Science in the field of biotechnology is changing rapidly and the effects of new technology is rippling out to affect many other parts of biology and medicine as a whole. It cannot be overstated how much of a revolution CRISPR tools have been and continue to be to dozens of scientific fields.
While it may be pointed out in headlines splashed seemingly everywhere, it really is the truth and though some claims may be hyperbolically overstating the effects CRISPR will have, it definitely will change the world to some extent.
Growth of Decades In Months
And the even more amazing part is just how new all of this is, how commonplace the term CRISPR has become to the public. Even though it has only been 2 years since all of the excitement first began taking place with the landmark study from Jennifer Doudna et al.
Initially, the focus of using these tools outside of mere research has been taking place in the medical fields. Some of the earliest announcements included potential cures for disorders like muscular dystrophy and retinitis. Though the human trials for such things are still years in the making, they are progressing smoothly and showcase just the tip of what is possible with capable gene-editing mechanisms.
Now, the use of CRISPR has begun expanding beyond its infancy, along with all the new forms it has gained. One of the earliest adopters of the technology within the agricultural market was the economic giant DuPont. In working with the company formed by Doudna, this seed producing powerhouse has started using its discovery to make the world’s first CRISPR gene-edited crop using this smooth and precise toolset.
A Corn For You And Me
Surprisingly, it has started out far more simply than one would expect. But perhaps this caution is more to gauge public reaction than anything else. Instead of using the more commonplace techniques involving gene transfers and genetic manipulation, DuPont has taken the route of using CRISPR to knock out the activity of a single gene already existing in a breed of high quality corn.
Let’s back up a bit for a moment to explain this corn. Waxy corn is a particular kind of corn breed that is made to have a much higher percentage of amylopectin as compared to amylose. Regular corn is somewhere in the range of 75% and 25%, respectively. Waxy, on the other hand, approaches 100% pure amylopectin.
This results in a very finely textured and thick cornstarch, used in a number of industries. Food products use it as a thickener and a smoothener of products, along with having it stabilize certain foods so they don’t crumble into pieces when eating them. It is also heavily used in industries needing a glue-like agent. It can be used to help bind together things like cardboard or the sticky closing part of envelopes.
A Dragging Problem
So, now you know more about the corn that is waxy corn. Unfortunately, it is not that easy to make, whether through traditional breeding or genetic modification. Thanks to an effect called yield drag that is connected to certain genes in the tree of life, if that gene gets transferred, other genetic sequences hitch a ride. And these aren’t beneficial lines of genetic code. Instead, they directly and negatively impact plant yields.
This is the case with the genes behind the waxy corn trait. Even transgenic transfers didn’t help, since the extra material always travels along, inherent to the trait’s sequence. There may be some ways around this, but it would take a lot of effort and would require that the genes are placed in a particular part of the corn genome. Whether through traditional random mutation or genetic modification, this wasn’t an easy task regardless and had a lot of trial and error.
A Step Roundways
However, as the saying so often goes these days, that’s where CRISPR comes in. While DuPont could have tried to once again transfer the gene transgenically into the desired high quality corn breed, they likely wanted to avoid the onerous regulations on transgenic crops. So, they took a different tactic.
If they couldn’t put in a gene to increase amylopectin production, then why not just knock out the gene responsible for producing the amylose? Try and get the trait by doing the opposite maneuver. And it seems to be working.
The company actually announced successes in development of such a corn early last year. You probably didn’t hear about it though. That was during the hype of CRISPR and gene editing in the medical field and it largely drowned out everything else, especially for a type of corn that isn’t even transgenic. Not much to spin a headline around with that.
A Call For Praise And For Quiet
It is expected that DuPont will be finalizing the production of the corn and all the regulatory bells and whistles needed for a new crop breed by 2020, releasing it for commercial availability. It may even be sooner than that, depending on how things go.
Currently, they are walking a thin line where they want to generate publicity for their new and improved corn breed coming down the pipeline to ensure farmers ultimately use it, but also don’t want to draw too much attention to it by the vocal anti-science crowds. Since such groups would likely start pursuing methods of regulatorily hobbling CRISPR products.
Which could prove disastrous not just for agriculture, but the medical field as well and for the thousands of people that will likely be needing CRISPR advancements sooner rather than later to help treat their conditions.
So, while I write this article to inform all you science-minded people out there about advancing technologies, let’s hope all those not so science-minded stay ignorant about its existence. There’s already been far too many deaths at the hands of their fearmongering.
Photo CCs: Corn and walnuts (26245603811) from Wikimedia Commons