In a gleaming laboratory hidden from the highway by a Hampton Inn and a Denny's restaurant, a researcher with the biotech firm Calyxt works the controls of a boxy robot.

The robot whirs like an arcade claw machine, dropping blips of DNA into tubes with pipettes. It's building an enzyme that rewrites DNA - and transforming food and agriculture in the process.

Thanks to a cutting-edge technology called gene editing, scientists can now turn plant genes "on" and "off" almost as easily as Calyxt scientists flip a switch to illuminate the rows of tender soybean plants growing in their lab.

Calyxt's "healthier" soybean, the industry's first true gene-edited food, could make its way into products such as chips, salad dressings and baked goods by the end of this year.

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Unlike older genetic modification methods, the new techniques are precise, fast and inexpensive, and companies hope they will avoid the negative reputation and regulatory hurdles that hobbled the first generation of genetically modified foods.

But the speed of change has startled consumer and environmental groups, who say the new technology has not been adequately vetted, and they have petitioned regulators to add further safety reviews.

"This is hard stuff," said Federico Tripodi, Calyxt's chief executive. "Consumers accept that technology is good in many aspects of their lives, but technology and food has been something scary. We need to figure out how to engage in that conversation."

Calyxt's soybean is the first of 23 gene-edited crops the Agriculture Department has recognized to date.

Scientists at Calyxt, a subsidiary of the French pharmaceutical firm Cellectis, developed their soybean by turning "off" the genes responsible for the trans fats in soybean oil. Compared with the conventional version, Calyxt says, oil made from this soybean boasts far more "healthy" fats, and far less of the fats that raise bad cholesterol.

Tripodi likes to say the product is akin to olive oil but without the pungent flavour that would make it off-putting in Oreos or granola bars. It has earned praise from the Center for Science in the Public Interest, a consumer group that says public health will benefit from ingredients with less trans and saturated fats, regardless of how they were developed.

With the advent of gene editing, the pace of those crop improvements is accelerating, said Dan Voytas, Calyxt's chief science officer and a professor of biological sciences at the University of Minnesota.

"I never anticipated the speed at which the field developed," Voytas said, loping through the humid greenhouses where Calyxt is growing leafy jungles of experimental soybeans, wheat and canola.

Plant breeders have sought to improve crops since the dawn of agriculture. For centuries, farmers have bred their healthiest and highest-yielding plants to produce better offspring. In the 1980s, scientists also began to cut and paste DNA between species in what is known as genetic engineering.

That sparked a fierce backlash among American consumers, nearly 4 in 10 of whom believe genetically modified foods are bad for their health, according to a 2016 Pew Research Center report. Public concern about genetically modified organisms, or GMOs, has driven the growth of a multibillion-dollar non-GM food market and restricted their cultivation in Europe.

But scientists hope the public will prove less hostile to CRISPR and TALENs, the most prominent of the new gene-editing tools, because of their potential to improve taste and nutritional value.

Both work like tiny genetic scissors, snipping the double helix of a plant's DNA at specific, pre-coded spots. When the DNA heals itself, it sometimes deletes or scrambles the gene next to the break - effectively turning that gene "off."

Researchers are now working on adding new genetic code at the DNA break, and not merely deleting what's already there. They are also developing methods to edit multiple genes in a single plant, a goal some scientists say they can achieve within a few years. One startup, Inari Agriculture, is betting it can one day customize seeds to the conditions of the individual farm where they grow.

"I think that despite all the hype over gene editing, everybody but a few science fiction writers has underestimated the magnitude of the revolution they are ushering in," said Val Giddings, a senior fellow at the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation, a Washington-based think tank. "They will transform dramatically every aspect of the relationship between humans and our environment in overwhelmingly positive ways."

Scientists in university labs and at companies such as Calyxt are already designing plants that are more nutritious, convenient and sustainable, they say. Gene editing's low cost has empowered smaller players to compete in a field that has long been dominated by huge agribusiness companies.

Researchers at the Institute for Sustainable Agriculture in Cordoba, Spain, have come out with a strain of low-gluten wheat targeted to the booming gluten-free market. Pennsylvania State University has developed mushrooms that do not brown, and the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory has created tomatoes suited for shorter growing seasons.

