Corn has helped feed and create many civilizations, and these civilizations also helped create corn through meticulous selective breeding. In fact, today’s corn grain hardly resembles its ancestors. Compared to the wild plant first cultivated by ancient Mexicans some ten thousand years ago, the modern corn is a super mutant. However, even after all those thousands of years of cultivation, just two main genes are the only ones responsible for the evolution of the corn we eat today. Unfortunately, selective breeding of corn is painstakingly slow and imprecise, as history will attest, has taken man centuries to achieve.
Hopefully, all that is about to change. New gene editing tools like CRISPR/Cas9 now allows scientists to hack into genomes, make precise incisions, and insert desired traits into plants and animals. Because of this, corn may now have higher crop yields, mushrooms will not wilt brown, pigs will have more meat on the bone and cattle may be disease resistant. Changes that took years, decades, or even centuries, can now be made in a matter of months. In the next five years people may be eating tortilla chips made from edited corn. By 2020 people might drink milk from an edited cow.
Dubbed the “CRISPR Revolution” these scientific advances in gene editing have huge potential that many experts think could help fortify our food system and provide more for an increasing population of farmers who are threatened by food scarcity caused, in part, by fossil fuel pollution and unwise garbage disposal. However, some advocates caution that CRISPR science can call into question who can and who cannot use the technology. In fact, some consumer rights advocates think these tools may be used to maintain the status quo of an industry based primarily on corporate profit. Meanwhile, residual worry about genetically modified organisms (GMOs) may influence the public perception of gene-edited organisms and may steer consumers towards so-called “organic” products despite the scientific evidence.
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What is gene editing?
Gene editing is the act of making intentional changes to DNA in order to create an organism with a specific trait or traits. Geneticists insist we should not confuse this with genetic modification – also called genetic engineering – that introduces new genes from different species in order to achieve desired traits. The difference may sound trivial but experts say it could help calm the concerns associated with GMOs.
According to Rachel Haurwitz, co-founder of Caribou Biosciences, “In 2012, Jennifer Doudna and Emmanuelle Charpentier published the first paper demonstrating how CRISPR can be used to edit an organism’s genome. Gene editing is not at all about taking DNA from a foreign species and integrating it into a plant. It’s about working within the constraints of the plant’s own genome.” Haurwitz founded Caribou Biosciences as a spin off from Doudna’s lab at the University of California, Berkeley. Since then, these researchers have partnered with companies around the world, providing licensing rights to use the startup’s version of the gene editing tool.