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CRISPR’s potential to improve the farmed salmon seems both big and promising, but fish farmers leave decision to consumer trust

CRISPR’s potential to improve the farmed salmon seems both big and promising, but fish farmers leave decision to consumer trust

 

Amidst great enthusiasm for the new revolutionary gene-edit technique CRISPR, Norwegian salmon farmers will not touch the new technology without consumer consent.

Tellef Øgrim

Tellef Øgrim

 

Even if the World Wide Web, heart transplantations, robots and self-driving cars are more visible innovations of the post world war era, the development of new genetic technologies can end up altering life itself to a much larger extent than any of those “celebrity” technologies.

The latest genetic buzz-word is CRISPR, a technique for editing targeted genes in the double helix in a much faster and less costly way than any earlier method.

In a recent meeting in Oslo, the Norwegian Biotechnology Advisory Board, appointed and paid for by the Norwegian government,  invited to a conference where the new technology was going to be explained and discussed, ending up with the crucial question if the fish farming industry is at all ready for CRISPR. Will positive results of planned experiments, that aim at using CRISPR to create a salmon free of Sea Lice, a problem that cost the industry hundreds of millions every year, be farmed and marketed the instant is available?

The short answer to the question is no. The somewhat longer answer is yes if Europe’s consumers should suddenly change their minds and start trusting food that is genetically altered.

 

Unfair reputation?

Odd Magne Rødseth, head of aquaculture in the German genetics giant EW Group, which develops, produces and delivers genetic material to the sea-farming industry globally was one of the industry actors invited in order to give his opinion on what CRISPR can mean for fish farming. Rødseth is known for not shying away from discussions about GMO. Although he is not advocating anything close to rapid implementation of CRISPR-Cas9 or other genetic engineering techniques in Norwegian fish farming. Instead, his main point is the efficiency by which the existing Norwegian farmed salmon has been bred using a highly industrialized version of traditional breeding, fueled with contemporary DNA knowledge, in order to create the best possible product.

According to Rødseth, Norwegian salmon is unfairly given a reputation as a genetically modified organism. Certain diseases, like IPN, has been routed out using genetic modification, but without the modified genetic material being left in the animal. Scientifically, Norwegian salmon is not GMO.

 

 

A wide new world

CRISPR is expected to open up a number of new frontiers for basic research as well as advance foodstuff and medicine markets. Some believe that even conventional materials will be altered in dramatic ways.

When scientists talk about what CRISPR can achieve, they often state the somewhat boring but never the less very true and important fact that gene editing will learn us much more about genetics in both a much faster and cheaper ways than before. Even if the complete genome of many organisms are sequenced, we still have much to learn about what these genes actually do and which genes are responsible for certain traits or diseases.

 

  • FOOD SECURITY
  • We have to grow a lot more food in order to feed the world’s growing population. CRISPR and future methods that will bind on it will make us able to engineer food that is resilient a wide range of today’s challenges. Dan Voytas, who is a plant geneticist at the University of Minnesota uses CRISPR to improve the photosynthetic efficiency of rice and why it has slower photosynthesis in hot environments. If it could be possible to figure out how to get rice to do photosynthesis faster, and crop yield could increase dramatically.

 

  • ALZHEIMER TREATMENT?
  • Martin Kampmann is a cell biologist at the Institute for Neurodegenerative Diseases at the University of California San Francisco. Along with his colleagues, he has helped develop a CRISPR-based platform to identify the genes controlling processes that drive neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer's and Parkinson's.

 

  • CANCER TREATMENT?
  • Scientists have already been exploring how CRISPR might be used to treat certain types of cancer for a few years. A research team at the University of Pennsylvania recently got approval for a small clinical trial in 2017: They will take out some immune cells from 18 patients and use CRISPR to modify the cells to make them more effective at targeting and destroying cancer cells. They will then transplant these edited cells back into the patients and see if it helps with treatment.

 

  • NEW PLASTIC
  • Currently, the world relies on the hydrocarbon molecules found in fossil fuels to create materials like plastics. But with CRISPR, we could conceivably change that.

 

  • PLANTS FOR DRUGS
  • Pharmaceutical makers use all kinds of different systems to produce drugs and vaccines, including bacteria, yeast, and mammal cells. Lately, they’ve been especially keen on turning plants or plant cells into factories for metabolites and proteins. Plants work well because they’re strong, cheap, and have a low risk of contamination with toxins or pathogens. This goes by the name of “molecular pharming.”

 

An ocean of possibilities

However enthusiastic Odd-Magne Rødseth, himself a biologist, might be on behalf of the latest development in genetic engineering, the businessman Rødseth prefers to talk about how successful traditional breeding can be when it is based on science, and how the Norwegian farmed salmon is a prime example of such.

