In the next few decades, humanity faces its biggest food crisis since the invention of the plow. The planet's population, currently 7.6 billion, is expected to reach 10 billion by 2050; to avoid mass famine, according to the World Resource Institute, we'll need to produce 70 percent more calories than we do today.
Imagine that a cheap, easy-to-use, and rapidly deployable technology could make crops more fertile and strengthen their resistance to threats.
Meanwhile, climate change will bring intensifying assaults by heat, drought, storms, pests, and weeds, depressing farm yields around the globe. Epidemics of plant disease—already laying waste to wheat, citrus, bananas, coffee, and cacao in many regions—will spread ever further through the vectors of modern trade and transportation.
So here's a thought experiment: Imagine that a cheap, easy-to-use, and rapidly deployable technology could make crops more fertile and strengthen their resistance to these looming threats. Imagine that it could also render them more nutritious and tastier, with longer shelf lives and less vulnerability to damage in shipping—adding enhancements to human health and enjoyment, as well as reduced food waste, to the possible benefits.
Finally, imagine that crops bred with the aid of this tool might carry dangers. Some could contain unsuspected allergens or toxins. Others might disrupt ecosystems, affecting the behavior or very survival of other species, or infecting wild relatives with their altered DNA.
Now ask yourself: If such a technology existed, should policymakers encourage its adoption, or ban it due to the risks? And if you chose the former alternative, how should crops developed by this method be regulated?
In fact, this technology does exist, though its use remains mostly experimental. It's called gene editing, and in the past five years it has emerged as a potentially revolutionary force in many areas—among them, treating cancer and genetic disorders; growing transplantable human organs in pigs; controlling malaria-spreading mosquitoes; and, yes, transforming agriculture. Several versions are currently available, the newest and nimblest of which goes by the acronym CRISPR.
Gene editing is far simpler and more efficient than older methods used to produce genetically modified organisms (GMOs). Unlike those methods, moreover, it can be used in ways that leave no foreign genes in the target organism—an advantage that proponents argue should comfort anyone leery of consuming so-called "Frankenfoods." But debate persists over what precautions must be taken before these crops come to market.
Recently, two of the world's most powerful regulatory bodies offered very different answers to that question. The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) declared in March 2018 that it "does not currently regulate, or have any plans to regulate" plants that are developed through most existing methods of gene editing. The Court of Justice of the European Union (ECJ), by contrast, ruled in July that such crops should be governed by the same stringent regulations as conventional GMOs.
Some experts suggest that the broadly permissive American approach and the broadly restrictive EU policy are equally flawed.
Each announcement drew protests, for opposite reasons. Anti-GMO activists assailed the USDA's statement, arguing that all gene-edited crops should be tested and approved before marketing. "You don't know what those mutations or rearrangements might do in a plant," warned Michael Hansen, a senior scientist with the advocacy group Consumers Union. Biotech boosters griped that the ECJ's decision would stifle innovation and investment. "By any sensible standard, this judgment is illogical and absurd," wrote the British newspaper The Observer.
Yet some experts suggest that the broadly permissive American approach and the broadly restrictive EU policy are equally flawed. "What's behind these regulatory decisions is not science," says Jennifer Kuzma, co-director of the Genetic Engineering and Society Center at North Carolina State University, a former advisor to the World Economic Forum, who has researched and written extensively on governance issues in biotechnology. "It's politics, economics, and culture."
The U.S. Welcomes Gene-Edited Food
Humans have been modifying the genomes of plants and animals for 10,000 years, using selective breeding—a hit-or-miss method that can take decades or more to deliver rewards. In the mid-20th century, we learned to speed up the process by exposing organisms to radiation or mutagenic chemicals. But it wasn't until the 1980s that scientists began modifying plants by altering specific stretches of their DNA.
Today, about 90 percent of the corn, cotton and soybeans planted in the U.S. are GMOs; such crops cover nearly 4 million square miles (10 million square kilometers) of land in 29 countries. Most of these plants are transgenic, meaning they contain genes from an unrelated species—often as biologically alien as a virus or a fish. Their modifications are designed primarily to boost profit margins for mechanized agribusiness: allowing crops to withstand herbicides so that weeds can be controlled by mass spraying, for example, or to produce their own pesticides to lessen the need for chemical inputs.
