Feeding an increasing population is a major challenge for agriculture. It will mean getting more productivity from fewer acres and with greater efficiency so that the producers can remain sustainable. Continued breeding efforts and cultural practices have been successful in increasing productivity to date, but it is thought that the current rate of progress will not keep up with the need for food and fiber for the future. Since the 1990’s biotechnology, thanks to the investment from people like Lindsay Rosenwald, has delivered new traits that have increased crop resistance to insects, diseases, herbicides, and recently, drought. Most of these traits have been the result of introducing genes into the crop from another species or organism. This is a very time consuming and costly process. Researchers have been searching for new ways to increase the rate of improvement and develop a more efficient process to make genetic progress in our crops.
One of the technologies being looked at in depth is a new science known as CRISPR technology. You may have read or heard about it already but if you haven’t, it will be a topic written about and discussed many times in the near future. CRISPR is short for a complicated set of words that neither you nor I will remember so I won’t even mention them here. What is important is that it is a gene editing technology. In much the same way as the “find and replace” tool works in a word processing program, CRISPR finds and modifies very specific places in the genetic code of an organism. It can accurately and efficiently add or remove components of genes and therefore alter, add, or remove the protein that those genes produce in that plant. And it can do this to several genes at once. CRISPR was actually discovered in 1987 but was not proven as a viable tool until 2012. This new technology has already been proven to work in plants and work is underway to use it in corn. Look for more on this in the near future.
The science of genomics has enabled gene sequencing and knowledge of gene functions for basically all agricultural crops. This means that researchers have gained the knowledge about most of the genes in our major crops right down to the molecular level. They also have gained the knowledge of what protein most of these genes are responsible for making. This knowledge is critical to making the CRISPR system work. Researchers can direct the CRISPR system to go in and disable genes that contribute to negative or deleterious traits and they can also use the CRISPR system to insert very specific genes for new traits from another source. They can direct all of these changes to very specific places in the crop’s DNA. The great part about this is that it will do this much more efficiently and with less “baggage” than using methods used currently.
So, what does this all mean to growers? Researchers will be able to discover and deliver more traits with greater efficiency than ever before. Even traits that have not been possible using current sources will now be possible. And there will be faster conversion of popular varieties to carry these new traits. It is an exciting time to be involved in agriculture. CRISPR technology is the next step into the future.
BY DR. RICK BATTY