The Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR), is bringing with it, a new era that is fusing the physical, digital and biological worlds with remarkable impacts on global economies, partly consolidating what is now known as bioeconomies. As breakthroughs in different fields (including artificial intelligence; autonomous vehicles; gene editing; the Internet of Things (IoT) and robotics, etc.), are creating waves of disruptions, governments, business managers and policy makers around the world are realigning strategic plans to ensure that appropriate policy adjustments are made in response to the paradigm shifts created by these technologies. Among them, the gene editing technology known as CRISPR easily stands out as the most powerful. CRISPR has been rightly recognized as a game changer in biotechnology industry due to the massive disruptions it is already creating. Although these breakthroughs emerge mainly from the US and Europe, Nigeria is easily a strategic destination and market for some of the products arising from them. This should not come as a surprise given that the country is among the fastest adopters of technologies in Africa, as exemplified by the high rate of adoption of mobile technology, where one of Africa’s leading hubs (Yabacon Valley-a suburb in Lagos) for high-tech innovation and development is located. The development of gene editing products would undoubtedly have a far-reaching consequence in Nigeria’s economy. So what is CRISPR?
CRISPR is an abbreviation of Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats. As the name suggests, it is a cluster of DNA sequences in bacteria that contains snippets of DNA from viruses which may have previously attacked that bacteria. In bacterial cells, these snippets are used to recognize and destroy DNA from the same or similar viruses if they attack that bacteria again. Just like the human immune system which “remembers” that it has been attacked by say, a virus, and takes measures to prevent the manifestation of symptoms. A remarkable feat in CRISPR is that the bacteria accumulate these snippets by physically changing the DNA sequence of the attacking virus and incorporating that into their own genomes. Although this “acquired immune system” operates in prokaryotes, scientists have successfully replicated its mechanistic operation in higher organisms including human cells. This means a CRISPR system may be designed in a cell such that the target DNA to be edited is a DNA that may cause disease, thus preventing that disease. CRISPR system works with a protein called CRISPR-associated protein 9, which is a kind of biological scissors that recognizes and cuts the DNA and for this, it is called CRISPR-Cas9.
The mechanism of CRISPR was first observed in 2007 in a yoghurt company, with a serendipitous identification of a defense mechanism by bacteria that fight viruses attacking them. Within the space of 10 years, CRISPR would emerge to dominate the scientific landscape, earning the medal of Science’s 2015 breakthrough of the year and lauded as the “holy grail” of genetic engineering.
The true power of CRISPR technology is best appreciated when used in tandem with yet another powerful biotech-based strategy known as gene drive, a phenomenon that allows scientists to manipulate how a given trait may be inherited even before offspring emerges. The combination of these techniques has already been used to eliminate malaria causing mosquito in laboratory.
For a country like Nigeria, which is home to ¼th of the African population, every single discovery and biotech-based product generated, would necessarily have an important policy implication. For example, the National Biosafety Management Agency (NBMA) is currently monitoring the confined field trials of genetically engineered cowpea (beans); sorghum and rice in Zaria and Badeggi respectively, as well as the environmental release trial of cotton in the cotton growing zones of the country: Abuja; Nassarawa; Kaduna; Gombe; Katsina; Niger; Osun; Ogun; Kano; Kebbi, etc. However, the United State Department of Agriculture (USDA) recently made it very clear that CRISPR-Cas edited crops can be cultivated and commercialized without the usually rigorous biosafety regulations that GE crops are subjected to. Between April 2016 and October 2017 alone, USDA conclusively approved the release of CRISPR-Cas Camelina sativa with increased omega-3 content; drought and salt-tolerant soybean; Setaria viridis (green bristle grass) with delayed flowering time; waxy corn with starch exclusively composed of amylopectin and white button mushroom with anti-browning properties.
The CRISPR system has demonstrated great potentials in addressing the following:
- Correcting genetic errors that cause diseases tested for treatment of heart disease.
- Designing super antibiotic that can kill microorganisms (tested on HIV).
- Bringing back species to life after they have gone extinct, essentially resurrecting them (tested on elephant mammoth).
- Can be used to create personalized, designer but healthier foods based on need (tested on tomato).
- Can be used to eradicate even the most dangerous pests (tested on malaria causing mosquito).
None of the genetically edited plants mentioned above was subjected to the laborious and often unnecessary processes that genetically engineered (GE) crops would normally have been subjected to. For edited Camelina for example, it would have taken six years and between $30-50 million to test and collect the data necessary for biosafety analysis, if it was generated through what we can now call conventional genetic engineering.
The policy implication of CRISPR crops for Nigeria is obvious: while the debate on the adoption of GE crops continuous, and the needless and embarrassing litigation praying for the ban of the commercial release of the crops under confined field trials goes on, CRISPR cowpea, cotton, cassava, rice and many more, will eventually find their ways into the Nigerian market and why not? While they are technically genetically engineered, they do not contain DNA from another organism and are therefore not the same as the vilified GMOs engineered using transgenic technologies (Agrobacterium/biolistic methods). Once again, a combination of weak system, anti-technology stance and a lack of foresight in taking charge of our science, technology and innovation agenda will shortchange our farmers, rob us of much needed jobs and hard earned foreign currency. Other CRISPR crops are likely to come from China, which has in fact tested the technology using human embryo to treat sickle cell anemia. Hopefully, the current government and leaderships at all levels will act swiftly. What can the government do?.
One key action in the right direction would be to convene a stakeholders’ workshop on CRISPR technologies and their disruptive implications to Nigeria’s economy. This will tease out the key entry point Nigeria can tap into and benefit from the technology in good time. It is therefore clear that the National Biotechnology Development Agency (NABDA), NBMA, the National Agency for Food and Drug Control (NAFDAC), the Consumers Protection Council(CPC); the Nigeria Agricultural Quarantine Service(NAQS); the National Agricultural Seed Council(NASC); the Genetics Society of Nigeria(GSN); the Agricultural Society of Nigeria(ASN) the Biotechnology Society of Nigeria (BSN), Non-Governmental Organizations, members of the academia, and indeed all stakeholders and policy makers in food and agro-allied products come together to discuss and develop coherent and evidence-based national strategies to address the challenges in the country’s biotechnology industry in the light of the emerging technologies brought about by 4IR, especially CRISPR-Cas gene editing techniques. These activities must always be guided by rational thinking and scientific evidence.
In the years to come, more revolutionary products will emerge especially with the explosion of bioentrepreneurship and biohacking in the US, which are setting the ground for what key players in the industry now see as the democratization of gene targeting/editing.
Nigeria must take leadership in formulating adequate policies, channelling appropriate R&D investments and developing competencies in CRISPR and related fields to confront this challenge in the grand scheme of things and in her move to make her population food and nutrition secure.
Abdulrazak Ibrahim, PhD teaches at the Department of Biochemistry, Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria, Nigeria. Email: [email protected]