In the early days, the majority of GM crops were created by extracting the gene for a desired trait from a donor organism, multiplying it, and attaching it to other snippets of DNA—usually from a microbe called an agrobacterium—that could help it infiltrate the cells of the target plant. Biotechnologists injected these particles into the target, hoping at least one would land in a place where it would perform its intended function; if not, they kept trying. The process was quicker than conventional breeding, but still complex, scattershot, and costly.
Because agrobacteria can cause plant tumors, Kuzma explains, policymakers in the U.S. decided to regulate GMO crops under an existing law, the Plant Pest Act of 1957, which addressed dangers like imported trees infested with invasive bugs. Every GMO containing the DNA of agrobacterium or another plant pest had to be tested to see whether it behaved like a pest, and undergo a lengthy approval process. By 2010, however, new methods had been developed for creating GMOs without agrobacteria; such plants could typically be marketed without pre-approval.
Soon after that, the first gene-edited crops began appearing. If old-school genetic engineering was a shotgun, techniques like TALEN and CRISPR were a scalpel—or the search-and-replace function on a computer program. With CRISPR/Cas9, for example, an enzyme that bacteria use to recognize and chop up hostile viruses is reprogrammed to find and snip out a desired bit of a plant or other organism's DNA. The enzyme can also be used to insert a substitute gene. If a DNA sequence is simply removed, or the new gene comes from a similar species, the changes in the target plant's genotype and phenotype (its general characteristics) may be no different from those that could be produced through selective breeding. If a foreign gene is added, the plant becomes a transgenic GMO.
Companies are already teeing up gene-edited products for the U.S. market, like a cooking oil and waxy corn.
This development, along with the emergence of non-agrobacterium GMOs, eventually prompted the USDA to propose a tiered regulatory system for all genetically engineered crops, beginning with an initial screening for potentially hazardous metaboloids or ecological impacts. (The screening was intended, in part, to guard against the "off-target effects"—stray mutations—that occasionally appear in gene-edited organisms.) If no red flags appeared, the crop would be approved; otherwise, it would be subject to further review, and possible regulation.
The plan was unveiled in January 2017, during the last week of the Obama presidency. Then, under the Trump administration, it was shelved. Although the USDA continues to promise a new set of regulations, the only hint of what they might contain has been Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue's statement last March that gene-edited plants would remain unregulated if they "could otherwise have been developed through traditional breeding techniques, as long as they are not plant pests or developed using plant pests."
Because transgenic plants could not be "developed through traditional breeding techniques," this statement could be taken to mean that gene editing in which foreign DNA is introduced might actually be regulated. But because the USDA regulates conventional transgenic GMOs only if they trigger the plant-pest stipulation, experts assume gene-edited crops will face similarly limited oversight.
Meanwhile, companies are already teeing up gene-edited products for the U.S. market. An herbicide-resistant oilseed rape, developed using a proprietary technique, has been available since 2016. A cooking oil made from TALEN-tweaked soybeans, designed to have a healthier fatty-acid profile, is slated for release within the next few months. A CRISPR-edited "waxy" corn, designed with a starch profile ideal for processed foods, should be ready by 2021.
In all likelihood, none of these products will have to be tested for safety.
In the E.U., Stricter Rules Apply
Now let's look at the European Union. Since the late 1990s, explains Gregory Jaffe, director of the Project on Biotechnology at the Center for Science in the Public Interest, the EU has had a "process-based trigger" for genetically engineered products: "If you use recombinant DNA, you are going to be regulated." All foods and animal feeds must be approved and labeled if they consist of or contain more than 0.9 percent GM ingredients. (In the U.S., "disclosure" of GM ingredients is mandatory, if someone asks, but labeling is not required.) The only GM crop that can be commercially grown in EU member nations is a type of insect-resistant corn, though some countries allow imports.
European scientists helped develop gene editing, and they—along with the continent's biotech entrepreneurs—have been busy developing applications for crops. But European farmers seem more divided over the technology than their American counterparts. The main French agricultural trades union, for example, supports research into non-transgenic gene editing and its exemption from GMO regulation. But it was the country's small-farmers' union, the Confédération Paysanne, along with several allied groups, that in 2015 submitted a complaint to the ECJ, asking that all plants produced via mutagenesis—including gene-editing—be regulated as GMOs.
