normally, 50 percent would. Mitalipov says with CRISPR, 72 percent were free of the mutation that would cause the heart disease.

Bill Whitaker: This is a huge– advance in science and medicine.

Shoukhrat Mitalipov: We hope so. I think we– we’re still kind of in the early stages. I wouldn’t say that we are ready to– to go to clinics now.

He knows his results have to be replicated by an outside lab before they’re accepted by the scientific community. But if they hold up, one day CRISPR could be used to help families that have been plagued by inherited disease for generations.

Bill Whitaker: Is that what drives you?

Shoukhrat Mitalipov: Yes. Of course, it’s a suffering of children, but also the guilt the parents have at saying, “I passed it to my child.” So it’s like, “I caused this disease.” And I think now, we have a tool where we could help these families.

Mitalipov wants to use CRISPR to eliminate disease, but the concern is his research has created a blueprint for less scrupulous doctors to design human beings – to edit embryos to make babies that are smarter, taller, stronger. Mitalipov says that’s not even possible right now.

Bill Whitaker: Your critics say that you’re playing God.

Shoukhrat Mitalipov: I think– you could say to– to every treatment that they– humans and doctors develop that– we– we’re playing God. God gave us brains so we could find a way to eliminate suffering of human beings. And if that’s– you know, playing God, I guess that’s the way it is.

Bill Whitaker: So what do you think about editing an embryo to prevent disease?

Feng Zhang: We don’t really understand how complicated biology is. There’s a gene called PCSK9. If you remove PCSK9, you can reduce cardiovascular disease, heart attack– risks significantly. But it also has been shown recently to increase risk for diabetes. So how do you make the judgment call between these tradeoffs? And there will likely be other—impacts we haven’t yet identified. So I think we need to wait and be more cautious.

Eric Lander: I don’t think we’re close to ready to use it to go edit the human population. I think we’ve gotta use it for medicine for a while. I think those are the urgent questions. That’s what people want right now, is they want cures for disease.

Those urgent questions might soon be answered. A small clinical trial, the first in the U.S. using CRISPR to target certain types of cancer, is now enrolling patients.

Eric Lander: I wanna always balance hope versus hype here. While it’s not gonna affect somebody who might be dying of a disease today, this is gonna have a real effect over the course of the next decade and couple of decades. And for the next generation, I think it’ll be transformative.

Produced by Nichole Marks. Associate producers, Kate Morris and Jaime Woods.

For the sake of its future, Connecticut should embrace gene-editing science

On 30, Apr 2018 | No Comments | In Blog, Future of Agriculture | By admin

Curing disease.  Growing healthier, more sustainable crops. Adapting energy and environmental needs while moderating demands on our changing world.

These have long been some of the most complex scientific goals facing researchers—many of whom conduct their experiments here in Connecticut.

Now, an emerging technology – gene editing – is changing the way scientists conduct their research. It will fundamentally change the way science addresses current and future agricultural, medical and scientific challenges.

Gene editing is making possible scientific breakthroughs for treatment of rare diseases to some of the most common cancers.  It’s making crops safer, requiring less pesticide and protecting plants from disease.  It’s giving hope to patients and to food producers around the world, and it’s doing all of this in ways far less invasive and with far less risk than in the past.

Editing of genes is a practice with a long history. Almost since farming began, farmers have sought to elevate traits that promote greater crop yields and make their fruits and vegetables safe from disease and pests.

Breeding techniques developed over the decades brought us healthier, more nutritious and sustainable foods.

But what farmers and scientists started generations ago has now emerged into a precise science.

Gene editing allows for highly specific, precise changes to DNA through naturally occurring processes.  Tools such as CRISPR (Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats) allow for repair to an organism’s own genes. Gene editing techniques will change the way we assess scientific challenges, making what were nearly insurmountable challenges, fixable problems.

Imagine what this could mean for the future — cures or preventative treatments for diseases like cancer, HIV, auto immune disorders.  The ability to grow produce with less water, fewer pesticides, less environmental impact.

