As demand for berries sees significant growth, a three-year-old startup aims to change the DNA of these plants to make them more enticing to both consumers and the producers who raise them.
Pairwise, based in North Carolina, is using CRISPR gene-editing technology to change the DNA of blackberries and black raspberries to remove the seeds, improve the plant structure so the fruit is more easily accessible, and remove thorns from the bushes to make harvesting more efficient and safer.
Tom Adams, the co-founder and CEO of Pairwise, said executives noticed that while berry demand was on the rise, there were obstacles deterring many people from consuming and farmers from growing the produce, including the seeds, messiness, a short shelf life and a lack of consistency in flavor and texture. In some cases, producers will move past a better-tasting berry in favor of one that is easier to harvest.
Adams said Pairwise wanted to "get rid of seeds and bring the kind of properties into it that are in the other berries, so that we can expand the choices and give people more [options] for a healthy diet,” Adams said.
Pairwise started working in 2018 with the blackberry and the less familiar black raspberry, which contains high levels of anthocyanin and five to six times as many antioxidants as a blueberry, according to the company. Unlike the red raspberry, which was imported from Turkey, the black version originated in North America. It contains more seeds, is firmer and has a different flavor profile from its red counterpart.
The black raspberry has been largely confined to the wild, so it will take more time to show growers the benefits of the fruit once Pairwise makes changes, the company said. With much more known about the blackberry, the fruit is about a year ahead of the black raspberry when it comes to development.
Still, despite the insight researchers have amassed about the blackberry, there is plenty of room to make improvements. Blackberry bushes tend to grow really big, and many of the plants contain thorns, so Pairwise is aiming to make changes to these characteristics in addition to removing the seeds.
Pairwise aims to have both berries on store shelves in the middle of this decade, Adams said.
GMO plants have long been vilified by critics skeptical about the safety of these crops in everyday foods and in the environment in which they grow. Adams, a former vice president at Monsanto, said one question Pairwise frequently gets from retailers is whether the fruits and vegetables they are creating are genetically modified.
Pairwise uses CRISPR, a process where it can remove or change the sequence of the genome so a specific trait doesn't appear or a desired characteristic is more pronounced. Unlike genetic modification where new DNA material is added to the plant, Pairwise is making changes to what is already there. When Pairwise's berries and other products reach shelves, they will include a code that directs consumers to a website providing information on how they were produced and discussing the use of gene editing.
“It'll be easy for consumers to make choices, whereas with ingredients, things get added into many things that you don't know which has a GMO and which doesn't," Adams said. "This will be very clear what it is and we want to be transparent about the gene editing component.”
In addition to berries, Pairwise is working on other types of produce that are in various stages of development. Leafy greens, which the company has altered to offset their pungency, will be rolled out to consumers next year through various events, with a broader commercial launch planned in 2023.
At the same time, the removal of a pit from a cherry — one of the company's earliest ideas — is taking longer in part because of the time it takes to grow the tree. If Pairwise succeeds with a cherry, it could apply its insights to other pitted fruits such as nectarines.
Pairwise hopes making these changes will entice adults and children to increase their consumption of fruits and vegetables.
A 2017 report from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said 12.2% of American adults ate their recommended daily dose of fruit in 2015, and only 9.3% ate the suggested amount of vegetables that year. The 2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans advise adults to eat the equivalent of 1.5 to 2 cups of fruit and 2 to 3 cups of vegetables daily.
"It’s a big challenge to get enough healthy, fresh produce in people's diets that I think there are numerous opportunities," Adams said.