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Can CRISPR feed the world?


As the world’s population rises, scientists want to edit the genes of potatoes and wheat to help them fight plant diseases that cause famine.

By 2040, there will be 9 billion people in the world. ‘That’s like adding another China onto today’s global population,’ said Professor Sophien Kamoun of the Sainsbury Laboratory in Norwich, UK.

Prof. Kamoun is one of a growing number of food scientists trying to figure out how to feed the world. As an expert in plant pathogens such as Phytophthora infestans – the fungus-like microbe responsible for potato blight – he wants to make crops more resistant to disease.

Potato blight sparked the Irish famine in the 19th century, causing a million people to starve to death and another million migrants to flee. European farmers now keep the fungus in check by using pesticides. However, in regions without access to chemical sprays, it continues to wipe out enough potatoes to feed hundreds of millions of people every year.

‘Potato blight is still a problem,’ said Prof. Kamoun. ‘In Europe, we use 12 chemical sprays per season to manage the pathogen that causes blight, but other parts of the world cannot afford this.’

Plants try to fight off the pathogens that cause disease but these are continuously changing to evade detection by the plant’s immune system.

Potato blight, which caused the Irish famine in the 1800s, is still a problem today. Credit: ‘Phytophthora infestans 5610’ by I.Sáček, senior is licensed under CC0 1.0

Potato blight, which caused the Irish famine in the 1800s, is still a problem today. Credit: ‘Phytophthora infestans 5610’ by I.Sáček, senior is licensed under CC0 1.0

Arms race

In nature, every time a plant gets a little better at fighting off infection, pathogens adapt to evade their defences. Now biologists are getting involved in the fight.

‘It’s essentially an arms race between plants and pathogens,’ said Prof. Kamoun. ‘We want to turn it into an arms race between biotechnologists and pathogens by generating new defences in the lab.’

‘If we think of the genome as text, CRISPR is a word processor that allows us to change just a letter or two.’

Prof. Sophien Kamoun, Sainsbury Laboratory, UK

Five years ago, Prof. Kamoun embarked on a project called NGRB, funded by the EU’s European Research Council. The plan was to find a way to make potatoes more resistant to infection using advanced plant-breeding techniques.

Then serendipity struck. In the early stages of the project, scientists in another lab discovered a ground-breaking gene-editing technique known as CRISPR-Cas which allows scientists to delete or add genes at will. As well as having potential medical applications in humans, this powerful tool is unlocking new approaches to perfecting plants.

‘If we think of the genome as text, CRISPR is a word processor that allows us to change just a letter or two,’ explained Prof. Kamoun. ‘The precision that this allows makes CRISPR the ultimate in genetic editing. It’s really beautiful.’

One of the simplest ways to use CRISPR to improve plants is to remove a gene that makes them vulnerable to infection. This alone can make potatoes more resilient, helping to meet the world’s growing demand for food.

The resulting crop looks and tastes just the same as any other potato. Prof. Kamoun says that potatoes which are missing a gene or two should not be viewed in the same way as genetically modified foods which sometimes contain genes introduced from another species. ‘It’s a very important technical difference but not all regulators have updated their rules to make this distinction.’

Potatoes are not the only food crops that can be improved by CRISPR-Cas. Prof. Kamoun is now working on a project that aims to protect wheat from wheat blast – a fungal disease decimating yields in Bangladesh and spreading in Asia.

The fungal disease wheat blast is destroying crop yields in Bangladesh. Image credit: Kamoun Lab @ TSL

The fungal disease wheat blast is destroying crop yields in Bangladesh. Image credit: Kamoun Lab @ TSL

Looking ahead, CRISPR will be used to improve the quality and nutritional value of wheat, rice, potatoes and vegetables. It could even be used to remove genes that cause allergic reactions in people with tomato or wheat intolerance.

‘If we can remove allergens, consumers may soon see hypoallergenic tomatoes on supermarket shelves,’ Prof. Kamoun said. ‘It’s a very exciting technology.’