This technology is already happening here in our state.  Some of the most cutting-edge developments in gene editing are happening at institutions like The Jackson Laboratory, Yale, and the University of Connecticut.  The impact the discoveries ongoing in our own backyard is great and we as a state need to embrace and nurture this innovation.

That’s why my organization is working with partners from across the state to bring together leaders in the biotech and research industries to discuss the gene editing work that’s happening, the work that is on the horizon and what we as a community need to do to fuel the growth of Connecticut biotechnology and life sciences.  Our goal is to educate lawmakers, their staff and the public about this exciting work—what it means not only for the future of our health, our food supply, but also for bringing high quality jobs to Connecticut.

We already have a thriving life sciences research and development industry here in Connecticut and there is much untapped potential for its growth.  Our leaders are wise to embrace emerging technologies like gene editing and encourage this research to continue to grow here in Connecticut.

Paul R. Pescatello JD/Ph.D. is Senior Counsel and Executive Director, CBIA’s CT Bioscience Growth Council.

For the sake of its future, Connecticut should embrace gene-editing science

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GENE THERAPY: CURES; TREATMENTS AND JOBS

On 23, Apr 2018 | No Comments | In Blog | By admin

Join Biotechnology Leaders to Discuss Gene Therapy: Cures; Treatments and Jobs

Capitol Event aimed at educating lawmakers, public on scientific breakthroughs, progress, and job opportunities in state

On May 2nd, prominent members of the biotechnology community who are championing advances in gene editing technology happening here in Connecticut will come together with lawmakers, and members of the business and academic communities to discuss current and future scientific opportunities in the state.

Gene editing is an important, emerging area of research in healthcare, agriculture and other sectors critical to Connecticut’s economy.  Future scientific advancements, economic development, and job creation are dependent on Connecticut’s current and future leaders understanding and embracing the opportunities this technology will offer to our state.

Representatives from Jackson Laboratories, UCONN, Yale, and the Connecticut Business and Industry Association will host an informational forum focusing on the advancements of gene editing technology, and its role in advancements in the healthcare and agricultural industries, as well as bringing high paying jobs to Connecticut.  The event is being co-hosted by the Commerce Committee Co-Chairs, Senator Joan Hartley, Senator L. Scott Frantz and Representative Caroline Simmons.  

WHAT:             Gene Editing Technology Informational Forum

WHEN:            Wednesday, May 2nd 10 am  

WHERE:           State Capitol Building

                            Old Judiciary Room

                            Hartford 

WHO:              Albert Cheng, PhD, Assistant Professor, The Jackson Laboratory, Peter M. Glazer, MD, PhD, Robert E. Hunter Professor of Therapeutic Radiology and Professor of Genetics; Chair, Department of Therapeutic Radiology Yale University, Professor Gerald Berkowitz, Agriculture Biotechnology Lab, UCONN,Paul Pescatello, Senior Counsel

Genetic engineering, CRISPR and food: What the ‘revolution’ will bring in the near future

On 24, Jan 2018 | No Comments | In Blog, Featured, Future of Agriculture | By admin

January 24, 2018

Humankind is on the verge of a genetic revolution that holds great promise and potential. It will change the ways food is grown, medicine is produced, animals are altered and will give rise to new ways of producing plastics, biofuels and chemicals.

Many object to the genetic revolution, insisting we should not be ‘playing God’ by tinkering with the building blocks of life; we should leave the genie in the bottle. This is the view held by many opponents of GMO foods.  But few transformative scientific advances are widely embraced at first. Once a discovery has been made and its impact widely felt it is impossible to stop despite the pleas of doubters and critics concerned about potential unintended consequences. Otherwise, science would not have experienced great leaps throughout history­­—and we would still be living a primitive existence.

Gene editing of humans and plants—a revolutionary technique developed just a few years ago that makes genetic tinkering dramatically easier, safer and less expensive—has begun to accelerate this revolution. University of California-Berkeley biochemist Jennifer Doudna, one of the co-inventors of the CRISPR technique::

Within the next few years, this new biotechnology will give us higher-yielding crops, healthier livestock, and more nutritious foods. Within a few decades, we might well have genetically engineered pigs that can serve as human organ donors…we are on the cusp of a new era in the history of life on earth—an age in which humans exercise an unprecedented level of control over the genetic composition of the species that co-inhabit our planet. It won’t be long before CRISPR allows us to bend nature to our will in the way that humans have dreamed of since prehistory.

