A new gene-editing method that is being used to re-engineer crops to combat climate and microbial threats has been showing promising results in tests conducted recently. The CRISPR method allows for the precise tweaking of a plant’s genetic make-up in order to cope with the multitude of external threats that crops face pre-harvest, or simply to make them higher-yielding. It has already achieved successful results in China in the form of increased rice yields and fungus-resistant crops and efforts are currently underway in the UK to produce a drought-resistant barley crop.
The interest surrounding CRISPR stems from a variety of reasons; it is cheap, fast and extremely versatile, working on nearly every plant, creature and cell type to date. It also facilitates ‘gene-driving’, a method of guaranteeing the inheritance of certain genes to all of the carrier’s offspring and eventually throughout an entire population. Understandably this has had a polarising effect on discussions about its application; gene-driving has the potential to eradicate diseases such as malaria, as well as the potential to disrupt the natural balance of whole ecosystems through wiping out entire species.
The CRISPR method differs from conventional genetic modification (GM) in that it doesn’t need to splice foreign genes into an organism, instead it relies on introducing microscopic motes of bacterial genetic material to target the editing process (although it must be noted that sometimes bacterial genetic residue remains). As such, it has been able to bypass the regulatory ‘GMO’ classification, resulting in cheaper manufacturing and testing costs and speedier lab-to-field output times. Widespread availability of CRISPR crops has been placed at approximately 5-10 years away, subject to government permission.
Vital farmable cropland is decreasing in size due to soil degradation, the spread of urban sprawl, industrial crop plantations and the marked effects of climate change. Shrinking farmable landmasses and a rapidly growing population pose a genuine threat to food sustainability - a lot sooner than most think; the UN expects the global population to reach 10 Billion by 2050. Simply put, we will have too few crops for too many people.
CRISPR appears to offer an important contribution to reversing this problem. It side steps the drawn-out regulatory process demanded of GMO products, which means that it will be able to perform its intended function at the time of its need (past cases saw GMO products designed to fight microbial threats which evolved resistances by the time the GMO products made it to the market). CRISPR technology is much more accessible to smaller companies and labs, not excluding them from production, research and developing their own ideas for their own needs; the sharply reduced regulatory process cuts costs by millions of dollars. There is also hope among researchers that this method may avoid the negative public perception surrounding genetically altered crops, which are usually cited as being unnatural, unethical and untrustworthy.
However, it is important to establish boundaries and governing policy early on to prevent abuses or misuse of the technology. CRISPR is both tremendously powerful and easily accessible, so it has immense potential to impact our world in both positive and negative ways. It could be used to increase food yields or to contort ecosystems to suit business models and to achieve maximum monetary gain. Who will prosper from this technology? What kind of checks and balances will be enforced to prevent misuse and negligence? How can we protect ecosystems from the unintended consequences of CRISPR and ‘gene-drive’ technology? Formulating and enforcing effective regulatory policy is key to the outcomes that we will get.
Regardless of its apparent benefits or possible threats, CRISPR faces an uncertain future at the moment. The US and EU are reconsidering their regulatory classification parameters and the Chinese government is undecided on whether they will permit the widespread use of CRISPR technology.
It is clear that CRISPR is a truly game-changing technology and the agricultural R&D pipeline is fast filling up with edited agricultural plants and animals. Constructive discourse on its use and policing is urgently needed. Do we have the collective wisdom to use such a powerful tool wisely?
Image credit: BASF / We create chemistry / Flickr