Cisgenesis: new dawn on food production?

As I was reading the column in the current issue of Nature by Brian Heap on Europe’s stance on GM crops, I wanted to update myself more on the developments that are currently ongoing in this realm. In spite of the vast progress being made in world of transgenics, the heavy regulation from EU and other South American countries such as Brazil and Argentina has certainly put a dent on the implementation of use of these crops. The plants produced by the cisgenesis or intragenesis technology seem like a savior in these GM hostile areas.


3 kinds of genetic engineering defined. By KJHvM

As for the safety regulation, of course one could argue otherwise. Yet, at the very least, its not all bad news. The Directive 2001/18/EC of the European Parliament and of the Council dictates and regulates the release of GM crops. The three strong proponents of the technology, Schouten, Jacobsen and Krens have argued for the complete exemption from regulation. This was followed by the joint scrutiny from the NTWG, The Joint Research Centre and The Institute for Prospective Technological Studies to understand if the techniques constituted genetic modification. The European Food Safety Authority (EPSA) conducted parallel evaluations. Alright, lets not get disheartened completely. Although the intragenics came back with more associated risks due to the possibility of recombination of individual genetics elements, the cisgenics fared far better.

Finally the EPSA also concluded in their 2012 report that all four techniques in question – cisgenics, intragenics, transgenics and conventional plant breeding posed inherent risks due to the source of the genes, traits manifested and changes to the genome. The level of risk associated with cisgenics was similar to those created by conventional breeding. Sigh of relief? Maybe! The EFSA also opined that both cis- and intragenics would be subjected to the GM-guidance for food safety and environmental risks although the data required risk assessment could be reduced on a case by case basis.

Things have looked slightly better on the home front. The EPA has proposed to exempt the cisgenics designed to express plant protectants although the same technology designed to express other traits would have to be approved by USDA.

All in all, it might be possible to see changes happening sooner that we might have imagined. The willingness among the consumers reflects this. One survey in US even reported that consumers are willing to pay more if the plants were nutritionally improved. To me, the biggest benefit I see is the time reduction factor as compared to the regular breeding process and the myriad other traits that could be potentially improved. I also wonder as I write this if there could be other indirect implications such as improved preservation of the germplasm of various crops, improved environmental benefits, possible sustainable production and more?

Although it still imposes a certain level of restriction on how much one could tweak, nevertheless at the very least it is a step forward in a good direction.

Sujatha works as a scientist at Metabolix, Cambridge. She is from India and has lived in the States since 2000, and has been working with plants the whole time. She sincerely hopes that we as the plant community are able to find ways to feed every single mouth on this planet.

  • John R, Diaz

    First off, I stopped reading when you discounted the saftey question and that you left out many of the problems that led to Europe and the South American to be against a world monopoly on agriculture.Is there any reason that you side stepped this issue? Ok,I realize that as a scientist you live a busy life and like most specialist live in a paradigm with blinders.You seem like a good kid so let me let you in on a few items that were not discussed. Monopoy by GM agriculture is a big issue to these countries. Read about the lawsuit in South America where biotech has charged a 3 billion royalty fee on future crops.Google it. One of the main reason that these crops were not excepted around the world was over the saftey issue. The longest studies that were approved by Monsanto was for three months. Independant science was forbidden to do any testing of these plants under threat of lawsuit due to the proprietory nature of this product. Any known allergy question would have stopped them from obtaining a patent. By the way, it is now illegal for a land grant university to do a study on gmo yeilds where biotech does not control the study. The term Substantial Eqivalence was the loophole that was created by USA government’s revolving door politics so that GMO’s could be fast tracked to avoid the years of long term studies. Michael Taylor, a former head lawyer for Monsanto and then as head of the FDA is the proverbial fox in the hen house. We still as of yet have not had long term studies on humans as is demanded in drug approval. Is it any wonder Monsanto’s strong arm tactics to spread this money making Monopoly of patent’s on life has reflected on biotech as a whole. Monsanto has admitted that there is no better than mother nature. And by the way you are partly right in that consumers in the know are more than willing to purchase foods that are a more nutrient rich and I add that they do now and prefer Organic food over GMO as they do in Europe. Even Monsanto has an Organic cafeteria in their home office. I do not see any new changes in the fast track Monsanto/FDA system. I believe it was the pressure of public awarness that caused the USDA to postpone Dow 2,4d which is half the indredients of Agent Orange. Biotech had trouble selling this to the public because you can fool the people with your deceptive tactics but too many of us knew about Agent Oranges relationship with cancer.If you have done your homework,you will find that we are on a tread mill of insectacide and herbacide resistance.You can read Purdue’s text on “Burndown Madness” (their name not mine) for those trouble some weeds mix in a little 2,4-d. This is the need for new methods of crop production as in Dow 2,4-d which again was used in warfare and caused cancer to which our government pays hefty sums. I believe Dow’s 2,4-d is being used in Canada. Who in there right mind would eat a food where cancer causing agent orange is systemicly found in every cell of the plant? A person who is decieved by the bull in Bioloy Fortified Inc. Sujatha, how is it that you of all people being of Indian decent could shill for biotect is beyond belief for all of the Indian Farmers who were decieved by Biotect salesman claims that this technology being better than sliced bread. Unfortunatly the small farmer is not subsidized in Indian which contributed to 225,000 Indian Farmers suicides. Many of these people died by drinking the GMO Herbacide Round Up. I see this as a mass protest as in Tibet where the monks light themselves on fire. Imagine, the farmer writes his goodby note and goes into his gmo failed crop and drinks the Round Up. Imagine the horror of a farmers family that finds their Dad dead in the fields. What kind of grotesque message of death is this as there are many ways to commite suicide where you just go to sleep as in an overdose of sleeping pills whereas Round Up causes the whole blood to gel. This is why over 60 countries, Europe, South America and the largest Agricultural country in the world – India has restricted this misussed technology. In October of 2011,I walked 330 miles in the RighttoKnow March Brooklyn to the White House.I dedicated my March to the souls of these poor Indian Farmers.