At this point, it should be mentioned that in the past 30 years, large population studies have found no sign that consuming GM foods is harmful to human health. GMO critics can, however, point to evidence that herbicide-resistant crops have encouraged overuse of herbicides, giving rise to poison-proof "superweeds," polluting the environment with suspected carcinogens, and inadvertently killing beneficial plants. Those allegations were key to the French plaintiffs' argument that gene-edited crops might similarly do unexpected harm. (Disclosure: Leapsmag's parent company, Bayer, recently acquired Monsanto, a maker of herbicides and herbicide-resistant seeds. Also, Leaps by Bayer, an innovation initiative of Bayer and Leapsmag's direct founder, has funded a biotech startup called JoynBio that aims to reduce the amount of nitrogen fertilizer required to grow crops.)
The ruling was "scientifically nonsensical. It's because of things like this that I'll never go back to Europe."
In the end, the EU court found in the Confédération's favor on gene editing—though the court maintained the regulatory exemption for mutagenesis induced by chemicals or radiation, citing the 'long safety record' of those methods.
The ruling was "scientifically nonsensical," fumes Rodolphe Barrangou, a French food scientist who pioneered CRISPR while working for DuPont in Wisconsin and is now a professor at NC State. "It's because of things like this that I'll never go back to Europe."
Nonetheless, the decision was consistent with longstanding EU policy on crops made with recombinant DNA. Given the difficulty and expense of getting such products through the continent's regulatory system, many other European researchers may wind up following Barrangou to America.
Getting to the Root of the Cultural Divide
What explains the divergence between the American and European approaches to GMOs—and, by extension, gene-edited crops? In part, Jennifer Kuzma speculates, it's that Europeans have a different attitude toward eating. "They're generally more tied to where their food comes from, where it's produced," she notes. They may also share a mistrust of government assurances on food safety, borne of the region's Mad Cow scandals of the 1980s and '90s. In Catholic countries, consumers may have misgivings about tinkering with the machinery of life.
But the principal factor, Kuzma argues, is that European and American agriculture are structured differently. "GM's benefits have mostly been designed for large-scale industrial farming and commodity crops," she says. That kind of farming is dominant in the U.S., but not in Europe, leading to a different balance of political power. In the EU, there was less pressure on decisionmakers to approve GMOs or exempt gene-edited crops from regulation—and more pressure to adopt a GM-resistant stance.
Such dynamics may be operating in other regions as well. In China, for example, the government has long encouraged research in GMOs; a state-owned company recently acquired Syngenta, a Swiss-based multinational corporation that is a leading developer of GM and gene-edited crops. GM animal feed and cooking oil can be freely imported. Yet commercial cultivation of most GM plants remains forbidden, out of deference to popular suspicions of genetically altered food. "As a new item, society has debates and doubts on GMO techniques, which is normal," President Xi Jinping remarked in 2014. "We must be bold in studying it, [but] be cautious promoting it."
The proper balance between boldness and caution is still being worked out all over the world. Europe's process-based approach may prevent researchers from developing crops that, with a single DNA snip, could rescue millions from starvation. EU regulations will also make it harder for small entrepreneurs to challenge Big Ag with a technology that, as Barrangou puts it, "can be used affordably, quickly, scalably, by anyone, without even a graduate degree in genetics." America's product-based approach, conversely, may let crops with hidden genetic dangers escape detection. And by refusing to investigate such risks, regulators may wind up exacerbating consumers' doubts about GM and gene-edited products, rather than allaying them.
"Science...can't tell you what to regulate. That's a values-based decision."
Perhaps the solution lies in combining both approaches, and adding some flexibility and nuance to the mix. "I don't believe in regulation by the product or the process," says CSPI's Jaffe. "I think you need both." Deleting a DNA base pair to silence a gene, for example, might be less risky than inserting a foreign gene into a plant—unless the deletion enables the production of an allergen, and the transgene comes from spinach.
Kuzma calls for the creation of "cooperative governance networks" to oversee crop genome editing, similar to bodies that already help develop and enforce industry standards in fisheries, electronics, industrial cleaning products, and (not incidentally) organic agriculture. Such a network could include farmers, scientists, advocacy groups, private companies, and governmental agencies. "Safety isn't an all-or-nothing concept," Kuzma says. "Science can tell you what some of the issues are in terms of risk and benefit, but it can't tell you what to regulate. That's a values-based decision."
By drawing together a wide range of stakeholders to make such decisions, she adds, "we're more likely to anticipate future consequences, and to develop a robust approach—one that not only seems more legitimate to people, but is actually just plain old better."