While representatives of the salmon farming industry in the meeting in Oslo were keen to shop how far their product development has come by utilizing advances in the traditional genetic modification, principal scientist Anna Wargelius of the Norwegian Marine Institute, can explain some of the possible ways to use CRISPR in the development of a better fish.

Anna Wargelius of the Norwegian Marine Institute

Wargelius presented how the institute currently conducts research on salmon using CRISPR-Cas9 and how she is among the first scientists in the world using this new technique on fish. She illustrated how the growth in Norwegian salmon production has stopped due to several environmental challenges. The institute’s research focuses on the problem of farmed salmon escaping and mating with wild salmon. She added that one of the institute’s future ambitions is to look into how gene editing can solve the grave problem sea lice represents for the industry. She added that both the development of sustainable feed, a stronger fish that is better adapted to living in cages could be achieved using genetic editing.

– We have used gene editing in order to find out how to make sterile fish by knocking out only one of 45 000 genes, she said.

Wargelius illustrated her work by showing pictures of salmon with and without its ovarian bulbs, and how fast a sterile fish can be used to create similarly sterile fish in other lines of salmon during only one generation.

The institute has also sequenced wild fish stocks from the northern and the western part of Norway in order to compare them genetically.

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 We want to utilize genetic material that the salmon has developed over very long time. Therefore we want to use genes responsible for mutations connected to virus resistance and move them to fish from other stocks and see if it influences the defense against the virus.

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Wargelius summed up the advantages with CRISPR by pointing to the speed (you only need a couple of weeks to make the gene constructs). She says it might be important for modifying the fish, but not least that it is a source of better understanding the species. The ability to knock out certain genes is according to Wargelius one of the greater new advantages that CRISPR has given the researchers.

– Earlier we had to put in another gene and let this gene take the place of the gene we wanted to knock out. Now we can choose a gene that we know is important for certain process and directly knock it out in the salmon. We do not need to transfer genes from other animals because we now can work only in the salmon’s genome.

This last achievement is considered by the researchers at the Institute of Marine Research to be a great advantage simply because the end result can possibly end up being defined not to be GMO since genes are not moved between species.

Touching upon possible risks with the Crispr technique Wargelius mention the so-called “off-target activity” where the CRISPR-molecule inserted can mutate to other parts of the genome than intended. She said though that using updated sequencing technology it is not difficult to check if such off-target activity has taken place and that the marine institute’s scientists have not found any instances of such unwanted mutations “on fish we have made”, as Wargelius put it.

Another risk is connected to the existing problem of salmon escaping from the cages.

– Our recommendation is that if this new method is going to be used anywhere in the industry, the fish needs to be sterile.

 

 

Do we have a problem?

The core question is then if this fantastic new technology will ever be used for solving some of the salmon industry’s most pressing challenges, and make a better and more nutritious product.

Wegelius prescribes that the effects and the risks of CRISPR have to be openly communicated to the public for anything of that sort to happen.

The right man to answer this question is the director for environment in the Norwegian Seafood Federation “Sjømat Norge”, Henrik Stenwig. He makes it clear that the industry as such does not have a unified opinion about the possible usage of this new technology.

– We have 500 members, and 500 points of view, says Stenwig.

He never the less told the meeting in Oslo that the industry has established a “framework for how new technology can be used in order to produce more and better seafood”.

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All new methods need to be evaluated with regards to risks. No new method or product is let loose without a thorough evaluation. We are not against technology. The challenge is if you end up with a fish that is considered as being GMO or GE.

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It all boils down to whether the consumer trusts a new product enough to buy it and put it at the family’s dinner table.

– New tech if considered GMO or not must enjoy trust from those who are going to eat the products.

He illustrated how the salmon producers must live with a paradox where better products cannot be utilized because the consumers they could have served do not condone.

One well-known example is how the industry seems convinced that fish feed with ingredients from certain genetically modified plants would be good for the fish and the business.

– Norwegian Seafood Federation is not opposed to the usage of genetically modified material from plants in the feed. But we do not use it as long as the EU market disregards of it. It is considered to be OK for other animals, but not for fish. Neither the US, Asia or the Russians has such limitations, said Stenwig.

In other words: Even if salmon modified with CRISPR, or other gene editing methods, is found to be safe, better, or more nutritious it will not be produced and marketed by the Norwegian salmon farming industry if the product in question is considered in any way dubious by the market.

– We have more than the technological and legal options to consider. There is also a market that one must take into consideration, concludeS Stenwig.

(Sources: Norwegian Biotechnology Advisory Board,  Vox.com, Tekna.no, Kurzgesacht, Economist, EU Commission, MIT Technology Review, Time Magazine (video below))

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LINK: Watch the video below to learn more about how CRISPR works,  also click to read TIME’s cover story (login) on what the technology could mean for the future of medicine.