The four articles in this series will examine the dramatic changes that gene editing and other forms of genetic engineering will usher in.

Great advances likely for GE foods

Despite the best efforts of opponents, GE crops have become so embedded and pervasive in the food systems—even in Europe which has bans in place on growing GMOs in most countries—that it is impossible to dislodge them without doing serious damage to the agricultural sector and boosting food costs for consumers.

Even countries which ban the growing of GMOs or who have such strict labeling laws that few foods with GE ingredients are sold in supermarkets are huge consumers of GE products.

revolution 1 5 18 2Europe is one of the largest importers of GMO feed in the world. Most of the meat we consume from cattle, sheep, goats, chickens, turkeys, pigs and fish farms are fed genetically modified corn, soybeans and alfalfa.

And the overwhelming majority of cheesesare made with an enzyme produced by GM microbes and some beers and wines are made with genetically engineered yeast.

North America, much of South America and Australia are major consumers of foods grown from GE seeds. Much of the corn oil, cotton seed oil, soybean oil and canola oil used for frying and cooking, and in salad dressings and mayonnaise is genetically modified. GM soybeans are used to make tofu, miso, soybean meal, soy ice cream, soy flour and soy milk. GM corn is processed into corn starch and corn syrup and is used to make whiskey.  Much of our sugar is derived from GM sugar beets and GE sugarcane is on the horizon. Over 90 percent of the papaya grown in Hawaii has been genetically modified to make it resistant to the ringspot virus.  Some of the squash eaten in the US is made from GM disease-resistant seeds and developing countries are field testing GM disease-resistant cassava.

Many critics of GE in agriculture focus on the fact that by volume most crops are used in commodity food manufacturing, specifically corn and soybeans. One reason for that is the high cost of getting new traits approved. Indeed, research continues on commodity crops, although many of the scientists work for academia and independent research institutes.

For example, in November 2016, researchers in the UK were granted the authority to begin trials of a genetically engineered wheat that has the potential to increase yields by 40 percent. The wheat, altered to produce a higher level of an enzyme critical for turning sunlight and carbon dioxide into plant fuel, was developed in part by Christine Raines, the Head of the School of Biological Sciences at the University of Essex.

Genetic engineering and nutrition enhancement

 A new generation of foods are now on the horizon, some as the result of new breeding techniques (NBTs), such as gene editing.  Many of these foods will be nutritionally fortified, which will be critical to boosting the health of many of the poorest people in developing nations and increase yields.

Golden rice is a prime example of such a nutrition-enhanced crop.  It is genetically engineered to have high levels of beta carotene, a precursor of Vitamin A. This is particularly important as many people in developing countries suffer from Vitamin A deficiency which leads to blindness and even death. Bangladesh is expected to begin cultivation of golden rice in 2018. The Philippines may also be close to growing it.

revolution 1 5 18 3strain of golden rice that includes not only high levels of beta carotene but also high levels of zinc and iron could be commercialized within 5 years. “Our results demonstrate that it is possible to combine several essential micronutrients – iron, zinc and beta carotene – in a single rice plant for healthy nutrition,” said Navreet Bhullar, senior scientist at ETH Zurich, which developed the rice.

The Science in the News group at Harvard University discussed some of the next generation foods.

Looking beyond Golden Rice, there are a large number of biofortified staple crops in development.  Many of these crops are designed to supply other micronutrients, notably vitamin E in corn, canola and soybeans…Protein content is also a key focus; protein-energy malnutrition affects 25% of children because many staple crops have low levels of essential amino acids.  Essential amino acids are building blocks of proteins and must be taken in through the diet or supplements. So far, corn, canola, and soybeans have been engineered to contain higher amounts of the essential amino acid lysine. Crops like corn, potatoes and sugar beets have also been modified to contain more dietary fiber, a component with multiple positive health benefits.