The Friday Five covers five stories in health research that you may have missed this week. There are plenty of controversies and troubling ethical issues in science – and we get into many of them in our online magazine – but this news roundup focuses on scientific creativity and progress to give you a therapeutic dose of inspiration headed into the weekend.
Listen to the Episode
Covered in this week's Friday Five:
- A new blood test for cancer
- Patches of bacteria can use your sweat to power electronic devices
- Researchers revive organs of dead pigs
- Phone apps detects cancer-causing chemicals in foods
- Stem cells generate "synthetic placentas" in mice
Plus, an honorable mention for early research involving vitamin K and Alzheimer's
The doctor will sniff you now? Well, not on his or her own, but with a device that functions like a superhuman nose. You’ll exhale into a breathalyzer, or a sensor will collect “scent data” from a quick pass over your urine or blood sample. Then, AI software combs through an olfactory database to find patterns in the volatile organic compounds (VOCs) you secreted that match those associated with thousands of VOC disease biomarkers that have been identified and cataloged.
No further biopsy, imaging test or procedures necessary for the diagnosis. According to some scientists, this is how diseases will be detected in the coming years.
All diseases alter the organic compounds found in the body and their odors. Volatolomics is an emerging branch of chemistry that uses the smell of gases emitted by breath, urine, blood, stool, tears or sweat to diagnose disease. When someone is sick, the normal biochemical process is disrupted, and this alters the makeup of the gas, including a change in odor.
“These metabolites show a snapshot of what’s going on with the body,” says Cristina Davis, a biomedical engineer and associate vice chancellor of Interdisciplinary Research and Strategic Initiatives at the University of California, Davis. This opens the door to diagnosing conditions even before symptoms are present. It’s possible to detect a sweet, fruity smell in the breath of someone with diabetes, for example.
Hippocrates may have been the first to note that people with certain diseases give off an odor but dogs provided the proof of concept. Scientists have published countless studies in which dogs or other high-performing smellers like rodents have identified people with cancer, lung disease or other conditions by smell alone. The brain region that analyzes smells is proportionally about 40 times greater in dogs than in people. The noses of rodents are even more powerful.
Take prostate cancer, which is notoriously difficult to detect accurately with standard medical testing. After sniffing a tiny urine sample, trained dogs were able to pick out prostate cancer in study subjects more than 96 percent of the time, and earlier than a physician could in some cases.
But using dogs as bio-detectors is not practical. It is labor-intensive, complicated and expensive to train dogs to bark or lie down when they smell a certain VOC, explains Bruce Kimball, a chemical ecologist at the Monell Chemical Senses Center in Philadelphia. Kimball has trained ferrets to scratch a box when they smell a specific VOC so he knows. The lab animal must be taught to distinguish the VOC from background odors and trained anew for each disease scent.
In the lab of chemical ecologist Bruce Kimball, ferrets were trained to scratch a box when they identified avian flu in mallard ducks.
Glen J. Golden
There are some human super-smellers among us. In 2019, Joy Milne of Scotland proved she could unerringly identify people with Parkinson’s disease from a musky scent emitted from their skin. Clinical testing showed that she could distinguish the odor of Parkinson’s on a worn t-shirt before clinical symptoms even appeared.
Hossam Haick, a professor at Technion-Israel Institute of Technology, maintains that volatolomics is the future of medicine. Misdiagnosis and late detection are huge problems in health care, he says. “A precise and early diagnosis is the starting point of all clinical activities.” Further, this science has the potential to eliminate costly invasive testing or imaging studies and improve outcomes through earlier treatment.
The Nose Knows a Lot
“Volatolomics is not a fringe theory. There is science behind it,” Davis stresses. Every VOC has its own fingerprint, and a method called gas chromatography-mass spectrometry (GCMS) uses highly sensitive instruments to separate the molecules of these VOCs to determine their structures. But GCMS can’t discern the telltale patterns of particular diseases, and other technologies to analyze biomarkers have been limited.
We have technology that can see, hear and sense touch but scientists don’t have a handle yet on how smell works. The ability goes beyond picking out a single scent in someone’s breath or blood sample. It’s the totality of the smell—not the smell of a single chemical— which defines a disease. The dog’s brain is able to infer something when they smell a VOC that eludes human analysis so far.
Odor is a complex ecosystem and analyzing a VOC is compounded by other scents in the environment, says Kimball. A person’s diet and use of tobacco or alcohol also will affect the breath. Even fluctuations in humidity and temperature can contaminate a sample.
