A global food crisis is looming. And the best place to address it could be in a scientist's lab.
The World Bank forecasts that by 2050, at least 50 percent more food will have to be produced to feed a world population that will have climbed from today's 7 billion to 9 billion; climate change, meanwhile, could cut crop yields by more than 25 percent in that same time frame.
What's a hungry planet to do? Well, imagine super-crops that could endure harsher, drier, and hotter growing conditions. Or crops that are impervious to fungus or disease. Others could be power breeders or pack more nutritional punch. Some might last longer before rotting.
That's the promise of CRISPR-Cas9 — CRISPR for short, or Clustered Regularly Interspaced Palindromic Repeats if you want to show off — the technology that is revolutionizing the field of genetic engineering with its speed, ease, and precision.
CRISPR debuted in 2012, but its power and potential have come into focus in the past few years. The tool was named Science's breakthrough of the year in 2015 and one of MIT Technology Review's 10 breakthroughs for 2016. Most researchers believe its biggest impact will be helping to accelerate the drug pipeline, but it has also received attention for accomplishments that range from the ethically challenging (editing human embryos for the first time) to the outlandish (tiny pigs created to be sold as pets).
Meanwhile, CRISPR's potential to reshape agriculture has been largely unsung — but is tremendous nonetheless.
In the past few years, research into CRISPR-edited crops has been steady. Chinese scientists endowed bread wheat with a resistance to powdery mildew. Japanese scientists extended tomatoes' life by turning off genes that help control ripening. And U.K. researchers targeted a gene that influences "pod shattering" in a broccoli-like vegetable called brassica, and a gene that affects grain dormancy in barley — in other words, both functions that increase the odds that a seed will grow. Other editing projects have focused on potatoes, soybeans, and rice.
How does it work? Many liken CRISPR's exacting abilities to the find-and-replace function on a computer; it homes in on the gene to be edited and then makes a change, whether a deletion, repair, or in some instances, an addition. "CRISPR ranks among the most powerful additions to biology's tool kit in the past half a century," Stephen S. Hall wrote in Scientific American. As it relates to agriculture, Hall points out that it is "the least biologically disruptive form of plant breeding that humans have ever devised."
Some companies are looking to transition from research to reality. Caribou Biosciences, the startup co-founded by one of the technology's inventors, Jennifer Doudna, last year partnered with DuPont. Their project: developing drought-resistant corn as well as wheat that can breed like a hybrid rather than self-pollinate (hybrids are more vigorous, and yields can increase by 10 to 15 percent). Testing in the field begins this spring. "We are talking about bringing products to market in five to 10 years," Neal Gutterson, vice president for agricultural biotechnology at DuPont Pioneer, told MIT Technology Review. "That is a pretty damn good time line compared to other technology."
The quicker timeline is possible because gene-edited crops have not been tagged by regulators as genetically modified organisms. The U.S. Department of Agriculture's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service made the classification decision last year, and it holds as long as DNA from other species has not been inserted into the genome; the introduction of foreign genes would tip it into the GMO camp. (European regulators are scheduled to make their ruling on the subject later this year.) "They basically considered these as just standard plants, as if they were generated by chemical mutagens or gamma rays or some nonregulated technology," Daniel Voytas, an academic and company-affiliated scientist, told Scientific American.
The decision is a boon for business — Voytas estimated that the regulatory review process can cost up to $35 million and take as long as five-and-a-half years. The absence of such expense also means that CRISPR-fueled work would be possible for smaller companies as well as big agribusinesses.
Whether the public will lump CRISPR-edited foods in with so-called GMO Frankenfoods, like the ever-growing Atlantic salmon, remains to be seen. As David Caroll, president of Giorgi Mushroom Co., told The Packer in response to a newly developed, non-browning mushroom: "Whether something that is a non-traditional [bred] mushroom is marketable is really in the hands of the consumer."
But in the long run, what's at stake with CRISPR crops could be a lot more than what the average supermarket customer is comfortable buying. As Tom Parrett wrote of the technology in a Newsweek feature last year, "Biologists and geneticists are confident it can help them build a second Green Revolution — if we'll let them."