While targeting disease in this way could be a game changer for global food security in the years ahead, experts believe other approaches to plant breeding will continue to have a role. Understanding meiosis – a type of cell division that can reshuffle genes to improve plants – can help farmers and the agribusiness sector select for hardier crops, according to Professor Chris Franklin of the University of Birmingham, UK.

He leads the COMREC project, which trains young scientists to understand and manipulate meiosis in plants. The project applies the wealth of knowledge generated by leaders in the field to tackle the pressing problem of feeding a hungry world.

‘COMREC has begun to translate fundamental research into (applications in) key crop species such as cereals, brassicas and tomato,’ said Prof. Franklin. ‘Close links with plant-breeding companies have provided important insight into the specific challenges confronted by the breeders.’

Elite crops

There may be untapped potential in this approach to plant breeding: most of the genes naturally reshuffled during meiosis in cereal crops are at the far ends of chromosomes – genes in the middle of chromosomes are rarely reshuffled, limiting the scope for new crop variations.

COMREC’s academic and industry partners hope to understand why this is so that they can find a way to shuffle the genes in the middle of chromosomes too. And the food industry is keen to produce new ‘elite varieties’ that are better adapted to confront the challenges arising from climate change, says Prof. Franklin.

29 Comments on "Can CRISPR feed the world?"

  1. Dredd on Thu, 18th May 2017 2:35 pm 

    Hail genieology (On The Origin of Genieology) !

  2. onlooker on Thu, 18th May 2017 2:49 pm 

    Just another case of trying to extend and grow our preeminence on this Earth and consequently our impact. It is our lack of humility that refuses to accept any limits and thus puts us at ever greater imbalance with nature and with ourselves and within ourselves

  3. __________________________________ on Thu, 18th May 2017 3:47 pm 

    Please engineer a bacon wrapped potato with egg yolk and cheese inside.

  4. Sissyfuss on Thu, 18th May 2017 3:55 pm 

    Dr Atkins said all that starch converts to fat when eating potatoes. You want fries with giant lard ass of your?

  5. Cloggie on Thu, 18th May 2017 4:14 pm 

    Have spend a large part of this afternoon in the garden planting beets, carrots, garlic and spinach.

    And potatoes. Since I have only 100 m2 garden I thought of ways to utilize my 30 m2 terrace as well, inspired by this method of growing potatoes if space is a limiting factor:

    (Dutch language but self-explanatory)

    In Holland potatoes are what rice is to the Chinese. Potatoes are very easy to grow, even without fertilizer on poor soil. But they are very prone to diseases and your can’t plant new potatoes on the same location for at least 4 years.

    Better to keep the potatoes and the soil away from the regular garden with this bag method.

  6. Apneaman on Thu, 18th May 2017 6:07 pm 

    9 billion by 2040? Get fucking real. The entire globalized neo liberal religion/system is unraveling right in front of everyone, but they are too distracted and dazzled by their little tech gizmos to notice.


    Global penicillin shortages are bringing back old diseases, and creating new, deadlier ones

    “At least 18 countries, including South Africa, the US, Canada, Portugal, France, and Brazil, have faced shortages of benzathine penicillin G over the last three years”

    “With only a few companies in the world still manufacturing the medicine, countries can’t find enough supply of the drug that changed modern medicine 76 years ago.
    No one makes penicillin anymore”

    ““There is no money in penicillin,” says Amit Sengupta, the New Delhi-based global coordinator of the People’s Health Movement. A shot of benzathine penicillin G typically costs between $0.20 and $2.00, and usually all you need is one—strep throat and syphilis are both cured with a single injection of penicillin.”

    That’s just one little wound in the big picture, but techno industry society has thousands of little cuts and is well on it’s way to bleeding out.

