Breakthrough tech takes plant breeding to new heights

It’s been described as the “biggest biotech discovery of the century” by MIT Technology Review and the “breakthrough of the year” by Science magazine. And its developers have already won the $3 million Breakthrough Prize in Life Sciences, which honours “transformative advances made toward understanding living systems and extending human life.”

The tech is called Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats, or CRISPR for short. It is a gene editing technology that is expected to revolutionize many areas of life, including agriculture. Huge investments are being made by plant breeders and seed companies for rights to use the technology.

Crops modified by CRISPR are already in the pipeline and may be available to commercial producers in some countries within the next few years.

CRISPR may even replace the genetic engineering techniques that gave the world GMO plants and foods. When asked if gene editing (of which CRISPER is one process) is a better technology than GMO, Dr.Dean Bushey, global regulatory manager for research at Bayer in Raleigh, North Carolina, says that gene editing is more efficient. “Gene editing enables scientists to make specific, targeted deletion, edits or insertions to the plant genome and know what will happen. It allows more precise changes to the plant.”

Bushey describes gene editing as a natural progression in plant breeding. He explains how early farmers selected seed for the next crop by saving the seed from the biggest and best plants. Better scientific methods led to plant crossbreeding to achieve desired traits.

Most recently, transgenic insertions and genetic modification have been used to introduce new traits in plants such as herbicide and insect resistance. Today’s CRISPER technology allows breeders to target and modify specific, individual genes. “Gene editing is the next evolution in plant breeding,” says Bushey.

So just what is CRISPR?

Simply put, the use of CRISPR technology in plant breeding could be compared to the way a modern word processor allows writers to edit their work. Historically, when handwritten scrolls were the only available medium, making a mistake or any changes meant the entire scroll would have to be replaced. With the introduction of type, new information could be added or corrections made by rewriting only a portion of a book or newspaper. But even a small change meant re-typesetting the entire page in question before sending it to press.

Today, word processors allow writers to quickly and cleanly edit text by simply placing the cursor where they want to type in new copy, insert or delete a single letter, word or series of words, and even add effects, like italics and bullet points, to achieve the desired result before publication.

CRISPR works in a very similar way. If plant scientists can identify which gene (or genes) is responsible for regulating plant growth under drought conditions, for example, CRISPR allows them to target that specific gene and delete a gene segment, or edit it by enhancing or decreasing the action of that gene, or even insert a new section of DNA to make the plant more drought tolerant.

Instead of growing thousands of plants under drought conditions and hoping to find one that is more tolerant, CRISPR raises the bar so that all plants tested have more drought tolerance to begin with. However, Bushey points out that plant breeders still have to screen the offspring plants to make sure the changes they made to the genome does not impact any other growth factors, or that they don’t overlook other genes that may impact drought tolerance.

Bushey predicts the biggest initial benefit from CRISPR will be a hugely expanded pool of scientific knowledge. “We are going to learn a lot more about plants,” he says. “Plants have 20,000 to 30,000 genes and CRISPR will help us understand what each gene does.”

Still, this technology will provide measurable, tangible benefits for farmers. Bushey points out that instead of taking 10 to 12 years to bring a new trait to market, it could be achieved in five or six years. It will lower costs of research and development and enable many more researchers and breeders to produce more new and better products.

There are already new advances on the horizon.

Chinese scientists have used CRISPR to create a strain of wheat that’s resistant to powdery mildew. A U.S. company is testing drought-resistant corn and wheat strains. A new variety of corn is being grown which has unique starch properties. A new canola variety has been developed with a different mode of herbicide resistance. Penn State has created a non-browning mushroom. All of these developments have been done without transgenics, allowing the new plants to be classified as non-GMO. CRISPR is also being tested in rice, soybeans, potatoes, sorghum, oranges and tomatoes. Livestock producers are not being left out. In Scotland, CRISPR induced changes have given hogs resistance to a hemorrhagic virus. The technology has also been used to develop hornless dairy cows.

Regulation matters

Unfortunately, science is proceeding faster than regulation, or demand by consumers, for this new technology. As an industry, we run the same risk with CRISPR that happened with GMOs. A lack of knowledge about this technology, as well as a lack of acknowledgement and clarity by regulatory agencies around CRISPR could prevent farmers and consumers from reaping the benefits it offers agriculture. We need to learn a lesson from the introduction of GMOs that transparency is vital. Farmers need to understand and share the benefits CRISPR offers and how, by using this new technology, they can provide consumers with more, better and cheaper foods in the future.

Farmers need to proactively explain to consumers what they are doing and why. Farmers and researchers need to show that CRISPR derived products have been achieved through a process that mirrors the way nature changes the genome. All this must be done without making CRISPR developed plants and food products a special class.

Fortunately, this is the way CRISPR is currently being judged by regulatory bodies in North America. But this definition is under review, so now is the time farmers need to look at this technology, decide what it can offer, then tell researchers and regulators what they want this technology to do rather than simply accepting what is offered.


Further reading about CRISPR CRISPR Applications in Plants

Dirt to Dinner, Food Matters, CRISPR article:

CRISPR: A new toolbox for better crops