October 26, 2016

CRISPR: The Future of Food?

Kevin Holden Synthego
Kevin Holden is Head of Synthetic Biology at Synthego.

By: Kevin Holden, PhD, Head of Synthetic Biology at Synthego

Abstract: In this article, we’ll discuss the important role CRISPR may play in the future of food amidst  challenges of feeding the world’s growing population. We’ll also take a look at recent rulings around GMO crops and what qualifies as, as well as what is not considered to be, GMO. Lastly, we’ll describe the significance that synthetic RNA has for CRISPR genome editing for the entire agriculture industry.

GMO organisms, also known as genetically modified organisms, continue to be a topic of debate as long-term food sustainability across the world is in question. While access to food isn’t a day-to-day concern for many in developed countries, its future stability may be an issue without the implementation of proper efforts as the world’s population is anticipated to reach 9.6 billion by 2050.According to research by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), 36 countries, including 28 in Africa, are currently facing food security crises requiring immediate external assistance. In addition, millions in Yemen, Syria, Afghanistan and Southern Africa work through food emergencies on a daily basis. Such deficiencies are a result of ongoing conflicts and refugee crises in these countries, as well as climate changes causing severe droughts and floods. Weather-related catastrophes alone have left nearly 100 million people in southern Africa, Asia and Latin America suffering from food and water shortages. These statistics paint a clear picture as to why food sustainability is an important global issue. While there are several factors driving the deficiency, some are able to be remedied through recent developments in science and technology.

CRISPR gene editing is one of our greatest opportunities for providing sustainable food options. The process is currently being used in a variety of applications to adapt the DNA of crops to improve their growth characteristics for particular climates or to help them be less susceptible to diseases. For example, scientists in China recently reported creating a strain of wheat that is resistant to powdery mildew, a destructive fungal disease. And citrus greening, a seemingly incurable bacterial disease, threatens to wipe out citrus crops in the U.S. and other parts of the world. CRISPR is now being used in research to potentially eliminate genes that make citrus plants vulnerable to the disease.

Humans have been generating adaptive traits like these for thousands of years through the process of selective plant breeding, which selects for beneficial mutations. However, this process often takes several years to complete. Now, mutations and the adaptive traits they confer can be generated much more quickly through the use of CRISPR-Cas9 technology. Mutations are introduced into native genes and regulatory elements by providing a synthetic RNA to guide the Cas9 nuclease to a specific location on the genome in order to edit the DNA and produce a beneficial mutation. Once complete, the guide RNA and Cas9 nuclease are quickly destroyed by the plant cell. This sped-up process is allowing scientists to edit the genes of any plant or crop in order to more quickly confer beneficial adaptations that help growth or prevent disease.

CRISPR allows researchers to knock-down native genes or swap bases of DNA from a plant’s genetic code (A, G, C and T) in order to create an SNP (single nucleotide polymorphism). In this sense, it is possible to make a mutant, or an adapted phenotype. This is not the same controversial process used traditionally in GMOs where a plant’s genes are altered with DNA from other organisms, such as bacteria. Recently, Monsanto, a sustainable agriculture company, officially entered the “GMO 2.0” business with the signing of the licensing agreement to use CRISPR to create a new generation of GMO foods that are legally permitted to be labeled as “non-GMO.” Under this agreement, Monsanto is granted a worldwide, nonexclusive right to use CRISPR gene editing for agricultural applications.

Today, the lines between GMO and non-GMO are blurred, with regulators making decisions about what constitutes as safe for the environment and consumers alike. Genetically modified is often confused with “GMO”, or altering the genome of a plant with a gene donated from a different species, including plant, animal, fungal or microbial. For example, a plant can be edited to express genes differently than how they are commonly expressed, using techniques such as RNAi. Currently, the European Commission is considering whether GMOs produced through a range of new techniques, such as RNAi and CRISPR, should be excluded from the European Union’s GMO regulations. The organization argues that new methods of gene modifications fall outside of the scope of the EU GMO regulations.

As regulating bodies continue to make sense of GMOs and the parameters that must be set for modification and labeling, CRISPR gene editing is only in the beginning stages of its potential for agriculture-based developments aimed at alleviating world hunger. Regardless of the label on this solution, its viability to change the world and alleviate hunger cannot be debated. To develop these solutions quicker, scientists need access to tools that allow for reliability and efficiency in repeat experiments. The introduction of synthetic RNA for CRISPR gene editing, which is what we have developed at Synthego, not only provides faster transfection readiness, more accuracy and less laboratory time, but it also is more cost-effective, opening the doors for discoveries. By providing the tools researchers need to make experiments more streamlined and autonomous, we are contributing to making substantial discoveries a reality much sooner than expected.

Genetically modified agriculture is just the tip of the iceberg of what is possible with CRISPR, and the future of food. As the world undergoes many changes in the coming years relating to food security and regulation, we will turn to scientists and researchers to supply solutions for not only the increase in the population, but also for socioeconomic and climate-related issues. Synthego offerings bridge the gap between CRISPR’s potential and what is possible today, and the agriculture industry is one of the sectors where we are seeing the impact and rise to commercialization most quickly.

Kevin Holden, formerly a scientist at LS9 Biofuels, is the Head of Synthetic Biology at Synthego, the leading provider of genome engineering solutions. The company’s flagship product, CRISPRevolution, is a portfolio of synthetic RNA designed for CRISPR genome editing and research. Synthego’s vision is to bring precision and automation to genome engineering, enabling rapid and cost-effective research with consistent results for every scientist.