OPINION: Our CRISPR food future: ground-breaking gene editing technologies and what it means for agriculture

By Laureate Professor Peter Waterhouse

Peter Waterhouse

Over the last five years, CRISPR technology has become one of the hottest areas in all of molecular research. CRISPR stands for ‘Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats’ so understandably everyone simply refers to it by its initials (sounding like the name of the tray at the bottom of your fridge crisper). It is a very powerful genome editing technology that is set to change the future of agriculture, biotechnology and medical research.

What is CRISPR technology exactly? It is a way of precisely cutting the DNA of a chromosome, in a living cell, at whatever site we choose. The cut is rapidly repaired by the cell but during the repair process we can insert or delete bits of DNA. This allows us to either inactivate an undesirable gene, repair a damaged gene or insert a new gene from a wild relative.

Although the technology is highly advanced for medical research, its application and development in agricultural and horticultural research is catching up rapidly. In fact, there is already one commercial application in the mushroom industry, in the USA. In the medical arena, there has been a recent breakthrough in alleviating Duchenne muscular dystrophy using CRISPR, but the minefield of ethical issues in human research may delay its use outside of the laboratory.

A major goal of my Australian Research Council Laureate Fellowship project, is to improve the precision and versatility of CRISPR technology for applications in agriculture, and horticulture, and to work with “real world” people to deliver tangible outcomes. Hopefully in five years' time, the supermarket aisles will be stocked with all kinds of wonderful, health-promoting products from this technology.

There has been a lot of talk and fear about GMO crops in the past, but CRISPR-modification is different. It is essentially a process that enhances and speeds up conventional breeding. Almost all of the plant-based foods that we eat come from”elite” varieties. The wheat flour in bread, the apples in apple pie, the grapes in fruit salad come from elite varieties of wheat, apple and grapes. They are varieties that have been conventionally bread over many decades to have better quality, better yield, better flavour and better disease resistance.

But conventional breeding takes a long, long time and our crops are always under pressure from pests and diseases that are constantly evolving. Almost as fast as a plant breeder can cross in a protective gene from a wild relative to an elite variety, the pest or disease can evolve a way around it. So conventional breeders are constantly working to keep ahead.

The old way of breeding in a protection or quality trait usually takes 20 years, with CRISPR technology it may only take one or two years.

If it lives up to the promise, it's going to cause a massive change to the industry because we're going to be able to make crops that will have much better qualities - crops that are able to withstand drought, that withstand pests and some that offer consumers tastier, more colourful, more appetising foods with health benefits like improved nutrition and cardio-vascular disease-reducing properties .

Another application on the radar is tailoring crops for different geographic regions. In Australia there are many different climatic regions. For example, different wheat-growing regions have different soil types, different rainfall patterns and different pest and pathogen variables. With CRISPR it should be much easier to tailor “sub-cultivars” of a crop that are best suited to local conditions.

My Laureate is about developing and improving CRISPR technologies to give products over the next five years that are useful. So, obviously, we’re working in in collaboration with people who are really well-connected with the agriculture industry. So far we've been CRISPR editing the genomes of four different plant species, including banana, tomato, rice and a “biofactory” plant. In fact, we recently published a paper describing the editing of the banana genome. This was just a demonstration, targeting a gene that would give us a visible effect, to show that we could get in and alter the genome exactly how we wanted. Now we are moving on to more useful targets.

World-wide, there's an avalanche of CRISPR-produced applications coming along. I'm sure in the next two years there are going to be lots and lots of different traits put into different crop species. And regulatory authorities are going to have to decide how and what will be required for these to be grown on a commercial scale. These are certainly interesting times.

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