If successful, a sophisticated AI network can imitate how the dog brain recognizes patterns in smells. Early versions of robot noses have already been developed.
With today’s advances in data mining, AI and machine learning, scientists are trying to create mechanical devices that can draw on algorithms based on GCMS readings and data about diseases that dogs have sniffed out. If successful, a sophisticated AI network can imitate how the dog brain recognizes patterns in smells.
In March, Nano Research published a comprehensive review of volatolomics in health care authored by Haick and seven colleagues. The intent was to bridge gaps in the field for scientists trying to connect the biomarkers and sensor technology needed to develop a robot nose. This paper serves as a reference manual for the field that lists which VOCs are associated with what disease and the biomarkers in skin, saliva, breath, and urine.
Weiwei Wu, one of the co-authors and a professor at Xidian University in China, explains that creating a robotic nose requires the expertise of chemists, computer scientists, electrical engineers, material scientists, and clinicians. These researchers use different terms and methodologies and most have not collaborated before with the other disciplines. “The electrical engineers know the device but they don’t know as much about the biomarkers they need to detect,” Wu offers as an example.
This review is significant, Wu continues, because it can facilitate progress in the field by providing experts in all the disciplines with the basic knowledge needed to create an effective robot nose for diagnostic use. The paper also includes a systematic summary of the research methodology of volatolomics.
Once scientists build a stronger database of VOCs, they can program a device to identify critical patterns of specified diseases on a reliable basis. On a machine learning model, the algorithms automatically get better at diagnosing with each use. Wu envisions further tweaks in the next few years to make the devices smaller and consume less power.
A Whiff of the Future
Early versions of robot noses have already been developed. Some of them use chemical sensors to pick up smells in the breath or other body emission molecules. That data is sent through an electrical signal to a computer network for interpretation and possible linkage to a disease.
This electronic nose, or e-nose, has been successful in small pilot studies at labs around the world. At Ben-Gurion University in Israel, researchers detected breast cancer with electronic gas sensors with 95% accuracy, a higher sensitivity than mammograms. Other robot noses, called p-noses, use photons instead of electrical signals.
The mechanical noses being developed tap different methodologies and analytic techniques which makes it hard to compare them. Plus, the devices are intended for varying uses. One team, for example, is working on an e-nose that can be waved over a plate to screen for the presence of a particular allergen when you’re dining out.
A robot nose could be used as a real-time diagnostic tool in clinical practice. Kimball is working on one such tool that can distinguish between a viral and bacterial infection. This would enable physicians to determine whether an antibiotic prescription is appropriate without waiting for a lab result.
Davis is refining a hand-held device that identifies COVID-19 through a simple breath test. She sees the tool being used at crowded airports, sports stadiums and concert venues where PCR or rapid antigen testing is impractical. Background air samples are collected from the space so that those signals can be removed from the human breath measurement. “[The sensor tool] has the same accuracy as the rapid antigen test kits but exhaled breath is easier to collect,” she notes.
The NaNose, also known as the SniffPhone, uses tiny sensors boosted by AI to distinguish Alzheimer's, Crohn's disease, the early stages of several cancers, and other diseases with 84 to 98 percent accuracy.
Haick named his team’s robot nose, “NaNose,” since it is based on nanotechnology; the prototype is called the SniffPhone. Using tiny sensors boosted by AI, it can distinguish 23 diseases in human subjects with 84 to 98 percent accuracy. This includes early stages of several cancers, Alzheimer’s, tuberculosis and Crohn’s disease. His team has been raising the accuracy level by combining biomarker signals from both breath and skin, for example. The goal is to achieve 99.9 percent accuracy consistently so no other diagnostic tests would be needed before treating the patient. Plus, it will be affordable, he says.
Kimball predicts we’ll be seeing these diagnostic tools in the next decade. “The physician would narrow down what [the diagnosis] might be and then get the correct tool,” he says. Others are envisioning one device that can screen for multiple diseases by programming the software, which would be updated regularly with new findings.
Larger volatolomics studies must be conducted before these e-noses are ready for clinical use, however. Experts also need to learn how to establish normal reference ranges for e-nose readings to support clinicians using the tool.
“Taking successful prototypes from the lab to industry is the challenge,” says Haick, ticking off issues like reproducibility, mass production and regulation. But volatolomics researchers are unanimous in believing the future of health care is so close they can smell it.