If you’re not on board the CRISPR train, then I suggest you leave now. The bacterial defense system, whose long name is Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats, forms the basis of the genome editing technology called CRISPR-Cas9. Since its inception, the technology has made big strides in health by editing or silencing genes to fight diseases like sickle cell anemia and muscular dystrophy. Because of these accomplishments, most of us find ourselves in CRISPR’s corner.
Are we ready to take the technology to the next level, though? What about a completely different industry? CRISPR’s biggest impact could actually be in what and how we eat. If we accept it, that is.
With CRISPR, scientists can tweak only the genes they need without introducing foreign DNA. This could potentially change what nutrients we get from certain foods, take out the parts of the food that are bad for us, and even make it more widely available in new areas of the world. Since this is gene editing technology, though, that’s all going to come with some push back.
The Sequel to the GMO Argument
Back when GMOs (Genetically Modified Organisms) were first introduced, they were considered a godsend in the science field. By introducing genetically modified plants and animals into certain situations, scientists could cut out diseases and create healthier beings. Once GMOs were used to modify our crops, however, problems began to surface.
People were weirded out by the thought of science interfering with their food. Furthermore, because GMOs take so long to alter food, the use of pesticides and other agents has increased.
According to the Non-GMO Project: “More than 80% of all genetically modified crops grown worldwide have been engineered for herbicide tolerance. As a result, the use of toxic herbicides, such as Roundup®, has increased fifteenfold since GMOs were first introduced. In March 2015, the World Health Organization determined that the herbicide glyphosate (the key ingredient in Roundup®) is ‘probably carcinogenic to humans.'”
Many supporters of GMOs are adamant about pushing the benefits of CRISPR as well. While it may have taken a while for GMOs to properly alter food (roughly 13 years before reaching consumers), CRISPR only takes 3 years to accomplish the same goal. So, all-in-all, if we had to choose which option to use to create a more sustainable amount of healthier food, CRISPR is our best shot today.
Combating A Growing, Hungry Population
Jennifer Doudna, one of the creators of the CRISPR technology, claims the process could have a very swift impact on agriculture. In the next thirty years or so, the world’s population is expected to grow past 10 billion people. Here in 2018 we barely have enough food to go around or the resources to get it to those who need it the most, so what can we do now to help prevent the problems of the future?
The Innovative Genomics Institute (IGI), which is a collaboration between UC Berkeley and UC San Francisco that is researching various applications of CRISPR and their ethical and societal implications, is led by Doudna and a team of dedicated researchers who are looking for the best solutions to tomorrow’s problems. The biggest problem of all? How to use the same amount of land on Earth (or less if climate change doesn’t slow its roll) to feed 10 billion people.
The IGI team is using CRISPR technology to focus on a crop known as cassava. The root plant feeds about 800 million people, but it’s leaves and shrubs contain cyanide. Using CRISPR methods, the team is finding ways to silence the genes that help the plant produce cyanide in the first place. This will make it safer to eat and more sustainable to grow.
“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.”
The Next Generation is Ready for Change
Long gone are the days when sugary cereals and processed foods were seen as appetizing and the products of choice for an entire generation. Instead, we are more focused on what’s good for us and what is more sustainable.
Now that we have the technology to make a difference, there’s essentially no stopping those of us who want to create a better future for as many people as possible. Even if we aren’t around to enjoy it with them, it’s just as rewarding to know we made a positive impact on the world.
“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 Diane Beckles, who is using her lab at UC Davis to change certain genes in potatoes to make them harder for our bodies to break down into sugar. “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.”