CRISPR Will Shape the Future of Food

July 23, 2016 02:37 AM

Gene-editing technology is ultimate crop master key

There’s a technology revolution underway in agriculture. No hyperbole. CRISPR-Cas9 is pushing GMOs to the side and marching straight for the food system’s main stage.

The promise of technological change often smothers under a heaping weight of boilerplate and hackneyed praise. And yet, CRISPR-Cas9 is the genuine article: a transformative DNA-editing technology shaping the future of food.

Picture a plant genome as a book. A hefty tome of pages packed with letters and words. The master key to make changes? A simple computer file. Possess it, and gain access to a near infinite possibility of corrections, deletions and insertions. CRISPR-Cas9 is an editor for a plant with the ability to take out a gene, drop in a new gene or make subtle changes in one letter of the DNA sequence.

CRISPR (Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats) and Cas9 (CRISPR associated genes) doesn’t introduce foreign DNA as is typical with GMOs. Three months ago, USDA gave a green light to CRISPR-Cas9 mushrooms, gene-edited to delay browning by tossing out a bit of the DNA sequence. No regulation; no policing; no labels. 

“CRISPR-Cas9 is certainly one of the most exciting technologies for biotech in the past few decades,” says Rachel Haurwitz, CEO of Caribou Biosciences, a biotech company at the forefront of commercial CRISPR-Cas9 applications. “It can be used across so many organisms and sites, and all sorts of research.”

Most genome editing techniques work by designing proteins to act as molecular scissors to snip DNA at particular targets. A change in the target means a whole new protein must be designed to serve as the scissors. However, CRISPR’s protein is Cas9 and can be used repeatedly. Cas9 only needs a piece of RNA to guide it to the exact target in the genome. 

Designing a new protein takes two weeks to three months and more time for fine-tuning. But with Cas9, a researcher orders RNA and can have it in the lab in a couple of days. Off to the races toward a major reduction in the plant development timeline.

In addition to biology and medicine, CRISPR-Cas9 is broadly applicable to virtually any crop. Disease resistance, drought tolerance, yield, nutritional content, oil composition and much more are subject to boosts. 

DuPont Pioneer is working on CRISPR-Cas9 edited waxy corn and projects a finished hybrid, identical in high-performance to its elite hybrids, within five years, says Neal Gutterson, vice president of research and development. “CRISPR-Cas9 technology is the basis of a genuine advancement in plant breeding to bring products to market in a more efficient way,” he says. “When new pathogens show up, we can use our knowledge of corn biology to go find genes in the corn pool that offer disease resistance and bring them in directly to high-performing hybrids with CRISPR-Cas9 as the tool.”

CRISPR-Cas9 also addresses health needs in livestock. Caribou is partnering with UK-based Genus plc to use CRISPR-Cas9 in porcine and bovine breeding. “The first aim is to generate a line of pigs resistant to a virus for which there is currently no treatment,” Haurwitz says. 

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