CRISPR Crops Coming

A new gene-editing technology offers tremendous promise.

By Nancy Dorman-Hickson | Photos By Charlie Niebergall

A much-heralded bioengineering tool with a mind-boggling name promises to improve crop production. CRISPR (clustered regularly-interspaced short palindromic repeats) “are tools that allow you to change the genes within the plant,” explains Jeff Wolt, professor of agronomy and toxicology at Iowa State University. “They can be directed or targeted specifically within the plant to alter its characteristics.”

CRISPR is the cause of considerable excitement in biomedical research.

CRISPR is the cause of considerable excitement in biomedical research.

CRISPR is the cause of considerable excitement in biomedical research, due to a combination of its low cost—according to some sources as little as $30—and ease of use in a large array of organisms. “Science magazine called CRISPRs the 2015 breakthrough of the year, because they’re showing such remarkable use in a large number of fields,” says Wolt.

While CRISPR can help plants better control disease, deter pests, enhance storage properties and more, the process does not necessarily create genetically modified organisms (GMOs). “CRISPRs can be used in a wide number of different ways,” says Wolt. “Some will be considered transgenic (GMOs) and others will not.

“GMOs involve moving genetic elements from one species to another unrelated species,” says Wolt, who also works in Iowa State’s Biosafety Institute for Genetically Modified Agricultural Products. “You’re actually changing the genetic code at this very specific point within the genome of the plant.” With many applications of CRISPR, no foreign DNA is added or it is removed after the genome is edited to change genetic code.

He adds, “Editing with CRISPR oftentimes cannot be discriminated from natural processes. Because of that, regulators really aren’t evaluating the tool and the plants that are created from it in the same way they would GMOs.”

Some researchers have expressed concern, however. The twin factors of low cost and ease of use have led to worries that the technology could outrun ethical and safety considerations. According to an article in the scientific journal Nature, there are worries on the use of CRISPR on humans, and, “some scientists want to see more studies that probe whether the technique generates stray and potentially risky genome edits; others worry that edited organisms could disrupt entire ecosystems.”

Especially in plants, however, research has gone forward, working with a host of crops, including rice, wheat, barley, tomatoes, lettuce, sorghum and soybeans. Although we’re at the “leading edge of the technology,” Wolt says the ways the plants can be transformed using CRISPR seem “virtually limitless.

“It’s going to allow us to learn very quickly a lot more about plants and the way they respond to their environment. It’s also going to allow us to develop novel traits to use to protect plants.” He surmises a window of three to five years before farmers reap CRISPR benefits.

Wolt says plant breeders need to continue developing varieties that resist ever-evolving diseases and pests. “Genome editing allows that to be done more effectively than anything else we have available right now.”