Other vitamin-enhanced crops have been developed though they have yet to be commercialized.  Australian scientists created a GE Vitamin A enriched banana, scientists in Kenya developed GE Vitamin A enhanced sorghum and plant scientists in Switzerland developed a GE Vitamin B6 enhanced cassava plant. None is near approval, however.

Scientists genetically engineered canola, a type of rapeseed, to produce additional omega-3 fatty acids. Research is being conducted on developing GM gluten free wheat and vegetables with higher levels of Vitamin E to fight heart disease.

Other more consumer-focused genetically-engineered crops that do not use transgenics, and have sailed through the approval system include:

  • FDA has approved the commercialization of a GE non-browning applethe Arctic Apple, developed by using a gene-silencing technique.
  • Simplot has developed GE potatoes created using gene-silencing techniques.  They are less prone to bruising and blackening, in some cases are resistant to certain diseases and also contain less asparagine which reduces the potential for acrylamide that is created when frying, baking and roasting.

Fighting plant diseases

Other products are in development that fight viruses and disease.  Scientists have used genetic engineering to develop disease-resistant rice.  A new plum variety resists the plum pox virus.  It has not yet been commercialized.  GE solutions may be the only answer to save the orange industry from citrus greeningwhich is devastating orange groves in Florida.  GE might be utilized to curb the damage caused by stem rust fungus in wheat and diseases effecting the coffee crop.

revolution 1 5 18 4In Africa, GE solutions could be used to combat the ravages of banana wilt and cassava brown streak disease and diseases that impact cocoa trees and potatoes. A GE bean has been developed in Brazil that is resistant to the golden mosaic virus.  Researchers at the University of Florida, the University of California-Berkeley and the 2Blades Foundation have developed a disease resistant GM tomato.

Scientists at the John Innes Center in the UK are attempting to create a strain of barley capable of making its own ammonium fertilizer from nitrogen in the soil. This would be particularly beneficial to farmers who grow crops in poor soil conditions or who lack the financial resources to buy artificial fertilizers.

Peggy Ozias-Akins, a horticulture expert at the University of Georgia has developed and tested genetically-engineered peanuts that do not produce two proteins linked to intense allergens.

New Breeding Techniques

New gene editing techniques (NBTs) such as CRISPR offer great potential and face lower approval hurdles, at least for now.

  • Scientists at Penn State have removed the gene that causes white button mushrooms to discolor, and the product was quickly approved.
  • In 2014, scientists in China produced bread wheat resistant to powdery mildew.
  • Calyxt, a biotechnology company, has developed a potato variety that prevents the accumulation of certain sugars, reducing the bitter taste associated with storage. The potato also has a lower amount of acrylamide.
  • DuPont has developed a gene-edited variety of cornwhich can be used to thicken food products and make adhesives.

In June, the EPA approved a new first of its kind GE corn known as SmartStaxPro, in which the plant’s genes are tweaked without transgenics to produce a natural toxin designed to kill western corn rootworm larvae.  It also produces a piece of RNA that shuts down a specific gene in the larvae, thereby killing them. The new GE corn is expected to be commercialized by the end of the decade.

What could slow—or even stop—this revolution? In an opinion piece for Nature Biology, Richard B. Flavell, a British molecular biologist and former director of the John Innes Center in the UK, which conducts research in plant science, genetics and microbiology, warned about the dangers of vilifying and hindering new GE technologies:

The consequences of simply sustaining the chaotic status quo—in which GMOs and other innovative plant products are summarily demonized by activists and the organic lobby—are frightening when one considers mounting challenges to food production, balanced nutrition and poverty alleviation across the world.  Those who seek to fuel the GMO versus the non-GMO debate are perpetuating irresolvable difference of opinion. …Those who seek to perpetuate the GMO controversy and actively prevent use of new technology to crop breeding are not only on the wrong side of the debate, they are on the wrong side of the evidence. If they continue to uphold beliefs against evidence, they will find themselves on the wrong side of history.

Steven E. Cerier is a freelance international economist and a frequent contributor to the Genetic Literacy Project.

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Published on VPR

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On 20, Apr 2017 | No Comments | In Blog, Featured, GMO’s and The Environment | By admin

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