  7. Davy on Thu, 18th May 2017 6:28 pm 

    “By 2040, there will be 9 billion people in the world.”
    I am wondering who said so? When they have an eminent unbiased honest scientist come out and say we believe beyond a reasonable doubt there will be 9BIL people by 2040 with excellent peer reviewed data then I am good with it. More than that I want one to tell me there will even be half that many people by 2040 or any people at all.

    Maybe we should try to approach this food predicament from a revolutionary approach. It is revolutionary because we must reject techno optimism with our food future. No I did not say dump it. We can’t dump techno industrial food production but we can stop building on it and start building instead resilient small communities and small farmers.

    Why won’t this happen? It won’t happen because our hijacked liberal democracy is going to protect a market based approach. Food production in a market environment is going to be technical and industrial because that is where the FUCKING money is. Let’s stop grab-assing around and realize there is going to have to be a grass roots movement that acknowledges we must return to the old ways at some levels. Instead of the indoctrinated techno slaves wanting autonomous cars and other nonsense we need people that want good food the right way.

    We can do good food the right way along with industrial agriculture but there must be a social investment to jump start it with critical mass. Call it a fancy tax name like they do with the stupid fake green carbon tax BS. Call it “good food” tax. This will support an effort to get food produced like it used to be at a smaller scale, in natural cycles, and local. Not that this is going to happen. It will and is happen here and there by the few who are awakened. Awakened people that see this needs to be done because of necessity. If we put as much effort into this as skydaddy worshipping shit would happen. Maybe the Pope himself could come out and say this is the road to salvation “DO IT” children. The honest part of that statement is we are nothing but children that are unable to do things without adults and there are no adults around.

    What we should NOT be doing is allowing fake green techno optimistic dishonest scientist push this shit. We should tell the people that push the market based approaches to food they need to stay out of the food debate. These people are criminal really but then all of us are criminals for being moderns. The Agribusiness tycoons have done enough damage. They will remain because we have no choice about it anymore that is unless we all want to participate in a die down. That is coming but maybe we can put it off for a few years. At this point any disruption to our food system may end it because it has become unsustainable and overextended in scale and mirrors our overpopulation.

    We are oblivious to the dangers ahead with overshoot of population and the ability of our food systems to support us. The Earth’s oceans are already nearly dead in many important respects. Now whole areas are dying out. We are destroying soil in overdevelopment and water in over use and dumbing down the population to good food choices. This includes how to grow it, eating local, and eating in season. If any species deserves a horrible death it is us. This is what techno optimist fake green science is giving us and we think it is great.

  8. Apneaman on Thu, 18th May 2017 6:42 pm 

    Dirt Poor: Have Fruits and Vegetables Become Less Nutritious?

    Because of soil depletion, crops grown decades ago were much richer in vitamins and minerals than the varieties most of us get today

    ” Modern intensive agricultural methods have stripped increasing amounts of nutrients from the soil in which the food we eat grows. Sadly, each successive generation of fast-growing, pest-resistant carrot is truly less good for you than the one before.”

  9. Apneaman on Thu, 18th May 2017 6:48 pm 

    Measuring the human impact of weather
    WMO issues new records of weather impacts in terms of lives lost

    May 18, 2017
    Arizona State University
    The World Meteorological Organization has announced today world records for the highest reported historical death tolls from tropical cyclones, tornadoes, lightning and hailstorms. It marks the first time the official WMO Archive of Weather and Climate Extremes has broadened its scope from strictly temperature and weather records to address the impacts of specific events.

  10. Apneaman on Thu, 18th May 2017 7:11 pm 

    Climate change is turning Antarctica green, say researchers

    In the past 50 years the quantity and rate of plant growth has shot up, says study, suggesting further warming could lead to rapid ecosystem changes

    “The cores reveal that the warming climate of Antarctica in the past 50 years has spurred on biological activity: the rate of moss growth is now four to five times higher than it was pre-1950.”

  11. Apneaman on Thu, 18th May 2017 7:18 pm 

    Miles of Ice Collapsing Into the Sea

    “The acceleration is making some scientists fear that Antarctica’s ice sheet may have entered the early stages of an unstoppable disintegration.”

