When farmer Terry Wanzek walks out in his fields, he sometimes sees a grove of trees, which reminds him of his grandfather, who planted those trees. Or he looks out over the pond, which deer, ducks and pheasant use for water, and he knows that his grandfather made a decision to drain land and put the pond in that exact spot.
Growing more with fewer resources is becoming increasingly urgent as the Earth's population is expected to hit 9.1 billion by 2050.
"There is a connection that goes beyond running a business and making a profit," says Wanzek, a fourth-generation North Dakota farmer who raises spring wheat, corn, soybeans, barley, dry edible beans and sunflowers. "There is a connection to family, to your ancestors and there is a connection to your posterity and your kids."
Wanzek's corn and soybeans are genetically modified (GM) crops, which means that they have been altered at the DNA level to create desirable traits. This intervention, he says, allows him to start growing earlier and to produce more food per acre.
Growing more with fewer resources is becoming increasingly urgent as the Earth's population is expected to hit 9.1 billion by 2050, with nearly all of the rise coming from developing countries, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. This population will be urban, which means they'll likely be eating fewer grains and other staple crops, and more vegetables, fruits, meat, dairy, and fish.
Whether those foods will be touched in some way by technology remains a high-stakes question. As for GM foods, the American public is somewhat skeptical: in a recent survey, about one-third of Americans report that they are actively avoiding GMOs or seek out non-GMO labels when shopping and purchasing foods. These consumers fear unsafe food and don't want biotechnologists to tamper with nature. This disconnect—between those who consume food and those who produce it—is only set to intensify as major agricultural companies work to develop further high-tech farming solutions to meet the needs of the growing population.
"I don't think we have a choice going forward. The world isn't getting smaller. We have to come up with a means of using less."
In the future, it may be possible to feed the world. But what if the world doesn't want the food?
A Short History
Genetically modified food is not new. The first such plant (the Flavr Savr tomato) was approved for human consumption and brought to market in 1994, but people didn't like the taste. Today, nine genetically modified food crops are commercially available in the United States (corn, soybean, squash, papaya, alfalfa, sugar beets, canola, potato and apples). Most were modified to increase resistance to disease or pests, or tolerance to a specific herbicide. Such crops have in fact been found to increase yields, with a recent study showing grain yield was up to 24.5 percent higher in genetically engineered corn.
Despite some consumer skepticism, many farmers don't have a problem with GM crops, says Jennie Schmidt, a farmer and registered dietician in Maryland. She says with a laugh that her farm is a "grocery store farm - we grow the ingredients you buy in products at the grocery store." Schmidt's father-in-law, who started the farm, watched the adoption of hybrid corn improve seeds in the 1930s and 1940s.
"It wasn't a difficult leap to see how well these hybrid corn seeds have done over the decades," she says. "So when the GMOs came out, it was a quicker adoption curve, because as farmers they had already been exposed to the first generation and this was just the next step."
Schmidt, for one, is excited about the gene-editing tool CRISPR and other ways biotechnologists can create food like apples or potatoes with a particular enzyme turned off so they don't go brown during oxidation. Other foods in the pipeline include disease-resistant citrus, low-gluten wheat, fungus-resistant bananas, and anti-browning mushrooms.
"We need to not judge our agriculture by yield per acre but nutrition per acre."
"I don't think we have a choice going forward," says Schmidt. "The world isn't getting smaller. We have to come up with a means of using less."
A Different Way Forward?
But others remain convinced that there are better ways to feed the planet. Andrew Kimball, executive director of the Center for Food Safety, a non-profit that promotes organic and sustainable agriculture, says the public has been sold a lie with biotech. "GMO technology is not proven as a food producer," he says. "It's just not being done anywhere at a large scale. Ninety-nine percent of GMOs are corn and soy, and they allow chemical companies to sell more chemicals. But that doesn't increase food or decrease hunger." Instead, Kimball advocates for a pivot from commodity agriculture to farms with crop diversity and animals.
Kimball also suggests a way to use land more appropriately: stop growing so much biofuel. Right now, in the U.S., more than 55 percent of our crop farmland is in corn and soy. About 40 percent of that goes into cars through ethanol, 40 percent is fed to animals and a good bit of the rest goes into high-fructose corn syrup. That leaves only a small amount to feed people, says Kimball. "If you want to feed the world, not just the U.S., you want to make sure to use that land to feed people," he says. "We need to not judge our agriculture by yield per acre but nutrition per acre."
Robert Streiffer, a bioethicist at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, agrees that GMOs haven't really helped alleviate hunger. Glyphosate resistance, one of the traits that is most commonly used in genetically engineered crops, doesn't improve yield or allow crops to be grown in areas where they weren't able to be grown before. "Insect resistance through the insertion of a Bt gene can improve yield, but is mostly used for cotton (which is not a food crop) and corn which goes to feed cattle, a very inefficient method of feeding the hungry, to say the least," he says. Important research is being done in crops such as cassava, which could help relieve global hunger. But in his opinion, these researchers lack the profit potential needed to motivate large private funding sources, so they require more public-sector funding.