    • Florin Maxim

      John, really get your information from somewhere other than false documentaries. Nothing you say even resembles the truth about biotechnology, it all seemed like a summary of “The World According to Monsanto” (you actually quote the film without using quotation marks).

    • Anastasia Bodnar

      John, before posting stream-of-consciousness-comments that are barely readable, you might try addressing the actual content of the post you are commenting on. You could also try looking at other posts here at Biofortified – we have already written many posts that address some of your concerns, and it would be much more useful for you to continue the conversations on those posts than to run on so much here. It also doesn’t help to bring out all the old tropes or to insult the author. It’s too bad, you might have interesting things to contribute to conversation, but this comment just makes you look silly.

  • MikeB

    First off, I stopped reading when it was clear you were about to write a freight-car-sized Gish gallop without having read the article. I stopped reading when you began to go ad hominem and condescended to the writer (“good kid”).

    • Florin Maxim

      Well, John’s comment, since nothing he said is in any way related to what the article is about, is trolling.

  • Rickinreallife

    John R. — What an inane collection of verbal diarrhea and rehash of tired talking points. Reminds me of the line from the movie Billy Madison: “We are all now dumber for having heard it.” Sujatha, thank you for the article. I hope that you will not be discouraged by the Greenpeace Pod People. India, and the world will be richer for your contributions.

  • Tom

    Brooklyn. Of course.

  • Anastasia Bodnar

    Thank you for this post, Sujatha. I’ve always found cisgenics to be an intriguing idea – I worked on a cisgene for my research to improve levels of bioavailable iron in corn.

    The way that most countries regulate biotech seems quite strange to me. Instead of looking at novel traits, we obsess on how the trait got there. It’s just not a science-based model.

  • Keith Hayes

    John Diaz,

    “The term Substantial Eqivalence was the loophole that was created by USA government’s revolving door politics so that GMO’s could be fast tracked to avoid the years of long term studies. ”

    Considering that approving a GMO crop takes nearly a decade, this is a strange definition of fast tracking. If that time-frame bothers you, then don’t go to the dentist. Dental devices require only 90 day notification of substantial equivalence and those are actually implanted in the body.

    “We still as of yet have not had long term studies on humans as is demanded in drug approval. ”

    I’m not sure what you mean here, but a series of clinical trials are usually done on human subjects prior to a drug’s approval; safety and efficacy are determined, dosage, side effects, etc are all determined during these studies. The GMO’s don’t go through these clinical trials because they aren’t designed to be thearapeutic; not yet anyways, Golden Rice seems to be going through these types of trials in Asia because it is NOT substantially equivalent to the conventional breeds. Other crops that have been nutritionally enhanced will also likely go through a different regulatory path where testing is done on human subjects before approval.

    The rest of your rant I couldn’t follow. It seems to suggest that glyphosate is bad because some farmers committed suicide? Non sequitor.