Meanwhile, universities around the country are working on plants that will withstand droughts, diseases and the ravages of climate change. Such improvements, underway in crops as diverse as oranges, wine grapes and cacao, could protect these plants in the future while cutting down water and chemical use, experts say.

"We have some very real problems in agriculture right now," said Bernice Slutsky, senior vice president of domestic and international policy at the American Seed Trade Association. "Whether it's drought, or disease pressure, or climate change - this is a tool that helps efficiently address them."

A senior research associate works with samples in a Calyxt lab. Photo/Washington Post.
A senior research associate works with samples in a Calyxt lab. Photo/Washington Post.

But even as gene editing accelerates, some consumer and environmental groups have begun to fear that the field has outpaced regulators. Advocates and critics alike agree that the 30-year-old legal framework for vetting genetically modified crops has failed to keep pace with innovations such as CRISPR and TALENs.

Under current rules, the Agriculture Department does not require field tests or environmental assessments for many of these crops, the way it does for most conventional genetically modified organisms. That's because most of the gene-edited crops to date, such as Calyxt's soybean, do not contain foreign genetic material and were not made using the bacteria or viruses that scientists employed in the first-generation GMOs. The agency has said its authority extends only to those methods, because it's charged with protecting plants from infections and pests. In late July, Europe's top court came to the opposite conclusion, ruling that gene-edited crops should adhere to the same strict regulations as genetically modified organisms.

The Food and Drug Administration, meanwhile, does monitor the food safety and nutrition of gene-edited foods - but only if the food-maker requests a consultation. Calyxt has made no such request, according to the FDA. The agency is evaluating whether gene-edited foods carry additional safety risks.

Such changes are needed, said Jennifer Kuzma, a professor of genetic engineering and society at North Carolina State University, to reassure consumers that gene-edited food is safe. Of particular concern is a type of genetic glitch called an off-target edit, or an inadvertent change to a plant's DNA.

These glitches occur both in the lab and in nature but rarely escape breeders' notice, said Jeff Wolt, a recently retired professor of agronomy and toxicology at Iowa State University. If they did, however, the effects could prove dramatic: preventing growth, introducing allergens and toxins, or exposing the plant to disease. Plant researchers learned this the hard way in the late 1960s, when they developed a better frying potato that also inflicted severe nausea on anyone who ate it.

"We need a mandatory regulatory process: not just for scientific reasons, but for consumer and public confidence," Kuzma said. "I think the vast majority of gene-edited foods are going to be as safe as their conventionally bred counterparts. But I don't buy into the argument that's true all the time for every crop."

Consumer groups have also raised alarms over how gene-edited foods will be labeled. While Congress passed a law requiring food makers to disclose genetically modified ingredients in 2016, those rules will probably not apply to foods made with newer gene-editing techniques, said experts who had reviewed it. Calyxt has marketed its soybean oil to food-makers as "non-GMO," citing the fact that it contains no foreign genetic material.

But consumers are unlikely to accept this distinction, said Michael Hansen, a senior staff scientist at Consumers Union.

Hansen argues that GMOs developed a negative reputation in part because biotech companies botched public outreach in the 1980s and 1990s. Should businesses repeat that mistake, he said, consumers will reject a promising technology.

"I don't understand why the companies don't want to be labeled," Hansen said. "Not labeling gives the impression that they have something to hide. And consumer acceptance will depend on that."

But the seeds of change are already - literally - in the ground. One hour south of Calyxt's offices, the company's gene-edited soybeans blanket a long, sloping hill on 62-year-old Bob Braun's farm.

Braun is one of 75 farmers growing Calyxt beans this season on his 17,000 acres of farmland. By July, the plants are roughly knee-high and sporting pale lavender flowers. They are indistinguishable from the acres of soybeans that stretch in every direction, tufted with stands of trees and crisscrossed by gravel roads.

Within a few years, Braun predicts, consumers also won't be worried about the difference between gene-edited and conventional foods. It's the latest of several revolutions, he reasons, in modern agriculture.

"I think you can go back to any time in human history and find people who were afraid of change," he said. "When I was a kid, I used to hear the old-timers complaining about tractors."

- Washington Post