"A substantial portion of public opposition is as much about the lack of any perceived benefits for the consumers as it is for outright fear of health or environmental dangers."
"Public opposition to biotech foods is certainly a factor, but I expect this will slowly decline as labels indicating the presence of GE (genetically engineered) ingredients become more common, and as we continue to amass reassuring data on the comparative environmental safety of GE crops," says Streiffer. "A substantial portion of public opposition is as much about the lack of any perceived benefits for the consumers as it is for outright fear of health or environmental dangers."
One sign that the public may be willing to embrace some non-natural foods is the recent interest in cultured meat, which is grown in a lab from animal cells but doesn't require raising or killing animals. A study published last year in PLOS One found that 65 percent of 673 surveyed U.S. individuals would probably or definitely try cultured meat, while only 8.5 percent said they definitely would not. In the future, lab-grown food may become another way to create more food with fewer resources.
Danielle Nierenberg, president of the Food Tank, a nonprofit organization focused on building a global community of safe and healthy food, points to an even more immediate problem: food waste. Globally, about a third of food is thrown out or goes bad before it has a chance to be eaten. She says simply fixing roads and infrastructure in developing countries would go a long way toward ensuring that food reaches the hungry. Focusing on helping small farmers (who grow 70 percent of food around the globe), especially female farmers, would go a long way, she says.
Innovation on the Farm
In addition to good roads, those farmers need fertilizer. Nitrogen-based fertilizers may get a boost in the future from technologies that release nutrients slowly over time, like slow-release medicines based on nanotechnology. In field trials on rice in Sri Lanka, one such nanotech fertilizer increased crop yields by 10 percent, even though it delivered only half the amount of urea compared with traditional fertilizer, according to a study last year.
"I'm not afraid of the food I grow. We live in the same environment, and I feel completely safe."
One startup, the San-Francisco-based Biome Makers, is profiling microbial DNA to give farmers an idea of what their soil needs to better support crops. Joyn Bio, another new startup based in Boston and West Sacramento, is looking to engineer microbes that could reduce farming's reliance on nitrogen fertilizer, which is expensive and harms the environment. (Full disclosure: Joyn Bio and this magazine are funded by the same company, Leaps by Bayer, though leapsmag is editorially independent. Also, Bayer recently acquired Monsanto, the leading producer of genetically engineered seeds and the herbicide Roundup.)
Terry Wanzek, the farmer in North Dakota, says he'd be willing to try any new technology as long as it helps his bottom line – and increases sustainability. "I'm not afraid of the food I grow," he says of his genetically modified produce. "We eat the same food, we live in the same environment, and I feel completely safe."
Only time will tell if people several decades from now feel the same way. But no matter how their food is produced, one thing is certain: those people will need to eat.
In November 2020, messenger RNA catapulted into the public consciousness when the first COVID-19 vaccines were authorized for emergency use. Around the same time, an equally groundbreaking yet relatively unheralded application of mRNA technology was taking place at a London hospital.
Over the past two decades, there's been increasing interest in harnessing mRNA — molecules present in all of our cells that act like digital tape recorders, copying instructions from DNA in the cell nucleus and carrying them to the protein-making structures — to create a whole new class of therapeutics.
Scientists realized that artificial mRNA, designed in the lab, could be used to instruct our cells to produce certain antibodies, turning our bodies into vaccine-making factories, or to recognize and attack tumors. More recently, researchers recognized that mRNA could also be used to make another groundbreaking technology far more accessible to more patients: gene editing. The gene-editing tool CRISPR has generated plenty of hype for its potential to cure inherited diseases. But delivering CRISPR to the body is complicated and costly.
"Most gene editing involves taking cells out of the patient, treating them and then giving them back, which is an extremely expensive process," explains Drew Weissman, professor of medicine at the University of Pennsylvania, who was involved in developing the mRNA technology behind the COVID-19 vaccines.
But last November, a Massachusetts-based biotech company called Intellia Therapeutics showed it was possible to use mRNA to make the CRISPR system inside the body, eliminating the need to extract cells out of the body and edit them in a lab. Just as mRNA can instruct our cells to produce antibodies against a viral infection, it can also teach them to produce the two molecular components that make up CRISPR — a guide molecule and a cutting protein — to snip out a problem gene.
"The pandemic has really shown that not only are mRNA approaches viable, they could in certain circumstances be vastly superior to more traditional technologies."
In Intellia's London-based clinical trial, the company applied this for the first time in a patient with a rare inherited liver disease known as hereditary transthyretin amyloidosis with polyneuropathy. The disease causes a toxic protein to build up in a person's organs and is typically fatal. In a company press release, Intellia's president and CEO John Leonard swiftly declared that its mRNA-based CRISPR therapy could usher in a "new era of potential genome editing cures."
Weissman predicts that turning CRISPR into an affordable therapy will become the next major frontier for mRNA over the coming decade. His lab is currently working on an mRNA-based CRISPR treatment for sickle cell disease. More than 300,000 babies are born with sickle cell every year, mainly in lower income nations.
