Matt Ridley looks at the vastly improved editing tools becoming available for DNA manipulation:
Little wonder that precision genetic engineering has taken a while to arrive. In truth, it has been moving steadily toward greater precision for 10,000 years. Early farmers in what’s now Turkey introduced a mutation to wheat plants in the “Q gene” on chromosome 5A, which made the seed-head less brittle and the seed husks easier to harvest efficiently.
They did so unknowingly, of course, by selecting from among random mutations.
Fifty years ago, scientists used a nuclear reactor to fire gamma rays at barley seeds, scrambling some of their genes. The result was “Golden Promise,” a high-yielding, low-sodium barley variety popular with (ironically) organic farmers and brewers. Again, the gene editing was random, the selection afterward nonrandom.
Twenty years ago, scientists inserted specific sequences for four enzymes into rice plants so that they would synthesize vitamin A and relieve a deadly vitamin deficiency-the result being “golden rice.” This time the researchers knew exactly what letters they were putting in but had no idea where they would end up.