What’s CRISPR – and what’s it doing in our food?

By Gastropod
11th October 2019
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You’ve probably heard the hype: CRISPR will revolutionise biotechcure diseaseresurrect extinct species, and even create new-and-(not-so)-improved humans. But what is CRISPR—and what’s it doing in our food?

The first generation of genetically modified crops, or GMOs, were labelled “Frankenfoods” by critics and are banned in the European Union. Can CRISPR succeed where fish-tomatoes failed? And what’s yoghurt got to do with it? Listen in this episode for the CRISPR story you haven’t heard—and for a taste of our CRISPRized future.

When old-school genetic modification began in the 1980s, scientists typically took a gene that conferred desirable properties in one species—say, cold-tolerance in a winter flounder—and blasted it into the genome of another species—say, a tomato.

The hope was that the alien gene would be incorporated, albeit at random, in the host plant’s DNA—and that the resulting hybrid would gain a useful new function. Frost-resistant fish-tomatoes, as it happens, were not particularly successful in field trials, but they also became a symbol for everything that critics—of which there were many—saw as wrong with genetically modified foods.

Next-generation gene-editing, using CRISPR, promises to be far more precise, faster, and cheaper. As Jennifer Kuzma, co-director of the Genetic Engineering and Society Center at North Carolina State University, explained it to Gastropod, if DNA is a book, CRISPR is like a pen.

“You can go in and you can edit the letters in a word, or you can change different phrases, or you can edit whole paragraphs at very specific locations,” she said. “Whereas with first-generation transgenic techniques, it was essentially throwing a new paragraph into a book.”

CRISPR proponents such as Yiping Qi, a genetics researcher at the University of Maryland, say this new tool promises to transform agriculture. Researchers are already using it to edit a much wider variety of foods—not just commodity crops such as soy and corn, but also more minor vegetable and fruits.

“CRISPR has been put into many, many crops—nearly all the crop plants that you can transform,” said Qi, whose lab has already used the technology to dramatically raise yields in rice, but also tweak the color of carrots. And, whereas the majority of first-generation GMOs were simply designed to be herbicide resistant, Kuzma told us that CRISPR is being used to create a much wider variety of traits, “because you don’t need to invest as much money necessarily in the development of the crop.”

None of these CRISPRized crops are on supermarket shelves just yet, but several are coming soon. To understand how CRISPR will transform our food, we begin our episode at Dupont’s yoghurt culture facility in Madison, Wisconsin. Senior scientist Dennis Romero tells us the story of CRISPR’s accidental discovery—and its undercover but ubiquitous presence in the dairy aisles today.

Jennifer Kuzma and Yiping Qi help us understand the technology’s potential, both good and bad, as well as how it might be regulated and labeled.

And Joyce Van Eck, a plant geneticist at the Boyce Thompson Institute in Ithaca, New York, tells us the story of how she is using CRISPR, combined with her understanding of tomato genetics, to fast-track the domestication of one of the Americas’ most delicious orphan crops.

So: should we be worried about CRISPR’s unintended consequences for the environment and human health, or excited about what it means for the future of food? Will we all soon be eating CRISPRized dishes—or are we already, and we just don’t know it? Listen in now for the CRISPR story you haven’t heard!

Episode Notes

DENNIS ROMERO, DUPONT

Dennis Romero is principal senior scientist and technical fellow at DuPont, where he leads research and development in the company’s dairy cultures business.

JOYCE VAN ECK

Joyce Van Eck is associate professor at the Boyce Thompson Institute in Ithaca, New York, where she directs the BTI Center for Plant Biotechnology Research. You can find out more about her ground cherry improvement project online here. And you can read Cynthia’s article about ground cherries, written soon after she tried her first one back in 2007, here.

YIPING QI

Yiping Qi is assistant professor in the plant sciences department at the University of Maryland. Earlier this year he published a paper titled “The emerging and uncultivated potential of CRISPR technology in plant science.”

JENNIFER KUZMA

Jennifer Kuzma is a professor in the School of Public and International Affairs at North Carolina State University, where she also co-directs the Genetic Engineering and Society Center.

Thumbnail Photo by chuttersnap on Unsplash

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