Gene editing is the hottest new technique in biotechnology.
Even though biologists have been editing the genes of organisms for the past two decades, a hot new development has revolutionized the way it is accomplished.
This breakthrough is known as “clustered, regularly interspaced, short, palindromic repeats,” or CRISPR for short.
Unlike older methods of editing genes, which could cost thousands of dollars, biologists are able to edit the genes of nearly any organism for about $30 using CRISPR.
CRISPR was originally a mechanism that bacteria used to defend themselves from their enemies.
It uses an RNA molecule as a guide to target specific DNA sequences for alteration.
In nature, CRISPRs target the DNA of viruses and render them harmless to the bacteria they would normally infect, but biologists can alter the RNA guide so that it targets any DNA sequence.
It’s been proposed as a way to eliminate genetic disease from animals and even humans, although the possibility of editing the genes of human embryos is still far off.
More urgently, scientists are considering using CRISPR to edit the genomes of wild organisms.
This could potentially eliminate disease-carrying pests like ticks and mosquitos, help counter invasive species and eliminate pesticide-resistant weeds.
Some also think CRISPR could be used to introduce genetic variation into the dwindling populations of endangered species and help prevent or postpone their extinction.
All of these are just possible applications for the future.
However, CRISPR is being used to produce brand new crops — most notably a mushroom that is resistant to browning.
Scientists used CRISPR to deactivate an enzyme in the mushroom known as polyphenol oxidase, the activity of which makes mushrooms turn brown.
This mushroom is causing quite a stir, and not because it is a major advancement for science.
The United States Department of Agriculture recently decided that this mushroom does not qualify as a genetically modified organism and is therefore exempt from the regulations that usually control GMO crops.
While the mushroom is the first to be produced using the CRISPR method, it is one of about 30 GMOs to have side-stepped regulations.
Traditional GMOs are produced by inserting genes from other organisms — usually bacteria or other plants — into crop plants.
Gene-edited crops do not qualify as GMOs because they do not contain any foreign DNA.
They have merely had their natural genes slightly altered.
The research community cannot contain its excitement over this decision.
Passing federal regulations on GMOs makes the production and sale of the GMOs prohibitively costly.
Now scientists can produce and distribute custom-made crops quickly and cheaply.
This means that the GMO market can be released from the control of a few large corporations and be left in the hands of any biologist with a marketable idea.
So far, scientists have already produced browning-resistant apples and potatoes, but many other possibilities are on the way.
Here at IU, the lab of Roger Innes is looking to use CRISPR to produce disease-resistant barley and soybean, and it is just one of many labs around the world finding new ways to produce healthier foods for the world to eat.
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