Can CRISPR feed the entire world?

Researchers in Norwich, UK, are hoping to make crops more resistant to disease. Credit: Kamoun Lab @ TSL

As the entire world’s population rises, scientists want to edit the genes of potatoes in addition to also wheat to help them fight plant diseases in which cause famine.


By 2040, there will be 9 billion people inside the entire world. “in which’s like adding another China onto today’s global population,” said Professor Sophien Kamoun of the Sainsbury Laboratory in Norwich, UK.

Prof. Kamoun will be one of a growing number of food scientists trying to figure out how to feed the entire world. As an expert in plant pathogens such as Phytophthora infestans – the fungus-like microbe responsible for potato blight – he wants to make crops more resistant to disease.

Potato blight sparked the Irish famine inside the 19th century, causing a million people to starve to death in addition to also another million migrants to flee. European farmers today keep the fungus in check by using pesticides. However, in regions without access to chemical sprays, the idea continues to wipe out enough potatoes to feed hundreds of millions of people every year.

“Potato blight will be still a problem,” said Prof. Kamoun. “In Europe, we use 12 chemical sprays per season to manage the pathogen in which causes blight, yet various other parts of the entire world cannot afford in which.”

Plants try to fight off the pathogens in which cause disease yet these are continuously changing to evade detection by the plant’s immune system.

Arms race

In nature, every time a plant gets a little better at fighting off infection, pathogens adapt to evade their defences. today biologists are getting involved inside the fight.

“the idea’s essentially an arms race between plants in addition to also pathogens,” said Prof. Kamoun. “We want to turn the idea into an arms race between biotechnologists in addition to also pathogens by generating fresh defences inside the lab.”

several years ago, Prof. Kamoun embarked on a project called NGRB, funded by the EU’s European Research Council. The plan was to find a way to make potatoes more resistant to infection using advanced plant-breeding techniques.

Then serendipity struck. inside the early stages of the project, scientists in another lab discovered a ground-breaking gene-editing technique known as CRISPR-Cas which allows scientists to delete or add genes at will. As well as having potential medical applications in humans, in which powerful tool will be unlocking fresh approaches to perfecting plants.

“If we think of the genome as text, CRISPR will be a word processor in which allows us to change just a letter or two,” explained Prof. Kamoun. “The precision in which in which allows makes CRISPR the ultimate in genetic editing. the idea’s actually beautiful.”

The fungal disease wheat blast will be destroying crop yields in Bangladesh. Credit: Kamoun Lab @ TSL

One of the simplest ways to use CRISPR to improve plants will be to remove a gene in which makes them vulnerable to infection. in which alone can make potatoes more resilient, helping to meet the entire world’s growing demand for food.

The resulting crop looks in addition to also tastes just the same as any various other potato. Prof. Kamoun says in which potatoes which are missing a gene or two should not be viewed inside the same way as genetically modified foods which sometimes contain genes introduced through another species. “the idea’s a very important technical difference yet not all regulators have updated their rules to make in which distinction.”

Potatoes are not the only food crops in which can be increased by CRISPR-Cas. Prof. Kamoun will be today working on a project in which aims to protect wheat through wheat blast – a fungal disease decimating yields in Bangladesh in addition to also spreading in Asia.

Looking ahead, CRISPR will be used to improve the quality in addition to also nutritional value of wheat, rice, potatoes in addition to also vegetables. the idea could even be used to remove genes in which cause allergic reactions in people with tomato or wheat intolerance.

“If we can remove allergens, consumers may soon see hypoallergenic tomatoes on supermarket shelves,” Prof. Kamoun said. “the idea’s a very exciting technology.”

While targeting disease in in which way could be a game changer for global food security inside the years ahead, experts believe various other approaches to plant breeding will continue to have a role. Understanding meiosis – a type of cell division in which can reshuffle genes to improve plants – can help farmers in addition to also the agribusiness sector select for hardier crops, according to Professor Chris Franklin of the University of Birmingham, UK.

He leads the COMREC project, which trains young scientists to understand in addition to also manipulate meiosis in plants. The project applies the wealth of knowledge generated by leaders inside the field to tackle the pressing problem of feeding a hungry world.

“COMREC has begun to translate fundamental research into (applications in) key crop species such as cereals, brassicas in addition to also tomato,” said Prof. Franklin. “Close links with plant-breeding companies have provided important insight into the specific challenges confronted by the breeders.”

Elite crops

There may be untapped potential in in which approach to plant breeding: most of the genes naturally reshuffled during meiosis in cereal crops are at the far ends of chromosomes – genes inside the middle of chromosomes are rarely reshuffled, limiting the scope for fresh crop variations.

COMREC’s academic in addition to also industry partners trust to understand why in which will be to ensure in which they can find a way to shuffle the genes inside the middle of chromosomes too. in addition to also the food industry will be keen to produce fresh ‘elite varieties’ in which are better adapted to confront the challenges arising through climate change, says Prof. Franklin.

“quite a few genes have today been identified in which can make in which reshuffling relatively more frequent,” he said. “CRISPR-Cas provides a way to modify the corresponding genes in crop species, helping to translate in which basic research to target crops.”


Explore further:
US approves 3 types of genetically engineered potatoes (Update)

More information:
Targeted mutagenesis inside the type plant Nicotiana benthamiana using Cas9 RNA-guided endonuclease by Vladimir Nekrasov, Brian Staskawicz, Detlef Weigel, Jonathan D G Jones & Sophien Kamoun in Nature Biotechnology 31, 691–693 (2013). DOI: 10.1038/nbt.2655

Involvement of the Cohesin Cofactor PDS5 (SPO76) During Meiosis in addition to also DNA Repair in Arabidopsis thaliana by Mónica Pradillo, Alexander Knoll, Cecilia Oliver, Javier Varas, Eduardo Corredor, Holger Puchta in addition to also Juan L. Santos in Front. Plant Sci., 01 December 2015 . DOI: 10.3389/fpls.2015.01034

Journal reference:
Nature Biotechnology

Provided by:
Horizon: The EU Research & Innovation Magazine

Can CRISPR feed the entire world?

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