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Aug. 4 Interview With USU Pres. Noelle Cockett

Tom Williams here with the Utah State University President Noelle Cockett with our weekly conversation here at UPR. President Cockett, thank you for joining us again. 

NC: Yes, my pleasure, Tom. 


TW: Well, today, we want to have you put on your science hat, your professor hat, your researcher hat. You've been involved, in fact, you've chaired the gene editing and agriculture Task Force. And now the task force is out with some recommendations. First of all, tell us what this task force is.


NC: So it's a collection of industry researchers and advocates for farm animal production. And a technology that has been under development for decades has now advanced to the level that we believe it could make very significant headway and advances in farm animal production. But it's been somewhat difficult to get approval for the animals that have been genetically edited with this new technology.


TW: I think four recommendations came out, at least that's what's being reported. I want to start with this one. I'll just read this. Recommendation to develop an evidence and logic-based decision making protocol for gene editing applications that is regulated separately from transgenic based GMOs that result from integration of recombinant DNA. I think we get confused about all this, right? So what's the difference between gene editing and GMOs?


NC: The GMOs genetically modified organisms. The technology for doing that was created about 25 years ago. And it used retroviruses to actually incorporate a synthetic segment of DNA into, whether it was zygote, the egg, or early stage embryo. And the GMO process, though, generally left behind some of that retrovirus DNA, something that wasn't natural to the animal. And so you could actually trace and identify animals that had been altered by the presence of that retrovirus. 


The feeling was that well, retroviruses exist in most species, so it shouldn't cause great harm to the subsequently produced animals. But it is something that isn't native to the animal, and is caused through the technique. So there were a lot of restrictions and requirements before an animal that was produced through these retroviruses could be approved for food consumption. Whether it was the animal itself, or its descendants, or even its surrogate mother. 


But in today's world, there's been a new technology, the CRISPR. And this is being used not only in plants, animals, but also in humans, to genetically edit the DNA. And instead of incorporating new DNA into the animal's DNA strand and potentially leaving behind some of this extra viral DNA, it actually is a system that has the enzymes that repair DNA. And so you add these enzymes, plus the strand of DNA you want to change, and it alters the DNA in a repair mechanism. So that now subsequent strands of DNA have that repaired sequence. 


So the CRISPR technique doesn't leave anything behind. It's not a splicing process. It's a repair process. That's why we call it genetic editing. Just like we edit manuscripts, we change the sentence or the word, we're changing the DNA sequence, using, not in manuscripts like white out or whatever, we're using these CRISPR enzymes to do it. So we believe that this new technique offers opportunity for actually changing the DNA sequence in a different way.


TW: Very interesting and potentially very impactful. We've been talking with Utah State University President Noelle Cockett and she is chair of the gene editing and agriculture task force, which is out with some recommendations. President Cockett, thank you so much.


NC: Yes, it's my pleasure. Thank you for your time, Tom.

Tom Williams worked as a part-time UPR announcer for a few years and joined Utah Public Radio full-time in 1996. He is a proud graduate of Uintah High School in Vernal and Utah State University (B. A. in Liberal Arts and Master of Business Administration.) He grew up in a family that regularly discussed everything from opera to religion to politics. He is interested in just about everything and loves to engage people in conversation, so you could say he has found the perfect job as host “Access Utah.” He and his wife Becky, live in Logan.