There are revolutionary developments happening in the world of molecular biology that could soon make their way to the farm or field.
That is, if society allows it.
Chances are you’ve seen a headline containing the terms ‘gene editing’ or ‘CRISPR’ in the last year or two. It likely involved a scientist excited about how this new technology could be used to eliminate a disease or to create a plant that overcomes a major threat.
“It’s so new nobody knows what to call it, but what we’re basically looking at is a way of making adjustments that are surgical, changing DNA inside plants to make changes we want to make in the places we want to make them, to change traits that are beneficial for farmers,” says Kevin Folta, chair of the Horticultural Sciences Department at the University of Florida, in the interview below.
Cheap and quick and easy to use relative to other genetic tools, targeted genome editing techniques are transforming how researchers develop better crop and livestock genetics.
Since it involves editing existing genes rather than introducing foreign DNA, there’s no discernible difference between a plant that’s been modified using the genome editing process and a plant developed through years of traditional breeding. That means it can’t be viewed through the conventional binary GMO/non-GMO lens, leaving anti-GMO activists and regulators figuring out how they should handle it.
Since it involves editing existing genes rather than introducing foreign DNA, there’s no discernible difference between a plant that’s been modified using the genome editing process and a plant developed through years of traditional breeding.
While it is different, Folta stresses there are lessons to be learned from the introduction of genetically engineered crops in the ’90s.
“I think it’s really important for farmers to get out in front of this discussion, because between scientists and farmers and others in the ag industries, we didn’t do it right with genetic engineering,” he says. “Here’s an opportunity to seize the moment, take this thing and make this well-known and understood as a precise way to increase the ability to have new traits, whether it’s in big ag, organic or whatever.”
Whether it’s getting rid of African swine fever in pigs, improving disease resistance in wheat or bananas, or treating sickle cell disease in humans, the discoveries made through gene editing are adding up quickly.
For example, California-based CIBUS has already introduced a sulfonylurea-tolerant canola variety — the first commercially available gene edited crop (not using CRISPR, but another technique known as RTDS.)
DuPont is collaborating with a company called Caribou Biosciences and has said it plans to make CRISPR-developed corn available to farmers as early as 2021. Monsanto — the poster company for GMOs — obtained the rights to use the CRISPR process last month.
Big companies like DuPont and Monsanto might profit from the technology, says Folta, “but the real beneficiaries will be people like the consumer, the environment and people in the developing world.”
Since it’s relatively cheap and doesn’t leave any genomic traces, the technology has quickly become widespread at the research level.
“We’re at a revolutionary time,” he says. “I think we’re going to look back on this in a few years from now and see the technology that changed everything, but that’s if we have the courage to use it.”
Check out the video above for more with Kevin Folta on gene editing and what it means for agriculture and food production.