The world of plant genetics and breeding is on the horizon of monumental change. There has been significant attention in the media regarding the use of gene editing and how it could impact the future of agriculture. By the year 2050, farmers will be responsible for feeding approximately 9.8 billion people. One major limitation of feeding 9.8 billion people is the increased demand for food production on fewer available acres. It is predicted that climate change will fuel rates of soil salinization, drought, and desertification which will drastically reduce arable acres and soil quality. In spite of the potential challenges on the horizon, new technologies including gene editing may allow sustainable agricultural production under increasingly unfavorable conditions. This blog will outline the basics of gene editing and how it will be utilized to improve agricultural productivity.
1. What is gene editing?
Gene editing is a technology used to make precise changes in the genetic blueprint (DNA) of an organism. The DNA blueprint of an organism is organized into regions called genes, which provide instructions to form molecules called proteins. Proteins produced from the DNA blueprint perform specialized functions within an organism, ultimately regulating processes including growth, nutrient uptake, photosynthesis and reproduction. The main objective of gene editing is to make precise changes to the DNA blueprint in attempt to disrupt, alter, or reduce levels of specific proteins.
2. How does gene editing work?
There are numerous gene editing systems, but the method gaining public attention is CRISPR gene editing. The CRISPR gene editing system functions like a pair of scissors that cuts DNA in a specific, desired location. When the CRISPR system cuts the DNA strand, the crop plant will try to repair the DNA at the cut site. Since the plant DNA repair system is not perfect, the resulting repair to the DNA may introduce or remove small pieces of DNA from the genetic blueprint. Changing the DNA sequence of a gene can potentially alter or disable the function of the protein produced. When protein function is altered or disabled it can modify plant growth, development and reproduction, which can potentially increase agronomic performance and yield.
3. What are the potential applications of gene editing?
The potential applications of CRISPR gene editing could have a profound effect on crop productivity and other facets of the agriculture industry including animal production. One particular example of a potential application of CRISPR gene editing in crop production is the development of drought tolerant cultivars. Scientists have found several genes which reduce the capacity of plants to perform under drought conditions. Using the CRISPR gene editing system, scientists can precisely edit DNA sequences to disable the function of genes which hinder crop production under drought. By disabling the function of these harmful genes, crops will be able to increase productivity, growth and yield production under drought conditions. Gene editing can also be utilized to develop disease and pathogen resistance, abiotic stress tolerance, and new technologies for herbicide tolerance.
4. What are the benefits and potential concerns?
The implications of gene editing are significant, and as such both positive and negative consequences of the technology must be evaluated. Perhaps the most significant implication of gene editing is the ability to promote crop productivity under changing environmental conditions. Expanding crop production is essential for global food security as the world population continues to increase. In terms of food safety, the use of GMO and genetically engineered crops have been extensively evaluated for 20+ years with scientific evidence supporting minimal risk to public health. In addition, scientists extensively study the potential impacts on other organisms including plants and wildlife to ensure the safety of gene editing technologies.
5. What does the future of gene editing look like?
Gene editing systems have been developed in several agriculture crops, including soybeans, canola, corn and wheat. Several technologies are currently in the development and commercialization process, with many more technologies on the horizon. It is also important to keep in mind that the regulatory processes regarding gene editing will have a major impact on the integration of and establishment of gene editing technologies in crops. Countries including Canada and the USA have favorable regulatory processes that would foster integration of technology in crops. Regions such as the EU have placed strict regulatory processes on the use of gene editing on technology, which will drastically stall the development and integration of gene edited crops. Regardless of regulatory hurdles, the use of gene editing in agriculture has a bright future and will serve as an important avenue to promote global food security and sustainable crop productivity.