5 ways CRISPR gene editing is shaping the future of food and health

By Douglas Broom | 24 February 2023
World Economic Forum

(Credit: YouTube / screengrab)
  • CRISPR is a gene editing technique that’s being increasingly deployed.
  • Scientists are using it to grow more food and make it taste better.
  • It also has a role in fighting diseases like cancer and in tackling the climate crisis.
  • Many detractors are alarmed by the spread of genetically modified foods.

For some people, the idea of genetically modified (GM) foods is alarming. Opponents call them “Frankenstein foods”. But the need to produce more to feed the planet’s growing population means the techniques are gaining greater acceptance.

Kenya announced in 2022 that it was lifting its ban on GM crops to help tackle mounting food shortages caused by four years of below-average rainfall which have led to crop failures and left 3.5 million people facing acute food insecurity.

The United Nations estimates that food production will need to increase by 60% by 2050 if we are to feed a predicted world population of 9.3 billion. The challenge, as the World Resources Institute points out, is to do it without increasing emissions, fueling deforestation or exacerbating poverty.

A gene editing technique known as CRISPR, which has been described as “a pair of molecular scissors that can edit or alter a target DNA sequence precisely”, not only offers the prospect of more and healthier food – it is already being used to improve human and animal health.

Concerns about CRISPR

Although CRISPR has been hailed as a breakthrough, it has also heightened concerns around genetic modification. In 2015, a group of scientists, including Nobel Laureate Professor Jennifer Doudna, one of the pioneers of CRISPR, called for a temporary moratorium on its use in humans.

The use of gene editing in crops is already regulated in many countries, with the European Union imposing restrictions on almost all genetic plant modification. The United States and most other countries only regulate crops where new genetic material has been added.

Opponents criticize the power of GM seed producers who require farmers to buy new seed from them every year, according to the American Farm Bureau. US critics also call for foods which contain GM crops to be clearly labelled, something that is not currently required.

Yet the World Economic Forum’s 2022 whitepaper Accelerating Global Access to Gene Therapies said gene therapy has the potential to reduce the global burden of disease.

How CRISPR is positively impacting our food and health

While the debate around gene editing continues, here are five ways that CRISPR is already having an impact – from the food we eat to the state of our health.

1. Making healthy foods tastier

Any parent will tell you how hard it can be to persuade children to eat green vegetables and salads. But CRISPR is coming to the rescue, making healthy foods taste better by dialling down the bitterness in many vegetables and enhancing the flavour of fruit.

US biotech company Pairwise pledges “healthy shouldn’t be a choice – it should be a craving.” The firm is currently working on new variants of leafy greens, cherries and berries.

2. Diagnosing and treating COVID-19

In January 2022, the US Food and Drug Administration authorized a new high-throughput rapid test for COVID-19 developed using CRISPR which can process thousands of samples in a single day.

Trials have also been conducted of CRISPR-developed treatments which prevent the COVID-19 virus from attacking lung cells. Scientists at Duke University in the US found that the CRISPR treatment also inhibited the immune reaction which causes COVID deaths.

3. Improving animal health

Researchers at the Pasteur Institute in Montevideo, Uruguay, have used CRISPR techniques to modify the genes of farm animals to make them more disease-resistant. In one experiment, pigs were rendered immune to respiratory diseases like swine flu.

They also focused on avoiding painful procedures such as the removal of cows’ horns which is done to avoid them harming one another. The scientists introduced a gene mutation found in horn-free Angus cattle to create a hornless breed of Holstein cows.

4. Helping crops tackle the climate crisis

Scientists have already used CRISPR to produce virus-, bacterial- and fungal-resistant crops that can cope with extremes of heat and cold. They’ve also increased the size of rice, wheat and maize grains and produced bigger and better soybeans and brassicas.

Professor David Savage of the University of California believes his team are close to developing varieties of rice and sorghum that will not just survive the climate crisis but actively help tackle it by capturing more carbon from the atmosphere and storing it in their roots.

5. Treating cancer

Personalized treatments for cancer are getting ever closer thanks to CRISPR. A clinical trial, reported in Nature in November 2022, involved using the gene editing technique to train a patient’s immune system T-cells to recognize and attack their particular cancer cells.

By isolating genetic mutations unique to the cancer, scientists were able to programme the T-cells to seek it out. They also used CRISPR gene editing to “toughen up” the T-cells which, they say, are often overwhelmed by cancers.

How Gene Editing is Transforming Our World

Could gene-edited crops mean healthier food around the world?

The Genome Editing Era—Fyodor Urnov

CRISPR: What is the future of gene editing? | Start Here

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