A new technique that lets scientists tweak genes could give us allergy-free GMO peanuts

About 3 million Americans suffer from peanut or tree nut allergies, which can cause hives, swelling of the throat and, sometimes, even death.

But what if there were a way to make allergy-free peanuts?

This could soon be a possibility, thanks to the genome editing technology CRISPR/Cas9, which provides a cheap and easy way to modify the genes of any organism. By tweaking the genes for the proteins that cause peanut allergies — which isn’t easy to do — scientists might be able to create an allergy-free version of the popular snack food.

And we could be eating these kinds of genetically modified crops in as few as five years, MIT Technology Review reports.

The chemical company DuPont announced on Tuesday that is has made an agreement with Caribou Biosciences, a spin-off startup from the University of California, Berkeley lab of biochemist Jennifer Doudna, a CRISPR/Cas9 pioneer.

In previous studies, scientists have used CRISPR/Cas9 to modify plants such as soybeans, rice, and potatoes in the lab. And in September, Japanese researchers used the technique to turn off genes in tomatoes that play a role in making the fruit ripen.

DuPont claims it is already using CRISPR to grow drought-resistant corn and “hybrid” wheat plants (made by crossing two varieties of the crops) in greenhouses. And the company aims to start field trials of these crops as early as next spring.

“We are talking about bringing products to market in five to 10 years,” Neal Gutterson, vice president for agricultural biotechnology at Dupont’s hybrid seed producer Pioneer Hi-Bred, told the Tech Review. “That is a pretty damn good timeline compared to other technology.”

A new kind of GMO?

Genetically modified organisms (GMOs) are typically made by transferring genes from one type of species (e.g. bacteria) to another (plants) to make the recipient resistant to disease or drought, for example. With the new gene editing method, DuPont plans to only swap in genes from other varieties of the same plant.

This is much faster than conventional breeding, which can take many years.

The seed business, which is worth about $US40 billion a year according to Tech Review, is dominated by companies like DuPont, Monsanto, Dow, and Syngenta. And these companies will have to invest millions more if they want to take advantage of the new CRISPR technology — money they think they can make back.

These new genetically modified crops might face fewer regulations than typical GMOs. The USDA has said it won’t regulate crops made with the new gene editing technology because it doesn’t involve splicing in genes from another species. Europe, which has already taken some steps to ban GMOs, might take a different approach to CRISPR-modified plants.

With lighter regulation in the US, some of these plants could be available much sooner, industry officials say.

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