Gene-editing is the latest in a long line of technological breakthroughs hitting the agricultural industry.
Federal agencies such as the Food and Drug Administration and the U.S. Department of Agriculture are already discussing how to regulate gene-editing. University of Nebraska’s Dr. Channabasavaiah Gurumurthy has taken the lead on a global research paper with more than 110 authors. Dr. Gurumurthy invented an even faster CRISPR method named Easi-CRISPR.
CRISPR is the shorthand for a gene-editing technique formally known as CRISPR-associated protein 9. This technique allows scientists to guide a microscopic pair of scissors into the DNA sequence and change the specific connections as they see fit. According to Gurumurthy, this changed the face of science forever.
“You can’t name a field that is not impacted by CRISPR,” he said.
Specifically, Dr. Gurumurthy and his team of genetic engineers at the University of Nebraska work on what they call “mouse models.” Working with mice, they use gene-editing to manipulate their DNA to study what is requested of their lab. When CRISPR was first introduced nearly eight years ago, Gurumurthy said that models could take upwards of three months so his team created easi-CRISPR.
“It was very easy and robust for everybody to produce the animal models the way they needed,” he said.
The paper that he and his colleague from the Australian National University, Dr. Gaetan Burgio, are working on compiles almost every documented use of CRISPR since its invention in the early 2010s.
So far, Gurumurthy said he and Burgio have probably received over 1,000 emails from more than 110 scientists passing data back and forth for the study.
The paper will look at how the early CRISPR methods compare to easi-CRISPR and how efficiencies in the techniques have changed over time.
Based on all the data that has been compiled, he said that overall the original CRISPR method remains just 1% efficient compared to the rough estimates that easi-CRISPR hit rates closer to 50%.
“There are methods that have a high efficiency but the technology is still improving,” he said. “In three years or five years, we are hoping the method gets to 100% every time.”
However, even if they are still a bit away from 100% efficiency, Gurumurthy said that in some cases influencing cells doesn’t need to be fully effective. Nature will take over if just a few hundred cells are altered properly, he added.
CRISPR’s influence on the agricultural industry is beyond understanding in its current form, he said. His colleagues from the University of Nebraska and other universities have already begun work on altering cattle DNA to be more region-specific. He hopes collecting the data can shed some light on how to speed up the process overall, he said.
One of the struggles, however, is that the U.S. is far behind in how it regulates scientific breakthroughs. Regulators can be overly cautious, even if there doesn’t appear to be an issue, he said. He doesn’t foresee any major restrictions placed on CRISPR in the coming years.
For agriculture, restricting CRISPR would be like restricting GMOs, he said. While Gurumurthy likened GMOs to taking a shot in the dark, he said that CRISPR is essentially doing the same thing while focusing in just one generation instead of spreading out over several years.
“Here, using CRISPR, scientists would know exactly what gene could be necessary to make that apple,” he said.
Like with any new change to the food market, that consumers and producers alike are simply wary of changing how food is grown. But it’s just a matter of time before the method becomes cheap enough to adopt nationwide, Gurumurthy said.
“Maybe in 15 years we will realize how CRISPR was safe and maybe we shouldn’t have been as apprehensive,” he said. “It takes time and constant education. Time just has to pass.”
Realisticly, the role CRISPR plays in agriculture over the next decade will likely have to do with removing issues with current products, he said.
While CRISPR is very good at doing what scientists call “break-outs,” it isn’t very efficient at “break-ins.”
A breakout is removing a trait, while a break-in is adding one you want. Right now, Gurumurthy said he’s seen a lot of tests to breakout genes that make certain crops susceptible to disease.
“That is very commonly used in agriculture now,” he said. “Whereas, if you want to put a new gene into a tomato, we are still a ways off.”
Overall, the goal of the paper was to gather enough data to make sure CRISPR is still working in practical applications.
While Dr. Gurumurthy said he is proud of the work that is being done, he also hopes that the community can come together to figure out what isn’t working and make CRISPR more efficient.