First gene-edited meal served up from CRISPR cabbage

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This meal of pasta and fried vegetables marked the first time a plant had been cooked and eaten that had had its genome edited with the CRISPR-Cas9 tool(Credit: Stefan Jansson/Umea University)

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It's not often that two people sitting down to dinner marks a huge step forward for science, but that was the case when two men in Sweden tucked into a meal of pasta and fried vegetables recently. The historic ingredient? Cabbage that had had its genome edited with CRISPR-Cas9, making it the first time such a plant had been grown, harvested, cooked and eaten.

CRISPR genome editing is a revolutionary, relatively easy technique that allows scientists to make changes to the DNA of a living organism. Using it to remove certain genetic mutations could lead to the prevention of hereditary diseases, and scientists have already tested it with disorders like Duchenne muscular dystrophy, retina degeneration and even HIV. In plants, it could help improve crop resistance to pests or weather conditions, or increase the yield and nutritional value of foods.

The cabbage grown and served for this landmark meal had been edited to remove a protein called PsbS, "a so-called safety valve in photosynthesis." Stefan Jansson, a biology professor at Umea University in Sweden, planted and cultivated the crop in his own veggie patch, before serving it up for Gustaf Klarin, a local radio reporter. Along with the fried CRISPR cabbage, Jansson cooked up tagliatelle pasta, Swiss chard, snowpeas, cheese, onion and bruschetta bread, and apparently the meal was a rousing success.

"To our delight – and to some extent to my surprise – the meal turned out really nice, though," Jansson wrote in his blog, chronicling the event. "Both of us ate with great relish. Gustaf even thought the cabbage was the best tasting vegetable on the plate. And I agreed."

Making the meal particularly significant was the fact that this humble cabbage marked the first time in Europe that a gene-edited plant was permitted to be cultivated outside a lab. The regulations around genetically modified organisms (GMOs) in food products have been tricky to navigate, and plants that fall within the definition of a GMO effectively can't be grown in the field in Europe.

To overcome this, the team at Umea University appealed to the Swedish Board of Agriculture to allow its particular strain of cabbage to fall outside the definition of a GMO. And it worked: since the mutation that causes a lack of the PsbS protein is naturally occurring in some cases, simply intervening to deliberately switch it off is acceptable, as long as no foreign DNA is introduced.

If it sounds strange that an openly-edited organism can be classed as not a GMO, that's because it is. The researchers point out that their case highlights a flaw in the definition and regulations, and hope that it may lead authorities to loosen up. Jansson's meal may end up being the entree for a main course of sustainable GMO foods.

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