CRISPR with a Twist

With rising bioterrorism and other related threats, research at Kansas State University is leading the way in protecting soybean and other crops.

By Debbie Clayton

New soybean varieties resistant to multiple viruses and pathogens could be a reality for U.S. producers in just three years.

Key to this concept is research being conducted at Kansas State University with a nearly $1 million grant from the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), an arm of the U.S. Department of Defense. It all started when David Cook, an assistant professor in plant pathology at K-State, learned that California researchers applied the popular DNA-editing technique CRISPR-Cas9 to RNA in humans. He reasoned that the same technology could be applied to plants.

While DNA is better known as the genetic road map for all living organisms, the lesser-known RNA (or ribonucleic acid) is just as important. It acts as a messenger communicating genetic information from the nucleus to the rest of the cell. The ability to efficiently target RNA in living cells eluded scientists until recently.

CRISPR—short for “clustered regularly interspersed short palindromic repeats”—has exploded in the past few years as a way to edit DNA. When researchers also began to use it for RNA, a light bulb went off in Cook’s brain. He secured the grant from DARPA because the defense group has been funding more projects in agriculture with an eye toward protecting the country from acts of bioterrorism and related threats.

Soybean varieties resulting from Cook’s research would be classified as genetically modified organisms, and so would be intensely scrutinized before becoming available to farmers. Once that happens, the same technology could protect many other major crops against viruses and pathogens. And that should give farmers something to smile about.

For an earlier FarmLife article on CRISPR, see