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The Debate of Using CRISPR to Make Genetic Edits to Cannabis

December 23, 2020 11:30 am ET
The Debate of Using CRISPR to Make Genetic Edits to Cannabis

A team of scientists at CanBreed, a facility based in Israel, has made use of CRISPR-Cas9 gene-editing technology in order to alter the cannabis plant’s genes so that it would be more resistant to white powdery mildew. While the thought of mildew-resistant cannabis is appealing, altering the genes of any plant or organism can be risky. CanBreed states that they perfect the genetics of cannabis and hemp for the benefit of the growers and consumers. While this sounds great in theory, let’s explore the ethics behind using gene-editing technology such as CRISPR and what impacts it could bring for the global cannabis market. 

What is White Powdery Mildew and Why is it Bad?

White powdery mildew, or white powdery mold, are patches of living, breathing, fuzzy, flour-like substance that shows up and can spread easily to other leaves or buds (the cannabis flower).  Mildew is a fungus that not only eats your plants but also accumulates. Once the mildew has spread into the flower, or bud, of the cannabis plant, it’s completely unusable. Even experienced growers can run into some mildew problems despite proper precautions. When the mildew is caught early, the grower can reverse its effects up to a point, but by taking swift action, you will be saving more of the plant that would have otherwise been wasted. However, any buds with the mildew should be discarded since there are many more spores than one can see with the eyes. 

CRISPR Explained

CRISPR, or CRISPR-Cas9, technology is a powerful tool for editing genomes. CRISPR stands for “clusters of regulator interspaced short palindromic repeats” which is a specialized region of DNA with two distinct characteristics being the presence of nucleotide repeats and the presence of nucleotide spacers. The technology allows researchers and scientists to alter DNA sequences as well as modify gene functioning. Applications of CRISPR include correcting genetic defects, treating and preventing the spread of disease as well as improving crops. However, this technology has raised a lot of ethical concerns. CRISPRs are “specialized stretches of DNA” and the protein called Cas9 is “an enzyme that acts like a pair of molecular scissors, capable of cutting strands of DNA”. 

GMOs Aren’t Permitted Worldwide Which Could Complicate the Global Cannabis Market

Ido Margalit, the CEO at CanBreed, stated that the company plans to have the genetically modified seeds on the market by the end of 2021 and that the company is hoping to use its technology to modify other aspects of cannabis genetics. By modifying other aspects of the cannabis plant, the company is hoping to provide growers with uniform plants that are resistant to disease and that those uniform plants will help pave the path to “standardization of the industry”-which has been one of the largest barriers to the legalization of the plant.  Moving towards standardizing the cannabis industry is a cause for celebration as authorities will be more susceptible to supporting its legalization. However, if genetically modified cannabis is anything like GMO products, there may be undesirable effects-especially to the consumer. 

CanBreed secured CRISPR-Cas9 when it reached an agreement with Corteva Agriscience, The Broad Institute of MIT, and Harvard in order to use the gene-editing software. Most of the cannabis plants available for consumption in the U.S are already being genetically edited using CRISPR technology but are not considered GMO products according to the USDA and FDA. But contrary to America, the E.U Court of Justice has banned any crops that have had their genes edited by CRISPR technology. They are technically genetically-modified, whether the U.S chooses to call them GMO or not.  Additionally, Israel does not regulate any plants that have undergone gene editing. Stepping closer to standardizing the cannabis industry may be a reason for celebration but the lack of consistency over-regulating (and classifying) genetically modified goods is a cause for concern. 

The Ethical Debate Surrounding CRISPR

The debate over whether one should be editing genomes have been around for quite some time. However, the topic is gaining more interest as it was discovered that the CRISPR technology has the potential to make gene editing more accurate and “easier” than other technologies. One of the first arguments that have been discussed amongst scientists is that we are inadvertently opening a Pandora’s box. Once the door is open, there is no going back even if the impacts turn out to be detrimental. CRISPR-Cas9 technology is cheap and does not require sophisticated knowledge or even expensive equipment to carry out. This means that any standard laboratory could theoretically modify any genes of any organism, including human embryos if they wanted to. We are not implying that CanBreed has master plans to manipulate human embryos, but the point is that the accessible nature of CRISPR could easily lead to unregulated gene editing. You wouldn’t want that type of power to land in the wrong hands or be used nefariously. The next argument would be that modifying cannabis on the genetic level goes against nature. Many say that mother nature has already blessed us with cannabis- a medical marvel, all-natural, complex, effective, and beneficial plant species. Why should we disturb it by editing the genes with man-made technology? Who are we to interfere? 

On the other hand, the cannabis industry needs this chance to become standardized. Providing growers with seeds that are resistant to disease and that are “uniform” will give authorities the consistency they need to legalize cannabis in good conscience and with regulation. As for whether we’re running the same risks with genetically modified cannabis and GMO-foods, only time will tell. Let us know if you think altering the genes of cannabis is a reason for concern or to celebrate in the comment section below.

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