"There is a FDA-approved cure, but it involves taking the bone marrow out of the person, and then giving it back which is prohibitively expensive," he says. It also requires a patient to have a matched bone marrow done. "We give an intravenous injection of mRNA lipid nanoparticles that target CRISPR to the bone marrow stem cells in the patient, which is easy, and much less expensive."
Meanwhile, the overwhelming success of the COVID-19 vaccines has focused attention on other ways of using mRNA to bolster the immune system against threats ranging from other infectious diseases to cancer.
The practicality of mRNA vaccines – relatively small quantities are required to induce an antibody response – coupled with their adaptable design, mean companies like Moderna are now targeting pathogens like Zika, chikungunya and cytomegalovirus, or CMV, which previously considered commercially unviable for vaccine developers. This is because outbreaks have been relatively sporadic, and these viruses mainly affect people in low-income nations who can't afford to pay premium prices for a vaccine. But mRNA technology means that jabs could be produced on a flexible basis, when required, at relatively low cost.
Other scientists suggest that mRNA could even provide a means of developing a universal influenza vaccine, a goal that's long been the Holy Grail for vaccinologists around the world.
"The mRNA technology allows you to pick out bits of the virus that you want to induce immunity to," says Michael Mulqueen, vice president of business development at eTheRNA, a Belgium-based biotech that's developing mRNA-based vaccines for malaria and HIV, as well as various forms of cancer. "This means you can get the immune system primed to the bits of the virus that don't vary so much between strains. So you could actually have a single vaccine that protects against a whole raft of different variants of the same virus, offering more universal coverage."
Before mRNA became synonymous with vaccines, its biggest potential was for cancer treatments. BioNTech, the German biotech company that collaborated with Pfizer to develop the first authorized COVID-19 vaccine, was initially founded to utilize mRNA for personalized cancer treatments, and the company remains interested in cancers ranging from melanoma to breast cancer.
One of the major hurdles in treating cancer has been the fact that tumors can look very different from one person to the next. It's why conventional approaches, such as chemotherapy or radiation, don't work for every patient. But weaponizing mRNA against cancer primes the immune cells with the tumor's specific genetic sequence, training the patient's body to attack their own unique type of cancer.
"It means you're able to think about personalizing cancer treatments down to specific subgroups of patients," says Mulqueen. "For example, eTheRNA are developing a renal cell carcinoma treatment which will be targeted at around 20% of these patients, who have specific tumor types. We're hoping to take that to human trials next year, but the challenge is trying to identify the right patients for the treatment at an early stage."
Repairing Damaged mRNA
While hopes are high that mRNA could usher in new cancer treatments and make CRISPR more accessible, a growing number of companies are also exploring an alternative to gene editing, known as RNA editing.
In genetic disorders, the mRNA in certain cells is impaired due to a rogue gene defect, and so the body ceases to produce a particular vital protein. Instead of permanently deleting the problem gene with CRISPR, the idea behind RNA editing is to inject small pieces of synthetic mRNA to repair the existing mRNA. Scientists think this approach will allow normal protein production to resume.
Over the past few years, this approach has gathered momentum, as some researchers have recognized that it holds certain key advantages over CRISPR. Companies from Belgium to Japan are now looking at RNA editing to treat all kinds of disorders, from Huntingdon's disease, to amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or ALS, and certain types of cancer.
"With RNA editing, you don't need to make any changes to the DNA," explains Daniel de Boer, CEO of Dutch biotech ProQR, which is looking to treat rare genetic disorders that cause blindness. "Changes to the DNA are permanent, so if something goes wrong, that may not be desirable. With RNA editing, it's a temporary change, so we dose patients with our drugs once or twice a year."
Last month, ProQR reported a landmark case study, in which a patient with a rare form of blindness called Leber congenital amaurosis, which affects the retina at the back of the eye, recovered vision after three months of treatment.
"We have seen that this RNA therapy restores vision in people that were completely blind for a year or so," says de Boer. "They were able to see again, to read again. We think there are a large number of other genetic diseases we could go after with this technology. There are thousands of different mutations that can lead to blindness, and we think this technology can target approximately 25% of them."
Ultimately, there's likely to be a role for both RNA editing and CRISPR, depending on the disease. "I think CRISPR is ideally suited for illnesses where you would like to permanently correct a genetic defect," says Joshua Rosenthal of the Marine Biology Laboratory in Chicago. "Whereas RNA editing could be used to treat things like pain, where you might want to reset a neural circuit temporarily over a shorter period of time."
Much of this research has been accelerated by the COVID-19 pandemic, which has played a major role in bringing mRNA to the forefront of people's minds as a therapeutic.
"The pandemic has really shown that not only are mRNA approaches viable, they could in certain circumstances be vastly superior to more traditional technologies," says Mulqueen. "In the future, I would not be surprised if many of the top pharma products are mRNA derived."
"Making Sense of Science" is a monthly podcast that features interviews with leading medical and scientific experts about the latest developments and the big ethical and societal questions they raise. This episode is hosted by science and biotech journalist Emily Mullin, summer editor of the award-winning science outlet Leaps.org.