Selective breeding has drastically changed the agricultural industry over the years. For example, the corn and grains of today look nothing like it did when it shaped ancient farming civilizations. Through a very slow process, our ancestors were able to select for two genes that scientist believe are responsible for the change we see in these species.
But new technology has proven to achieve the same process, all while using less time and money. Better yet, not only would it be easier but the results would be better! Farmers could choose what traits they want to have in their crops or livestock from a catalog-like system!
The mechanism: Crispr/Cas9
In the 1900's, many new genetically modified crops emerged onto the scene. However, the recent discovery of Crispr/Cas9 is a complete game changer. With this type of technology, one can target a specific gene sequence and cut and paste a new sequence into the area. This could essentially provide farmers with the ability to choose exactly what genes they want in their crops from a “catalog” of possible traits!
Don't like a trait? Remove it! Want this trait? Add itit! It really is that easy, and the possibilities are endless. Some of the modifications you can make are adaptations to be tolerant to diseases or drought, to increase yields, etc.!
How is this different from GMO's?
A Genetically Modified Organism, or GMO, is a form of gene modification that involved the introduction of new genes from another species to achieve the characterises that one wants. Gene editing, on the other hand, is changing the DNA that is already there to create an organism with a specific trait.
Although the differences may not seem large, it is important to understand the differences and how they impact the species. There are many negative outlooks on GMO’s, as they are not commonly looked at with positivity by many consumers. Scientists looking to endorse Crispr/Cas9 gene editing for agricultural purposes believe that it is very important to separate the two to remove the stigma around genetically editing crops and livestock. Crispr/Cas9 systems are looking to simply speed up the process of traditional selective breeding.
What about livestock?
Perhaps an even more useful host for this type of process is in livestock. Pigs are known to have many diseases that can increase their miscarriage rate and lead to early deaths. For example, Poricine Reproductive and Respiratory Syndrome (PRRS) costs Europeans nearly $1.6 billion dollars every year.
A team out of the Univesity of Edinburgh’s Roslin Institute is working to remove the CD163 molecule involved in the pathway that causes PRRS virus. Their recent publication in the journal PLOS Pathogens shows that these pigs could successfully resist the virus.
Again, the opportunities for this technology are endless. They can be used for so many different mechanisms that would decrease costs for farmers and increase the quality of life for these animals.
At the end of the day, the “Crispr Revolution" has drastically changed the way we look at modern day gene editing. Once the science matures, it will be cheaper, faster and more precise than any method we have to date.
Unfortunately, many legal battles currently complicate who can and cannot use the technology. Also, a concern is the use of Crispr for the purpose of patenting foods, as this would potentially have devastating consequences for consumer markets.