A new generation of genetically edited organisms has arrived and if early results are any indication, it has the potential to revolutionize the food manufacturing industry, as well as numerous industries.
On Monday, DuPont Pioneer announced the USDA will not subject a waxy corn hybrid created with CRISPR Cas9 gene-editing technology to regulations applied to traditional GMOs. The gene changes the functionality of starch. DuPont’s officials believe the corn can be planted in fields in five years. The company is also growing CRISPR-edited wheat.
And last week, a white button mushroom developed at Penn State University was the first CRISPR Cas9-edited organism to be cleared from USDA oversight. In the mushroom, one of six genes for polyphenol oxidase, an enzyme that causes browning, was lowered by 30%. The result is a longer shelf life and a decrease in browning that results from damage during mechanical harvesting, Yinong Yang, Ph.D., associate professor of plant pathology, Penn State University, told Food Dive. He is part of the team that developed the CRISPR-edited mushroom. He is also researching the use of the technology in rice.
These decisions by the USDA open the door for scientists to continue researching CRISPR technologies in rice, wheat, soybeans and bananas, for example. With CRISPR Cas9, scientists can cut or modify DNA at any point within a genome and splice the ends back together, all without introducing foreign DNA, which turns off consumers. Even though traditional GMOs have been found to be safe to eat, CRISPR-edited foods may fundamentally shift the consumer perception of genetically edited foods.
This could also save the Cavendish banana, an important ingredient for many manufacturers, from being wiped out due to a fungal disease. Companies such as Dannon are using CRISPR technology to create strains of bacteria to produce more flavorful yogurt, according to New York Times Magazine. Other fermented foods are expected to use the technology as well.
Why the food industry cares about CRISPR Cas9
CRISPR stands for clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats. Cas9 is an enzyme that disables a virus. CRISPR precisely targets genes to delete or modify, which offers advantages to food industry manufacturers. "Further down the road, this technology will help to achieve food safety, food security and environmental sustainability," Yang said. Benefits include the deletion of certain allergens, say from peanuts; removing toxins; and changing the functionality of starch. "Some [technologies] existed prior, in low quality or in certain plants but not in other plants," Yang said. "Using this technology you can modify the functionality of food components; improving functionality improves quality." Yang told a Penn State reporter: "[CRISPR] is seen as the most important breakthrough in biotechnology so far this century."
That is because CRISPR technology is a more precise way to alter genomes. The technology doesn’t involve the addition of plant pests (viruses or bacteria), which is a common practice with GMOs. Instead of inserting genes from a different species into a plant, the idea is to use genes from other varieties of the same plant, those occurring naturally, Yang said.
The USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service has already cleared from regulation about 30 other crops that are using the next generation of gene-editing tools such as zinc finger nuclease technology and transcription activator-like effector nuclease technology, which have achieved similar results to CRISPR, Yang said.
Last fall, DuPont Pioneer entered a strategic alliance with Caribou Biosciences to advance their respective CRISPR-derived genome editing tech platforms. Caribou was founded by the pioneers of the CRISPR technology, Dr. Jennifer Doudna and her colleagues. "Genome editing, through the use of CRISPR-Cas technology, is of particular interest to DuPont as a way to accelerate plant breeding and address the need for increased global food production," James Borel, executive vice president, DuPont, said in a statement.
"In the way we are doing it, and there are several ways to do it, we are not introducing foreign DNA from plant pests such as viruses or bacteria, which could be a concern for consumers, although not all foreign DNA are bad," Yang said. "With CRISPR, we have the ability to achieve things we couldn’t do with existing technologies."