Crispr Wants to Feed the World

Ten years after his discovery, the implications of Crispr genome editing are profound and far-reaching, and we are only at the beginning. This tool, modeled after a bacterial immune system, allows us to cut and edit the genetic code in any living cell to make highly targeted changes and repairs. A small number of people with genetic diseases have been helped by Crispr therapies, highlighting the potential to impact the lives of people suffering from the approximately 7,000 genetic diseases with known causes. Studies are currently underway on diseases ranging from diabetes to infectious diseases.

In 2023 we will start to benefit from new Crispr-based solutions in other areas. For example, following the first results of clinical studies, the first agricultural applications with Crispr have recently hit the market: a US Food and Drug Administration-approved editing of bovine genes mimics and enables cows to have a smooth coat that occasionally occurs in nature to tolerate rising temperatures; A Crispr-processed tomato approved for sale in Japan has enhanced nutritional qualities. In other crops, Crispr is being used experimentally to increase yield, reduce pesticide and water use, and protect against disease.

The next area for Crispr innovation will be climate change, the defining battle of our time. In 2023, bold new efforts using Crispr to fight climate change will begin.

First, new research is aimed at reducing CO2 emissions from agriculture. Agriculture is responsible for about a quarter of all greenhouse gas emissions, and these mainly come from microbes found either in the soil, such as in paddy fields, or in the intestines of livestock. This new research focuses on how Crispr can be used to manipulate these microbes, or alter the composition of microbial communities to reduce or even eliminate greenhouse gas emissions.

Second, we find ways to improve the inherent ability of plants and microbes to capture and store carbon in the soil. Plants “breathe” carbon dioxide during photosynthesis and use it for energy, but normally the carbon is returned to the atmosphere fairly quickly. New research aims to work with plants and soil microbes to not only capture but also store carbon in the soil for long periods of time, replacing some of the soil carbon that has been lost in large quantities since the advent of modern agriculture.

Third, we are developing new ways to minimize farmer use such as fertilizers and pesticides, which have high carbon costs, as well as other environmental health costs. New Crispr research aims to edit staple crops like rice so they can grow with less fertilizer. Crispr can be used to make plants resistant to common pathogens and pests, reducing the need for high-carbon chemicals.

Finally, we must find ways to help agriculture cope with the magnitude of climate change that has already occurred or is inevitable. New research is using Crispr to engineer plants that can produce more food and other materials with less water and that are tolerant of extreme temperatures.

Much of the attention surrounding Crispr has focused on its medical applications, and with good reason: the results are promising, and the personal stories are uplifting and offer hope to many who have suffered from long-neglected genetic diseases. In 2023, when Crispr enters agriculture and climate, we have the opportunity to radically improve human health in holistic ways to better protect our society and help millions of people around the world thrive. Crispr Wants to Feed the World

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