A powerful new set of research tools that enable gene editing promise to provide agricultural researchers the potential to precisely work with genomes to develop a wide range of improved livestock and crops.
The new technology, researchers say, is giving both land grant universities and private laboratories the ability to create resistance to devastating and costly animal diseases, such as Porcine Reproductive and Respiratory Syndrome or PRRS. It’s helping researchers develop corn, soybeans and other crops that produce higher yields by resisting drought and diseases. And, researchers say, gene editing has the potential to create more valuable crops and livestock that add value for consumers and bring higher prices for farmers.
“This technology creates a huge opportunity for agriculture,” said Jason Ross, an Iowa State University (ISU) animal sciences professor and director of the Iowa Pork Industry Center. “If we want to be able to feed 9 billion people in the not-too-distant future, we’re going to need technologies like this.”
Others agree. “The technology is extremely positive for agriculture because of its speed and accuracy,” said Chris Tuggle, an animal science professor at ISU, who works with Ross. “It gives us the ability to make very precise changes in genes that are very predictable.”
While gene editing shows immense promise, researchers say it will be critical for their community, as well as farmers, regulators and others, to help the public understand the technology and feel comfortable about it. It’s essential, they say, to avoid the consumer confusion that has occurred over genetically modified crops or GMOs.
“We need to share the science and communicate the benefits of gene editing, starting with medical benefits that consumers can support and relate to,” said Kevin Folta, a University of Florida researcher who spoke recently at the American Farm Bureau Federation (AFBF) convention in Nashville. “Farmers and scientists need to be at the forefront, driving the conversation on innovation and its benefits to consumers.”
Consumer acceptance to gene editing will be essential because of the experience with GMOs, said Charlie Arnot, who leads the Center for Food Integrity, a nonprofit organization dedicated to building consumer trust and confidence in today’s food system.
“There is a lot to like about this technology,” he said. “And we want to be able to avoid the stigma that was associated with GMOs.”
In addition, Arnot said, it will be important to build a broad base of support for gene-editing technologies among food retailers, restaurant chains and others in the consumer food delivery chain.
It’s also important to ensure that federal regulations in gene editing are in synch with the risk, said Alison Van Eenennaam, a leading animal genetics researcher at the University of California at Davis. She worries that regulations, especially ones for animals with traits developed through gene editing, could delay progress and put the United States behind other countries in the development process.
The system of gene editing is built on earlier scientific advancements, including the sequencing of the entire genome of many plants and animals and the development of more powerful computers for analyzing large amounts of data. One key procedure uses technology to search inside the genome for desired traits. Then researchers can use the technology, such as CRISPR-Cas9, to edit the DNA by deleting DNA sequences that control undesirable traits or add sequences controlling favorable ones.
Importantly, the gene editing with the CRISPR-Cas system occurs entirely within a genome and doesn’t introduce genes from other species.
The result, said ISU’s Tuggle, is that scientists can use gene editing to create genetic variations that have already been observed in some species or breeds within a species that are known to be beneficial into other breeds and are already making significant contributions to animal agriculture.
“We are able to identify a variant that is beneficial and move it quickly and accurately into a target,” he said.
One promising advance using gene editing, ISU’s Ross said, has been the development of pigs with resistance to PRRS, a disease estimated to cost U.S. hog raisers some $600 million annually.
Researchers at the University of Missouri, Kansas State University and Genus PLC used gene editing to remove a protein that the PRRS virus utilizes to gain entry into the cell. Testing has shown pigs without the targeted protein weren’t susceptible to PRRS, but also had no other changes.
“If you can keep PRRS from going through a hog barn, that is a tremendous advantage,” Ross said.
Van Eenennaam described gene editing as “the cherry on top of conventional animal breeding programs.” It allows researchers to target favorable genetic material, without adding all of the other genes brought along in cross breeding.
Rsearchers are also employing gene editing in crops to reduce a plant’s susceptibility to disease, insects or drought. In addition, researchers are using gene editing to improve crops by upgrading oil profiles or to remove allergens.
There is a wide variety of research going on at both public universities and private labs, in part, because gene editing is relatively inexpensive, Tuggle said. That’s allowing researchers to look for a solution to a wide range of issues for animals and crops, he said.