    Fear it? Hell no, I embrace it.

  12. Anonymouse on Thu, 18th May 2017 7:32 pm 

    If nature has had millions of years to naturally select plants with the characteristics above, the question is, why haven’t such beneficial variants(or mutations) occurred in nature by now?

    OR, we could ask this question from another angle: Why is it not possibly to naturally breed for these wonder [insert food crop] here attributes, without having to resort to the methods preferred by the franken-food-industry? Why is it necessary to tinker with plants at the genetic level in the first place. This is a question that seldom seems to get asked. Or if it does get asked, its usually by people outside the industry, and almost never by those on the ‘inside’. Clearly, the end-goal here is something other then ‘feeding the worlds poor’, or eliminating plant disease(an impossible goal in any event).

    All these ‘feed-the-world-poor-and-hungry- slogans bandied about by the industry should be taken with a grain of salt. Look at what a monster monsanto has become with even the crude, primitive and clumsy gene-tech at its disposal. If monsantos record is anything to go by, this ‘tech’ should be buried permanently, along with its proponents as well.

  13. Apneaman on Thu, 18th May 2017 8:33 pm 

    Looming Floods, Cities Threatened

    “The risk is clear: Antarctica’s collapse has the potential to inundate coastal cities across the globe.

    Over tens of millions of years, thin layers of snow falling on the continent — in many places, just a light dusting every year — were pressed into ice, burying mountain ranges and building an ice sheet more than two miles thick. Under its own weight, that ice flows downhill in slow-moving streams that eventually drop icebergs into the sea.

    If that ice sheet were to disintegrate, it could raise the level of the sea by more than 160 feet — a potential apocalypse, depending on exactly how fast it happened.”

    In addition to the big cancer cities and their essential ports being rendered useless, a great amount of the best agriculture lands will be ruined. Another foot will be enough to throw the human world into chaos. When not if.

  14. Apneaman on Thu, 18th May 2017 9:46 pm 

    Anonymouse, haven’t the humans been playing Dr Frankenstein with the plant foods [artificial selection, grafting] long before the word science was coined? Hell before writing. I think they started right after they extincted the mega fauna. Mama necessity and all that.

    Note the pictures in the articles of the plant [teosinte] the corn started out as and compare to a big sweet juicy cob they created.

    Corn Domesticated From Mexican Wild Grass 8,700 Years Ago

    “Balsas teosinte, a large wild grass that grows in the Central Balsas River Valley of Mexico, is the closest relative to maize.

    Ranere said that the studies confirmed that maize derived from teosinte, a large wild grass that has five species growing in Mexico, Guatemala and Nicaragua, The teosinte species that is closest to maize is Balsas teosinte, which is native to Mexico’s Central Balsas River Valley, he said in a news statement about the research.Evolution of Corn”

    Evolution of Corn

    “The history of modern-day maize begins at the dawn of human agriculture, about 10,000 years ago. Ancient farmers in what is now Mexico took the first steps in domesticating maize when they simply chose which kernels (seeds) to plant. These farmers noticed that not all plants were the same. Some plants may have grown larger than others, or maybe some kernels tasted better or were easier to grind. The farmers saved kernels from plants with desirable characteristics and planted them for the next season’s harvest. This process is known as selective breeding or artificial selection. Maize cobs became larger over time, with more rows of kernels, eventually taking on the form of modern maize. ”

    “Through the study of genetics, we know today that corn’s wild ancestor is a grass called teosinte. Teosinte doesn’t look much like maize, especially when you compare its kernals to those of corn. But at the DNA level, the two are surprisingly alike. They have the same number of chromosomes and a remarkably similar arrangement of genes. In fact, teosinte can cross-breed with modern maize varieties to form maize-teosinte hybrids that can go on to reproduce naturally.”

