Gene-editing technology keeping eye on future
RICHMOND, Va. — The gene-editing technology known as CRISPR has the potential to accelerate development of higher producing crops with less inputs.
It is also projected to revolutionize the health care and other industries.
At the recent Virginia Grains and Soybean Conference, Mark Gadlage, Corteva Agriscience research scientist, updated growers on the technology can do and what specifically Corteva is working to achieve.
“It will be pivotal for pretty much every ag company to figure out how to use this technology, how to deliver solutions that will be needed to help support 9 billion people by 2050,” Gadlage said.
He told the audience to think of CRISPR in terms of word processing software on a computer, deleting, editing or searching and replacing parts of a plant’s genetic code.
It’s not transgenic like herbicide tolerant traits that were developed in recent decades; it’s more closely aligned with traditional breeding but in an accelerated way, Gadlage said.
Using the example of wild mustard, Gadlage showed how selecting for different attributes of the plant led to the development six different crops. Selecting for the leaf led to modern kale plants, selecting for the flower led to cauliflower, and so on.
“What took thousands of years can take much less time by using a technology like CRISPR,” he said.
Using CRISPR, scientists are able to cut the time from concept to commercialization of a crop product in half, Gadlage said. Where transgenic means can take 13 years or more and traditional breeding can take eight years, CRISPR can reach the finish line in four years.
“What we’ve done is we’ve taken out the inconsistencies of backcrossing,” he said, adding backcrossing through traditional breeding methods can bring in “donor DNA” from a plant that may contain traits that aren’t needed or wanted in the new cross.
“By using gene editing we’re basically eliminating any chance of donor DNA into the elite inbred line by just editing the gene of interest,” Gadlage said.
Projects are underway to address powdery mildew in wine grapes, citrus greening in oranges and increase disease resistance in cocoa plants.
But at Corteva, Gadlage said its first pilot project is using the deletion path to take out a gene in corn that would give rise to waxy corn which is high in amylopectin giving it desirable characteristics for use in foods like salad dressings and the textile and paper making industries.
The crop is currently grown on about 500 acres in the United States.
“The starch basically has glutenating properties, so it can hold ingredients together,” Gadlage said.
He said Corteva is growing about 1,500 acres in research trials and the project has developed hybrids that have shown yield increases averaging 6 bushels per acre across 30 test locations.
While in this research phase, Gadlage said they will be seeking feedback from the public, non-governmental organizations, companies and other stakeholders to be aware of concerns and other issues in using the technology.
“We’re tying to work with a lot of different agencies and a lot of different companies to try to understand their viewpoints and try to alleviate any issues and concerns that the public may have,” he said.
A question came from the audience as to how can agriculture keep CRISPR and similar technology from attracting the controversy previous genetic engineering methods have received.
Gadlage said it will take everyone who is involved in using the technology, from the grower to the company that develops crops, to spread the message about what CRISPR’s potential is for improving food production and the environment.
CRISPR’s use in the health care industry may also help people see it’s benefits and understand how it works, too.
“People that value their health and try to understand CRISPR from the health aspect will then evenually better understand what actually the technology is doing and try and figure out what all good it can do and learn rather than be a non believer from the get-go,” Gadlage said.
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