Can CRISPR Carry Agriculture Innovation To The Next Level?

Illustration of CRISPR-Cas9
Cas9 seeks out certain sections of DNA chains to “clip out” undesirable traits, and in some cases, add in new desirable attributes.
Illustration courtesy of UC Berkeley

For years, the discussion surrounding genetics in agriculture focused on the use of GMOs and transgenics. With it came controversy about the safety and processes used to genetically modify crops. Despite scientific consensus that GMOs are safe, the debate continues.

But, as is often the case, science marches forward and a new genetics breakthrough called CRISPR/Cas9 promises to supersede GMOs. The technology is making headlines already and will surely make more in the future.

The technique, which was discovered in 2012 by Jennifer Doudna, a Biochemist with UC Berkeley, and Emmanuelle Charpentier, a Microbiologist now at the Max Planck Institute for Infection Biology, is highly technical to describe. In layman’s terms, it allows DNA to be edited, turning off undesirable outcomes at the gene level. Desirable traits also can be added at the cellular level.

CRISPR is short for “clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats.” The technology is derived from the age-old battle between viruses and bacteria. Viruses attack bacteria and take them over. Sometimes bacteria survive an attack, and when they do, they save a copy of the DNA from the virus. The viral DNA is saved in the part of the bacteria called CRISPR. When the virus attacks the bacteria again, the bacteria arms the Cas9 protein with the bit of viral DNA. The Cas9 protein then moves throughout the cell looking for the attacking viral DNA. When it finds the matching viral DNA, the Cas9 essentially cuts the viral DNA, rendering it ineffective.

“One of the major advantages of CRISPR/Cas9 technology is that a gene can be knocked out,” says Dr. Wayne Hunter, a Research Entomologist at USDA’s Horticultural Research Laboratory in Ft. Pierce. “So, if a gene would normally produce a toxin or allergic protein, the plant would no longer be able to produce that protein. Plus, since no additional genetic material would be added — the plant would not be transgenic.”

And the process can be implemented quickly. In a New York Times article, geneticist Bruce Conklin said of the technology: “In the past, it was a student’s entire PhD thesis to change one gene. CRISPR just knocked that out of the park.”

Not only is the technique much faster than conventional breeding, it also is very versatile. The approach has worked in just about every cell type tested thus far — plant and animal.

And to grasp the rate at which researchers are studying CRISPR/Cas9, there were hardly any scientific publications on the technology in 2012. In 2014, there were more than 225 published.

To say CRISPR/Cas9 is every bit as revolutionary as the Internet or the smartphone is an understatement. Scientists are studying applications to fight cancers and it already has been demonstrated the technology can remove HIV from infected human cells. It comes with ethical questions as well for how this technology may benefit humans in the future. The idea of designer babies with reduced diseases linked to faulty genes, or the potential to slow or reverse the aging process may one day be possible using CRISPR/Cas9. Many more human health, animal, and plant applications are being investigated.

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