    The clever, insatiable reward seeking humans made such efficient hunting weapons and had perfected their hunting strategy so good they extincted their main food source. So out of necessity they invented agriculture 10,000 years ago – the dates of the end of the mega fauna and the beginning of farming are a perfect match.

    Humans responsible for demise of gigantic ancient mammals

    Early humans were the dominant cause of the extinction of a variety of species of giant beasts, new research has revealed.

    “Known collectively as megafauna, most of the largest mammals ever to roam the earth were wiped out over the last 80,000 years, and were all extinct by 10,000 years ago.”

    See, way back grandpa and grandma were cancers too. Unlike us, they still had room to grow and plenty of glucose to suck up. The only difference between us and them is scale and complexity. Agriculture started at 11:45 – were at 11:59 and an unknown number of seconds and nowhere left to go.

  15. Apneaman on Thu, 18th May 2017 9:48 pm 

    Corn Domesticated From Mexican Wild Grass 8,700 Years Ago

  16. DerHundistlos on Thu, 18th May 2017 10:53 pm 


    Well stated.

  17. DerHundistlos on Thu, 18th May 2017 11:07 pm 

    The agriscientists are so damn proud of producing fruit without seeds (as if the deplorables retain any teeth in which seeds may get stuck). Instead it’s about the convenience factor. Like a human without reproductive organs. There is going to be hell to be paid for all of these violations of the natural world.

  18. Cloggie on Fri, 19th May 2017 2:53 am 

    Miles of Ice Collapsing Into the Sea

    Yeah tragic. In the old days seawater spontaneously jumped up into the sky, froze and added itself to that beautiful giant gletscher that is Antarctica. No more, so sad.

    Seriously, so where is Antarctica supposed to dump parts of its every growing ice sheet?

  19. rockman on Fri, 19th May 2017 8:24 am 

    Another case of a “predicament” which, like all predicaments (unlike problems) there are no solutions just better and worse responses. Increase the amount of yield and prices go down. For a while…which potentially reduces profit margins. And then there’s the obviously cruel reality: higher survival rate of the world’s poor = more poor children born and survive. As many have pointed out one of the most critical issues is population growth. Any efforts that increases the count only makes the situation worse.

    And that’s just one more very sad predicament.

  20. Hello on Fri, 19th May 2017 11:58 am 

    >>>> Humans responsible for demise of gigantic ancient mammals

    Except in africa. Where the local apes where not able to master big game hunting.

    But then again, what you expect from apes that wear jeans at knee height and can’t remove a price tag from a ball cap? Not much I guess.

  21. peakyeast on Fri, 19th May 2017 12:14 pm 

    Past warmning periods has been significantly warmer than the current point we are in. The change in CO2 is the difference – so far the changes has not resulted in anything that nature couldnt have thrown at us all by itself.

    The real problem is only too many people – on what is going to become less arable useful land. Adapting to changing climate (either way) was always in the cards.

  22. Apneaman on Fri, 19th May 2017 12:35 pm 

    peakyeast you don’t know what your talking about and are embarrassing yourself like all the other denier fuck heads.

    What if I shot you in the head then told the police and judge that I did not do anything nature couldn’t have done?

    Nature was going to kill him someday anyway your honor.

    Case dismissed….bang bang!…. and thank you for ridding the world of another retard.

  23. Apneaman on Fri, 19th May 2017 12:51 pm 

    Early Heat Wave Breaking Records in Northeast US Cities
    Heat records are burning up in several U.S. cities as the Northeast region gets a summer preview.

  24. Apneaman on Fri, 19th May 2017 12:53 pm 

    Heat wave intensifies in Odisha as mercury touches 47 degree Celsius[116.6 F]

    12 die in Telangana heat wave

    “Tribal Agriculture Extension Officer working in Suryapet district among the dead; Ramagundam sizzles at 46 degrees ”

  25. onlooker on Fri, 19th May 2017 12:55 pm 

    Yep, felt it today when I went out. Kinduv sucks already in May

  26. Apneaman on Fri, 19th May 2017 12:55 pm 

    Coal plants failed in Queensland heatwave on day of record demand

    “Are Australia’s coal and gas generators fit for purpose to power Australia through next summer’s heatwaves? The evidence of last summer suggests they cannot be relied upon, with a new report showing how coal plants melted in the heat in Queensland on a day of record demand.”

