Why urgent action is needed
One of the biggest challenges facing humankind is how to feed an increasing world population while minimizing the impact on the environment. According to the United Nations, we may need to provide food for an additional 3 billion people by 2100. Current patterns of land use – including the destruction of forests and wetlands to increase agricultural production – contribute 23% of all greenhouse gas emissions caused by human activities, and at least a third of the annual global food production is wasted, including losses due to disease and insects.
As the climate changes, we urgently need to engineer plants that can withstand harsher climatic conditions and exposure to new pests and diseases. Genome editing using CRISPR technology may be a key approach to improving agricultural production. It is already being used to increase the protein content of foods, enhance disease resistance and extend the shelf life of fruit and vegetables. It also has the potential to dramatically accelerate tree breeding programs and incorporate desired genetic alterations.
Scientists are now using CRISPR to develop microbes that enhance the nutritional composition of the soil and change gas absorption and emissions so that certain cultures emit less methane or absorb more CO2. In parallel, CRISPR is also being used in basic research to build up libraries of plant mutations which may prove useful in the future.
Using CRISPR technology to fight climate change
Professor Virginijus Šikšnys, chief scientist and head of the department of protein–DNA Interactions at the Vilnius University Institute of Biotechnology was one of the first people to demonstrate programmable DNA cleavage by Cas9 protein. His work has contributed to turning the Baltic state of Lithuania into a hotspot for CRISPR research. He is also trailblazing research that applies genome editing in environmental science. The potential of the technology is great, but a shift in public opinion is needed. Monika Paulė, board member of the Lithuanian Biotech Association is working alongside Šikšnys in this endeavor.
Moderating a panel at the recent LifeSciencesBaltics conference, Paulė called for action: “To fight the climate crisis, we need to make sure that every region in the world can grow enough food locally. This is a reliable way to lower the environmental costs of transportation and fight world hunger simultaneously. With CRISPR, we can reduce the environmental impact of food and agriculture in all the most problematic domains – greenhouse gasses, land use, freshwater use and biodiversity,” she said.
According to Paulė, plant genome editing can increase the resistance of plants that are sensitive to heat, drought and saltation. The same technology can also enhance disease resistance and increase the productivity of plants, enabling farmers to get more yield from the same patch of land. Genome editing is also used to improve the retention of nutrients in plants and their ability to take up nutrients from the soil. This reduces reliance on synthesized fertilizers, cutting the pollution emitted in the manufacturing process and making more eco produce available to the market.
“CRISPR-Cas can also help reverse some of the damage brought about by changes in temperature and weather conditions. As the [Earth] temperature rises, we are susceptible to losing native plants species; for example, certain types of grapes used for traditional winemaking. With CRISPR, we can make those species adapt. Furthermore, we can bring back the types of plants that have already been lost,” said Paulė.
A vital application of the technology is reducing food waste: “Up to 45% of food goes to waste globally, producing billions of tons of carbon emissions each year. Currently, producers keep fruits and vegetables fresh by exposing them to 1-methyl cyclopropane, fungicides and cooling the produce, which is a highly energy-consuming method of conservation. With CRISPR, we can extend the shelf life of our agricultural production, securing them from pathogens and accommodating plants with natural defence mechanisms,” added Paulė.
Overcoming barriers to widespread implementation
Most of the initiatives dedicated to CRISPR application in agriculture are in the development phase. “It is highly motivating that scientists and academia are implementing a major part of the projects in close cooperation with businesses. However, there are legal challenges for CRISPR. While the US favours gene editing, the regulation in European countries does not differentiate between gene modification and gene editing, treating gene-edited produce as GMOs. This leads to negative public sentiment, misleading people into thinking that CRISPR is as controversial as gene modification,“ Paulė commented.
She emphasized, “CRISPR technology is rapidly improving, but science is not easily expedited. For the breakthroughs to happen earlier, CRISPR research needs more funding and more cooperation. COVID-19 showed that results may be achieved quickly when there is a perfect storm – when scientists are open and share their findings, investors believe in the necessity of the solution, and governments strongly support the initiatives. With increased funding and a change in public opinion, CRISPR has huge potential to help humans and our planet.”
Experts participating in the Life Sciences Baltics panel agreed with Paulė that CRISPR will play an important role in the future of both medicine and agriculture. They likened it to cloning 30 years ago, and added that CRISPR democratises science by making gene editing a tool available all researchers. The possibilities seem endlesshowever a shift in public opinion is still needed. This does appear to be happening among younger people – and even farmers themselves – but public education needs to on every scientist’s agenda, the panel concluded.