When people mention CRISPR, they’re usually breathless over its potential to cure diseases like sickle cell anemia and muscular dystrophy. But CRISPR’s most promising application might not be in health care. It might be in food.
Before CRISPR, adding a trait like insect resistance to a plant was imprecise, slow, and costly. Traditional breeding methods introduce unwanted characteristics; GMO technology that inserts genes from other organisms comes with regulatory hurdles and public blowback. With CRISPR, scientists can tweak only the genes they need without introducing foreign DNA. The biotechnology company Calyxt, working on CRISPRed products like high-fiber wheat, estimates that with typical GMO technology, its products would take 13 years to reach the market. With genome editing? Three to six years.
That’s why Jennifer Doudna, one of the inventors of CRISPR technology, has said she believes CRISPR’s swiftest impact will be on agriculture. Doudna now directs the Innovative Genomics Institute (IGI), a collaboration between UC Berkeley and UC San Francisco that is researching various applications of CRISPR and their ethical and societal implications. (I work part-time as a writer for UCSF Medical Center, but it has no connection to IGI.)
IGI’s agriculture team is grappling with a problem that researchers across the world are frantically trying to solve: how will we feed 10 billion people in 2050, using roughly the same amount of land as now, even as climate change stresses many agricultural regions?
One example of a crop whose yield can be significantly improved is cassava, a staple for 800 million people worldwide. The root and leaves of the shrub contain cyanide, and the crop has to be processed carefully to be safe. Using CRISPR, IGI scientists are silencing the cassava genes responsible for cyanide production.
Many scientists believe the technology will ultimately be liberating, letting them target problems without needing funding from powerful companies.
“If we can model what’s happening in climate change, we can get in front of it and say, ‘Hey, in this area, we’re going to need this cultivar of rice to be resistant to this type of pathogen because temperatures are going to rise 1.5 degrees,’” said Susan Jenkins, IGI’s managing director. “It’s nice to finally be in a place at the technology level where it’s not science fiction.”
CRISPR could also help chocolate producers in their long battle against the deadly swollen shoot virus, which can kill a cacao tree within three years. The disease has forced one large cacao-exporting country, Ghana, to cut down 200 million trees since 1946. Since CRISPR was originally used by bacteria as a shield against viruses, IGI researchers are testing whether it could be used to give cacao resistance against swollen shoot virus. The project is partially funded by Mars Inc., which previously bankrolled research to map the cacao genome.
Other pantry staples are receiving similar genetic tweaks. There are scientists creating tastier beer by using CRISPR’s precision to adjust mercurial yeast strains. In 2016, a Swedish scientist gleefully chronicled his journey growing and eating CRISPRed cabbage.
In Diane Beckles’ lab at UC Davis, she’s changing the genes in potatoes to make them harder for our bodies to break down into sugar. When could we be eating mashed potatoes made from Beckles’ healthier spuds? “My timeline is very aggressive,” she said. “I’m hoping five to 10 years, maybe even sooner.”
That estimate could depend on whether consumers and regulators see CRISPR technology as fundamentally different from transgenic GMOs, which make use of genes transferred between organisms. In 2016, the U.S. Department of Agriculture said it wouldn’t be regulating a non-browning mushroom created with CRISPR as a GMO, making it easier for gene-edited foods to end up on grocery store shelves. The agency reiterated that position in March, and the EU seems poised to take a similar stance. But there are anti-CRISPR rumblings. The influential Non-GMO Project recently equated CRISPR with GMO technology. A French petition in 2016 called for more CRISPR regulation to stop what it calls “GMO babies.”
Another point of contention is that giant seed companies like Monsanto and DuPont are already sniffing around the technology, making some fear that genome editing will only strengthen those companies’ control over our food systems. (DuPont has debuted a series of efforts to convince consumers of CRISPR’s harmlessness, including a website featuring smiling families examining CRISPR-edited corn.)
“Twenty years ago, we would dream of all these things.”
Yet many scientists believe the technology will ultimately be liberating, as its cheapness and simplicity lets them target problems without needing funding from those powerful companies.
“As a student 20 years ago, we would dream of all these things—how we would modify a plant, how we could make it better, how we could make it more useful, how we could reduce waste. The reason we’re so excited about gene editing is that we actually can see light at the end of the tunnel,” says Beckles. “Some of this knowledge we’ve accumulated over the years can be applied and can enter into a pipeline that could make it into the supermarket. Right now, we have lots of reasons to be optimistic.”