Crispr wants to feed the world

11 months ago
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ten years later his discovery, the implications of Crispr’s genome editing are deep and far-reaching, and we’re just getting started. This tool, adapted from the bacterial immune system, allows us to cut and edit the genetic code in any living cell to make targeted changes and fixes. Crispr therapy has helped a small number of people with genetic diseases, highlighting the potential to impact the lives of those who suffer from some 7,000 genetic diseases with known causes. Trials are ongoing for diseases ranging from diabetes to infectious diseases.

In 2023, we will begin to benefit from new Crispr-based solutions in other areas. For example, following initial results from clinical trials, the first agricultural applications using Crispr have recently hit the market: FDA-approved bovine gene editing recreates the smooth coat sometimes found in nature. and allows cows to tolerate the increase in temperature; Crispr tomatoes approved for sale in Japan have improved nutritional properties. In other crops, Crispr is being used experimentally to increase yields, reduce pesticide and water use, and protect against disease.

Crispr’s next space for innovation will be climate change, the decisive battle of our time. In 2023, a bold new effort to use Crispr to fight climate change will begin.

First, the new study aims to reduce carbon emissions from agriculture. Agriculture accounts for about a quarter of all greenhouse gas emissions, and they mostly come from microbes found either in the soil, such as in rice fields, or in the guts of farm animals. This new research focuses on how to use Crispr to edit these microbes or reshape microbial communities to reduce or even eliminate greenhouse gas emissions.

Second, we are finding ways to improve the inherent ability of plants and microbes to capture carbon and store it in the soil. Plants “breathe” carbon dioxide during photosynthesis and use it to produce energy, but usually carbon is released back into the atmosphere fairly quickly. The new research aims to work with plants and soil microbes to not only capture carbon, but also store it in the soil for long periods of time, replacing some of the soil carbon that has been lost in massive amounts with the advent of modern agriculture.

Third, we are developing new ways to minimize costs for farmers, such as fertilizers and pesticides, which are associated with high carbon emissions and other environmental health costs. Crispr’s new research aims to change staple crops like rice so they can grow with less fertilizer. Crispr can be used to make plants resistant to common pathogens and pests, reducing the need for high carbon chemicals.

Finally, we need ways to help agriculture cope with the extent of climate change that has already happened or is imminent. New research is using Crispr to create plants that can produce more food and other materials with less water and are resistant to extreme temperatures.

Much of the attention associated with Crispr has been focused on medical applications, and for good reason: the results are promising and the personal stories are inspiring, offering hope to many who have suffered from long-forgotten genetic diseases. In 2023, as Crispr moves to agriculture and the climate, we will have the opportunity to radically improve human health in a holistic way that can better protect our communities and enable millions of people around the world to thrive.

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