While ethicists debate the applications of blockbuster gene-editing tool Crispr in human healthcare, an inventor of the tool believes it has a more immediate application: improving our food.
“I think in the next five years the most profound thing we’ll see in terms of Crispr’s effects on people’s everyday lives will be in the agricultural sector,” Jennifer Doudna, the University of California Berkeley geneticist who unearthed Crispr in early experiments with bacteria in 2012, told Business Insider.
Crispr has dozens of potential uses, from treating diseases like sickle cell to certain inherited forms of blindness. The tool recently made headlines when a scientist in China reportedly used it to edit the DNA of a pair of twin baby girls.
Then there are Crispr’s practical applications — the kinds of things we might expect to see in places like grocery stores and farmers’ fields within a decade, according to Doudna.
Crispr’s appeal in food is straightforward: it’s cheaper and easier than traditional breeding methods, including those that are used to make genetically modified crops (also known as GMOs) currently. It’s also much more precise. Where traditional breeding methods hack away at a crop’s genome with a dull blade, tools like Crispr slice and reshape with scalpel-like precision.
Want a mushroom that doesn’t brown? A corn crop that yields more food per acre? Both already exist, though they haven’t yet made it to consumers’ plates. What about a strawberry with a longer shelf life or tomatoes that do a better job of staying on the vine?
“I think all of those things are coming relatively quickly,” Doudna said.
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Work on Crispr’d produce has been ongoing for about half a decade, but it’s only recently that US regulators have created a viable path for Crispr’d products to come to market.
Back in 2016, researchers at Penn State used Crispr to make mushrooms that don’t brown. Last spring, gene-editing startup Pairwise scored $125 million from agricultural giant Monsanto to work on Crispr’d produce with the goal of getting it in grocery stores within the decade. A month later, Stefan Jansson, the chief of the plant physiology department at Sweden’s Umea University, grew and ate the world’s first Crispr’d kale.
More recently, several Silicon Valley startups have been experimenting with using Crispr to make lab-grown meat.
Memphis Meats, a startup with backing from notable figures like Bill Gates and Richard Branson that has made real chicken strips and meatball prototypes from animal cells (and without killing any animals), is using the tool. So is New Age Meats, another San Francisco-based startup that aims to create real meat without slaughter.
Last spring, the US Department of Agriculture issued a new ruling on crops that exempts many Crispr-modified crops from the oversight that accompanies traditional GMOs. So long as the edited DNA in those crops could also have been created using traditional breeding techniques, the Crispr’d goods are not subject to those additional regulatory steps, according to the agency.
“With this approach, USDA seeks to allow innovation when there is no risk present,” secretary of agriculture Sonny Perdue said in a statement. Genome editing tools like Crispr, he added, “will help farmers do what we aspire to do at USDA: do right and feed everyone.”
Despite the pushback, Doudna believes that Crispr’d food could help dispel some of the fear around GMOs and increase awareness about the role of science in agriculture.
“I hope this brings that discussion into a realm where we can talk about it in a logical way,” she said. “Isn’t it better to have technology that allows for precise manipulation of a plant genome, rather than relying on random changes?”
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