Washington Insider -- Thursday

Gene Editing Questions

Here’s a quick monitor of Washington farm and trade policy issues from DTN’s well-placed observer.

Senate Clears Farm Bill on 20-1 Vote

The Senate Ag Committee breezed through a markup on their 1,000-plus-page version of the farm bill without the controversy that marked the House version of the legislation. The lone vote against the bill was from Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, who took issue with a provision in the package on hemp.

But the fireworks that could have exploded during the session failed to emerge. Controversial amendments from some lawmakers were not offered or were discussed and withdrawn. One from Sen. John Thune, R-S.D., that would have bolstered payment potential under the Ag Risk Coverage (ARC) program at the expense of the Price Loss Coverage (PLC) program was not offered, as Thune noted he had issues getting a score on the cost of the plan from the Congressional Budget Office (CBO).

Grassley also said he would not offer an amendment that would have limited farm program payments, but pledged to continue that effort on the floor of the Senate.

That portion of the equation looks to unfold relatively soon. Ag panel member Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R., Ky., said at the start of the session it was his intention to have the chamber take the plan up before the July 4 recess.

Senate Ag Committee Chairman Pat Roberts, R-Kan., perhaps summed the situation up the best by noting as the session drew to a close that the plan was "not the best possible bill... but best bill possible."


Official Signals Smaller List of Chinese Goods Could Be Targeted With Tariffs

President Donald Trump is considering imposing 25% tariffs on a “subset” of Chinese imports that the administration included in its original list of around $50 billion in targeted products, White House trade adviser Peter Navarro said this week. However, he also made clear the decision on the duties would be up to Trump.

The goal for the U.S. is to defend its interests and not necessarily to get China to changes its ways, he noted.

The initial list of Chinese products the U.S. detailed covered 1,300 tariff lines. The final list of targeted products is expected by Friday, with the duties potentially being put in place shortly thereafter. The key remains whether or not the tariffs will be implemented. And should the duties be put in place, China has warned it would not make good on its tentative plans to make purchases of more U.S. farm and energy products.


Washington Insider: Gene Editing Questions

There was a ripple of concern throughout the biotechnology community this week in response to study findings reported in the journal Nature Medicine. At first, these “appeared to cast doubt on the viability of the most widely used form of gene editing, known as Crispr-Cas9 or simply Crispr,” the New York Times reported. The News sent stocks of some biotech companies into decline early in the week.

The studies reported focused on human cells, rather than those from plants or animals—but still were seen as potentially having broad implications.

To edit genes with Crispr, the Times says, scientists craft molecules that enter the nucleus of a cell. They zero in on a particular stretch of DNA and slice it out. This approach has stirred strong feelings ever since it came to light as a gene-editing technology five years ago. Already, it’s a mainstay in the scientific tool kit.

This approach has raised wide-ranging possibilities that could include altering whole species and even bring back some that have gone extinct. Crispr’s pioneers have already won a slew of prizes, and titanic battles over patent rights to the technology have begun. So, the new concerns that have just come to light are attracting wide attention among scientists.

“The reactions have been exaggerated,” said Jussi Taipale, a biochemist at the University of Cambridge and an author of one of two papers published this week. The findings underscore the need for more research into the safety of Crispr, he said, but they don’t spell its doom.

“This is not something that should stop research on Crispr therapies,” he said. “I think it’s almost the other way — we should put more effort into such things.”

The new concerns are extremely complex--scientists are saying that said they found that in some cases, attempts to remove genes from cells including those from humans, were unexpectedly difficult to make.

Such failure isn’t unusual in the world of gene editing, the Times says. But Dr. Taipale and his colleagues discovered that one gene, p53, was largely responsible for preventing Crispr from working in some cases.

The p53 gene normally protects against disease by preventing mutations from accumulating in cellular DNA, and mutations may arise when a cell tries to invoke these protections to fix a break in its DNA strand. The process isn’t perfect, and the repair may be faulty, resulting in a mutation.

When certain cells sense that the strand has broken, the p53 gene may swing into action and can stop a cell from making a new copy of its genes. Then the cell may simply stop multiplying, or it may die.

If a cell develops a mutation in the p53 gene itself, however, it may lose the ability to police itself for faulty DNA. In the research reported, scientists engineered certain cells to stop using p53 genes. Just as they had predicted, Crispr now worked much more effectively in these cells.

However, the emergence of defense cells could make Crispr less efficient than researchers had hoped. And, in cases where cells spontaneously acquire a mutation that disables the p53 gene—it leaves the ones with disabled p53 cells more likely to be successfully edited, but also possibly more prone to mutations.

So, what does it all mean? “These are important papers, since they remind everyone that genome editing isn’t magic,” said Jacob E. Corn, scientific director of the Innovative Genomics Institute in Berkeley, Calif. Crispr doesn’t simply rewrite DNA like a word processing program, he said. Instead, it breaks DNA and coaxes cells to put it back together. And some cells may not tolerate such changes.

While Dr. Corn said that while rigorous tests for safety are essential, he doubted that the new studies pointed to a disease risk even though the particular kinds of cells studied in the two new papers may be unusually sensitive to editing. Dr. Corn said he and his colleagues have not found similar problems in their own research.

And such concerns may be moot in a few years. One difficulty with Crispr is that it breaks DNA strands, experts say. But Dr. Church and other researchers are now investigating ways of editing DNA without breaking it. “We’re soon going to have a whole new generation of molecules that have nothing to do with Crispr,” he said.

So, we will see. The recent studies appear to be largely unrelated to ag and food production technology. However, the general criticisms of the foodies regarding GMOs and their use have almost nothing to do with real threats or dangers but still have important negative effects on many aspects of agriculture across the sector. Crispr with its “editing” approach seemed to have much more opportunities to escape many such concerns.

It is too early to suggest what these new studies will mean for the general food technology debate, but possibly can be used in the ongoing debate anyhow. This fight is important and should be watched closely by producers if it emerges, Washington Insider believes.

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