Chances are, even if you don’t know all that much about gene editing, the specter of genetically engineered foods has loomed over a few sections of the grocery store while you’ve done your shopping. Is this salmon non-GMO? How about the grains used to produce that box of cereal? And what about the soybeans farmed to make that block of tofu? Wait, can soybeans even be genetically modified? For most of us, what we don’t know when it comes to genetically modified foods far outweighs what we do.
But we really ought to read up and learn a thing or two about the topic, because the pace at which food is being nipped and tucked on a genetic level is rapidly escalating. Much of that is thanks to the two new gene editors, CRISPR and TALENs.
CRISPR (Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats) and Cas9 (CRISPR associated protein 9) are, in layman’s terms, a sort of genetic safety scissors, used to snip strands of RNA at a specific location, so that specific genes can either be outright eliminated, or can make room for other genes to be inserted and gluesticked into the sequence. This technology has proven especially beneficial in the fields of medicine and – you guessed it – food. CRISPR gene-editing technology has been lauded as such a phenomenal advancement that the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) named it the breakthrough of the year in 2015. We’re hardly talking fringe mad science here.
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An encouraging new study from researchers at University of Colorado has shown that disrupting multiple bacterial genes at once is a successful strategy to use against deadly superbugs and emerging antibiotic-resistance in bacteria. • The newly-discovered approach, called Controlled Hindrance of Adaptation of OrganismS (CHAOS) uses the gene-editing tool CRISPR to alter multiple genes in bacterial cells to impair its core functioning abilities. • This cripples some of the central processes in the bacteria — the cell’s defence mechanisms being an important one. Researchers have developed a combination of “kill switch” genes in Escherichia coli for the approach. • “We saw that when we tweaked multiple gene expressions at the same time — even genes that would seemingly help the bacteria survive — the bacteria’s fitness dropped dramatically,” Peter Otoupal, lead author of the study. • Using this technique doesn’t alter the genome of the bacteria itself, but how the genes are expressed by the cell. “This method offers tremendous potential to create more effective combinatorial approaches,” Anushree Chatterjee, senior author of the study. • The researchers explain that the method could be further optimized for more efficient disruptions — something the team is pursuing in ongoing research. • “In the past, nobody really considered that it might be possible to slow down evolution,” Otoupal said. • “But like anything else, evolution has rules and we’re starting to learn how to use them to our advantage.” [credit: Tech2 News staff, Tech2]🌐
If CRISPR is a pair of scissors, then TALENs may as well be described as a word processor. Scientists are now able to attach precoded building blocks to specific strands of DNA, forming TAL proteins. The TAL protein is then attached to an endonuclease, the tool used to cut into the DNA, forming a TALEN. By measuring the TALEN against the known map of the organism’s DNA, scientists can then make cuts into specific genes. When a DNA strand heals itself after a gene has been cut out, the trait has now essentially been turned off at a genetic level. Or like with CRISPR, this newly empty genetic space can also be used to host an entirely new gene in its stead.
The metaphors of scissors and word processors aside, it all sounds wildly complicated. But the genius of these two technologies is just how accurate those metaphors are. Caitlin Dewey of The Washington Post illuminates how maneuverable the tech here really is:
“In a gleaming laboratory hidden from the highway by a Hampton Inn and a Denny’s restaurant, a researcher with the biotech firm Calyxt works the controls of a boxy robot. The robot whirs like an arcade claw machine, dropping blips of DNA into tubes with pipettes. It’s building an enzyme that rewrites DNA — and transforming food and agriculture in the process. Thanks to a cutting-edge technology called gene editing, scientists can now turn plant genes “on” and “off” almost as easily as Calyxt scientists flip a switch to illuminate the rows of tender soybean plants growing in their lab.”
The future is knocking at your front door, just in time for dinner. So what are scientists doing with their newfound abilities to doctor the genes of the agriculture that has sustained humans for thousands of years? Biotechnology company Calyxt is beginning by producing a healthier soybean oil. Scientists on the project have managed to successfully eliminate the soybean’s genes that produce trans fats, the unhealthy cholesterol-boosting molecules that entered the human dietary chain with the advent of hydrogenated oils in the 1960s. Trans fats have been linked to cardiovascular disease, stroke and diabetes. In short, they’re no good. Calyxt’s edited soybean oil instead contains higher levels of heart healthy fats. The company has in turn created a low cost soybean oil with nutritional properties more akin to that of extra virgin olive oil.
Another biotech company, Inari Agriculture, is going a different route. The startup seeks to use gene-editing tools to create seeds specifically tailored to the unique soil and climate conditions of specific farms. In Inari’s vision of the future, a California farm and a Georgia farm could each grow the same crop, but with seeds edited to be uniquely attuned to regional factors like annual precipitation or even mineral content in the soil.
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CRISPR technology has enabled genetic engineering feats previously considered impracticable, offering great hopes for solutions to problems facing society. • We consider it timely to highlight how CRISPR can benefit public health, medicine, and agriculture in sub-Saharan Africa [SSA]. • Crops and animals in SSA face many pests and pathogens. Breeding programs attempt to tackle these but have so far achieved little. CRISPR could help breeders in SSA to produce improved farm animals or crops with pest/disease resistance or other desirable traits. • Moreover, this would open the path for implementation of other potential CRISPR applications and lead to much reduced prevalence of disease in the region. • Exploitation of CRISPR to modify different plants has been demonstrated and the recent genome editing in the tropical staple, cassava sets the stage for greater attempts at realizing food security in SSA. • Transparency and education of local people are significant factors that will affect successful implementation of CRISPR in SSA. • Due to societal vulnerability to rumors and conspiracy theories if knowledge of new programs or technologies is lacking, it is important to create adequate awareness and to educate local communities. [credit: Christian Ogaugwu et al., Cell]🌐
Other companies and university research and development teams alike are using CRISPR and TALENs to experiment with agriculture that resists drought and disease, or mega crops like oranges, coffee beans and grapes that will be better positioned for successful harvests in a world with rising temperatures and chemical content in rain and groundwater supplies.
Where will gene editing take us? It’s too soon to tell, by a longshot. But thanks to the monumental number of laboratories taking a go at it, and the almost science fiction-like ease of using CRISPR and TALENs to snip, delete and add to strands of RNA and DNA, we’ll all surely see where this is going far sooner than later.