  27. Apneaman on Fri, 19th May 2017 1:22 pm 

    April 2017: Earths 2nd Warmest April on Record

    Three billion-dollar weather disasters in April 2017

    “Three billion-dollar weather disasters hit the Earth last month, according to the April 2017 Catastrophe Report from insurance broker Aon Benfield: two severe weather/tornado outbreaks in the U.S., and a $2 billion tropical cyclone in Australia (Debbie.) Earth has registered nine billion-dollar weather events in 2017, which is a high number for so early in the year. The year that ended with the most billion-dollar weather disasters in records going back to 1990 was 2013, with 41, and that year had eleven billion-dollar disasters by the end of April. Last year, there were already fifteen billion-dollar weather disasters by the end of April (that year ended up with 31 such disasters.) Here are this year’s billion-dollar weather disasters through the end of April:

    Flooding, Peru, 1/1 – 4/1, $3.1 billion, 120 killed
    Tropical Cyclone Debbie, 3/27 – 4/5, $2.0 billion, 14 killed
    Drought, Somalia, Ethiopia, Kenya, 1/1 – 3/31, $1.9 billion, 136+ killed
    Severe Weather, Plains, Southeast, Midwest U.S., 3/26 – 3/28, $1.8 billion, 0 killed
    Severe Weather, Midwest, Plains, Southeast U.S., 3/6 – 3/10, $1.7 billion, 0 killed
    Severe Weather, South U.S., 1/18 – 1/23, $1.3 billion, 21 killed
    Severe Weather, South U.S., 2/27 – 3/2, $1.3 billion, 4 killed
    Winter Weather, Plains, Southeast, Midwest, Northeast U.S., 3/13 – 3/15, $1.0 billion, 11 killed
    Severe Weather, Midwest, Plains, Southeast MS Valley U.S., 4/28 – 5/01, $1.0 billion, 20 killed”

  28. bobinget on Fri, 19th May 2017 1:23 pm 

    Often overlooked, the Saudis are turning to solar power to run air conditioning, rather then oil.

    One wonders how PV’s hold up under F 125 degree heat? (mine fall off 30% over 95 degrees, PV’s at their best on clear COLD winter daze)
    Better, I’ll bet than human oil workers.
    Robots next for Saudi outdoor work.

    If a person has plenty of water, Saudis don’t, try spraying the UNDERSIDE of each panel.

  29. bobinget on Fri, 19th May 2017 2:34 pm 

    Yup, it’s getting hotter. How’s come our dear leader hasn’t noticed?
    Well sirs, I’ll tell ya.

    Growing up middle class in Miami, one figures out how to manage .
    One goes from air conditioned bedroom to air conditioned car to air conditioned work environment.

    Today, almost every middle class home is climate controlled. For rich and wealthy, more so.

    As a kid in Miami there was only one dept. store with AC. Most movie houses offered a cool place to spend three hours. That was it.

    A must for bachelors, male or female, were window AC’s .
    What did poor folks in Miami do? Perspire and smell badly.

    With no AC humid cities like Miami would simply revert back to winter vacation spots.
    One treasured memory I hold dear.

    As a ‘pool boy’, in summers I worked in many Miami Beach hotels. (yes it’s true, pool boys got laid.. often)
    But, that’s not the memory. It was seeing mob wives to
    doctor’s wives sitting around in ice cold lobbies wearing firs of every description. 90 degrees, 100% humidity outside and these ladies were all done up, in July daytime mind you, in mink and fox.

    The term ‘trophy wife’ wasn’t born yet in 1950’s Miami Beach but she was sure visible under all that tan and fir..

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