Opinion: CRISPR will be key in medicine and agriculture

Guest column by Sophia Cordaro

When you hear the word “crisper,” you might think about the texture describing a chicken nugget, or the way the grass feels in the dry heat of July. However, this word is also the name of a life-saving gene-editing technology. CRISPR, or clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats, provides several benefits in the broad field of biology – specifically, in the medical and agricultural realms.

CRISPR’s main usage is incorporating and replacing “new DNA” into your genome, which can protect individuals from returning pathogens and infections. This can enhance immune system abilities. A good example of this comes from David E. Newton’s book DNA Technology: Scientists have used CRISPR to identify systems used for attacking harmful DNA or RNA through the process of genetic editing. Another way this comes in handy is tackling human immunodeficiency virus, or HIV. Typically, HIV-infected cells are nearly impossible to revert back to normal healthy cells, but CRISPR can be used to “splice” the HIV out of the genomes of cells, making them HIV-free. More of this process is explained in-depth in The CRISPR Pioneers, an article by Time journalist Alice Park.

Scientists and geneticists are working with CRISPR to cure cancer and alleviate the risks of harmful diseases before they occur. CRISPR technology is used to alter cancer patients’ genes within their immune cells to transform them into cancer-fighting immune cells. Genes that can cause unhealthy or unusual development within human embryos can be edited or deleted completely to ensure healthy growth and life.

Another area where CRISPR has potential to shine is within agricultural processes. Potatoes have the unfortunate ability to produce the carcinogen acrylamides when cooked at too high of a heat, however, the gene that causes acrylamides production can be edited out with CRISPR.  CRISPR helps solve the problem of growing more crops to keep up with the ever-increasing population by editing disease-resistant genes of crops like corn and soybeans, two of Iowa’s most important key crops. CRISPR has even been used in cases involving livestock: University of Missouri biologists have used CRISPR to breed the first ever litter of disease-resistant pigs.

One of CRISPR’s most popular uses within the agricultural fields is editing the genes of crops to make them browning-resistant. Researchers at Penn State University used CRISPR to edit the genes of the white button mushroom to prevent it from browning, which was one of the first major anti-browning experiments done using genetic engineering technology. Another way this comes in handy is with the conservation of food systems: 40% of food in the United States ends up in landfills, but with anti-browning crops, this number can decrease significantly.

On the other hand, there is a strong anti-GMO movement that has had an increased uptake in the past few years. According to the Non-GMO Project’s lifestyle site, “Living Non-GMO”, the anti-GMO movement is based on the principle that all people deserve the right to know what goes into their food and how it may affect them. As of the day I am constructing this piece (March 10th, 2019), there are over 50,000 non-GMO verified products available for purchase at over 14,000 registered retailers. I don’t disagree with the statement behind the project, as I also want to be an informed consumer and know what exactly is in my food and what that means for my health. However, scientists using gene-editing technology on crops and food products don’t have a malicious intent in the production process – these food products go through rigorous testing to ensure that they will provide the same benefits as non-GMO foods, on top of added benefits from the technological advances that come with gene-editing technology like CRISPR. At the end of the day, it is important to do plenty of research before purchasing and consuming these edited food items though, as being an informed consumer is important for your health and others.

CRISPR editing technology provides important agricultural and medical benefits. With technology already being so prevalent and important in our everyday lives, it may not be so far off incorporating it into our meals and healthcare as well.

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