Doudna on CRISPR in agriculture

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Announcing the more than well-deserved prize to Jennifer Doudna and Emmanuelle Charpentier, the chair of the Nobel Committee for Chemistry Claes Gustafsson said: “There is enormous power in this genetic tool, which affects us all. It has not only revolutionised basic science, but also resulted in innovative crops and will lead to ground-breaking new medical treatments.” However, the media mostly celebrated CRISPR therapeutic applications while forgetting agriculture in the coverage of the Nobel Prize. Yet Doudna has spoken often, and passionately, about what CRISPR can do for sustainable agriculture and did it again at the World CRISPR Day, a few days after the Nobel announcement.

When asked about the most promising way CRISPR can help humanity as a whole, she replied: “In agriculture, the potential to address climate change, here in California we are seeing the effect of climate change real close, is not a possibility in the future anymore. It’s here, it’s now. We are already thinking with a number of partners how to use CRISPR to manipulate microbes in the soil that affect plants’ ability to deal with climate change. Potentially it could have a near time impact and a global reach”.

The Innovative Genomics Institute directed by Doudna has a program on sustainable agriculture encompassing 27 research projects. These efforts in the genome editing of crops for biotic and abiotic stress resistance and improved plant performance are led by Brian Staskawitz, who also attended the World CRISPR Day.

Doudna discusses ag applications also in the book she co-authored with Samuel Sternberg “A Crack in Creation”. “In the plant world, CRISPR has been widely deployed to edit crop genomes, paving the way for agricultural advances that could dramatically improve people’s diets and shore up the world’s food security,” she writes.

“The possibilities of this technology for agriculture were highlighted in my mind when, in 2014, scientists at the Chinese Academy of Sciences used gene-editing tools, including CRISPR, to alter the six copies of the Mlo gene in Triticum aestivum, or bread wheat, one of the world’s most important staple crops. Plants that had all six mutated Mlo genes were resistant to powdery mildew, a fantastic result”. […]

“Whether the desired changes are gene knockouts (as in Mlo), gene corrections, gene insertions, or gene deletions, scientists can alter the genome with unprecedented single-letter accuracy, and do so for virtually any gene and any DNA sequence” […]

“Food scientists are ecstatic over the possibilities of easy gene editing. But there’s still a big elephant in the room: will producers and consumers embrace precision gene-edited crops the same way they have embraced the thousands of crops whose genomes have been randomly mutated with x-rays, gamma rays, and chemical mutagens? Or will gene-edited crops suffer the same fate as GMOs, another type of genetically altered food and one that has met with incredible and, I would argue, misinformed opposition despite its vast potential for good?”      

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