CRISPR-Cas9 Genome Editing to Increase Crops Yields

What is CRISPR Genome Editing?

An illustration of using the genome editing technology CRISPR/Cas9 in plants
Image source: genome.gov

According to internationally recognized Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard, CRISPR can best be defined as:

Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats (CRISPR) are the hallmark of a bacterial defense system that forms the basis for CRISPR-Cas9 genome editing technology. 

In the field of genome engineering, the term “CRISPR” or “CRISPR-Cas9” is often used loosely to refer to the various CRISPR-Cas9 and -CPF1, (and other) systems that can be programmed to target specific stretches of genetic code and to edit DNA at precise locations.  With these systems, researchers can permanently modify genes in living cells without the use of foreign DNA.  

In laymen’s terms? CRISPR is a potentially game-changing technology in both agriculture and human biology that is allowing the development of new crops with new compositional and performance profiles as well as treatments for previously intractable genetic diseases.

Improving Crops Yields Using the CRISPR-Cas9 Based Genome Editing System

Over the past few years, there has been significant interest from the scientific and investment community in the use of CRISPR for both therapeutic and agricultural applications.  

GMO Corn
Image source: newatlas.com

As is often experienced in the biotechnology industry during periods of innovation and rapid ascent towards commercialization, the agriculture sector is currently undergoing a period of excitement as well as reflection surrounding its own recent technological advancements.

The discussion and debate surrounding advances in agriculture have evolved and become prevalent topics of discussion. Many now weigh the pros and cons of technologies like genetically modified organisms (GMOs), and the use of organic versus non-organic agricultural methods, which allows the conversation and respective concepts to continue to creep their way into consumer consciousness and the grocery aisle.

However, those discussions have advanced and the concept of genome editing a plant’s actual biological makeup using a precise method such as CRISPR, is becoming more prevalent in the agtech and food industry conversation.

Think of CRISPR technology as a pair of molecular scissors that allow scientists to make precise changes to the plant genome (the genetic makeup of an organism), such as a deletion to inactivate a specific gene, or an insertion of plant DNA to add a trait or functionality to the plant. To receive nonregulated status, the changes made to plants using CRISPR technology must only use plant DNA, not non-plant DNA. In essence, CRISPR technology enables scientists for the first time to tap into the genetic diversity of plants to alter and then leverage gene traits that are already present in the plant kingdom.

For all the technological progress that has been made in North American agriculture such as the development of hybrids, the deployment of biotech traits, and the use of precision agriculture methods, there are still a number of major unmet needs in the industry. Increasingly volatile and unpredictable weather patterns, water shortages and a global reduction in arable land are all frequent reminders that we need to innovate much further.

The role the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) has played over the past few years to spur innovation in agriculture cannot be understated. In 2018, the USDA issued a statement from Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue in 2018 clarifying its position on CRISPR-use, one that emphasized it will not over-regulate the use of the technology in the sector, thus "green-lighting" gene-edited crops moving forward.

This critical decision marked an important inflection point for the agriculture industry, spurring forward universities and a number of companies (like Yield10) to continue rapidly advancing their crop technologies. A review of the USDA-APHIS (Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service) website shows a significant number of crop technologies that have already or since been cleared by the regulatory body, including those from Yield10 Bioscience (oil content technology/Camelina), Calyxt (wheat), Benson Hill (corn), DuPont Pioneer (corn), and Simplot’s (potato) submission from last year, among others. This is now a trend!

Many of the advancements have involved contributions by leading, internationally-recognized academic scientists and organizations, coupled with the innovations developed by public and private companies. Yield10, for example, accessed CRISPR/Cas9 technology for use in agriculture through a research agreement with the Broad Institute and Pioneer (part of Corteva Agriscience) to leverage our expertise in metabolic modeling to identify new targets for yield with the ability to deploy the new traits using CRIPSR technology.

Many are hopeful that a shift may be underway in the industry away from the traditional competitive models that often slowed agbiotech innovation, and toward creating access to technology and plant expertise through licensing agreements and joint research projects. This concept would ultimately create an innovation ecosystem that enables new breakthroughs in yield and nutritional traits that will benefit growers and consumers alike.  

It’s widely believed that the USDA and its position on genome editing will one day be remembered for paving the way for ground-breaking technologies that will have a very real impact on availability and quality of food around the world. This increased crop yield goes beyond “just” feeding hungry populations in developing nations, but would also result in a significantly positive impact on healthcare costs in more developed nations as a result of improving the nutritional profiles of widely consumed oils and food ingredients. As universities and companies continue bringing this vision into focus, we believe the future for agtech and CRISPR modified crops is very bright.

How CRISPR Crops Could Transform Global Food Productivity and Security

As human populations increase and become more prosperous with an increased demand for food and protein, step-change improvements in crop yield could help growers begin to address the challenge of global food security. New technologies such as CRISPR are now being deployed to improve the nutritional profile of some crops – producing higher fiber wheat and healthier oils are near-term examples – two outcomes that would make a dramatic impact in regions around the world.

An illustration of genetically engineered crops
Image source: cen.acs.org

Many in the agriculture industry, including the team at Yield10, believe that CRISPR represents a game-changing technology to increase the yield and nutritional profile of food and feed crops. In March 2018, USDA-APHIS confirmed its position that the use of genome editing techniques where genetic changes are made to plants but no foreign DNA is used, produces an outcome that is similar to breeding and as a result, will not be subject to regulation by the agency, although these new CRISPR crops may be subject to EPA and/or FDA review. This guidance is based on sound scientific reasoning, and is paving the way for the development of new modified crop varieties to produce higher yielding food, feed and forage crops with lower chemical inputs, as well as healthier and more nutritious foods. This is critical as many predict an upcoming global food shortage.

Many believe that deployment of new traits using genome editing in crops will lead to a new wave of innovation in agriculture that has certainly already begun to capture the interest of the investment community. Perhaps the world will even see the birth of a new ag innovation ecosystem with similar business models to those that have driven such notable success in the biopharmaceutical sector over the last decade.

Simply put, now more than ever the agricultural and scientific communities appear to be converging on a path forward that will spur innovation and address global food security. The team at Yield10 believes this tide will continue to rise, and if we continue to advance our technology at the current rate, we will ultimately achieve commercial success as a leading innovator in the agriculture industry.

Yield10's Recent Progress in the Application of CRISPR-Cas9 Genome Editing Technology

CRISPR genome editing technology and its classification as a molecular breeding tool, has the potential to significantly speed the development and commercialization of new traits to commercial row crops and specialty crops alike.

Yield10 is leveraging CRISPR genome editing technology to produce better seed, biomass and oil yield.  We have a rich pipeline of traits in development and are currently evaluating some of our traits accessible through genome editing in field tests and greenhouse studies.  We are focused on the key commercial row crops in the US/Canada such as canola, soybean and corn, and have work underway in sorghum, rice and wheat. We believe that if successfully developed and commercialized, our novel yield traits could make a significant impact on the agricultural industry and enhance global food security.   

In September 2017, Yield10 received non-regulated status from the USDA-APHIS for a genome-edited Camelina plant. Our company is in the process of developing several novel yield, oil content, and drought tolerant traits, relying upon CRISPR-Cas9 genome editing to create positive impacts in plants including Camelina, canola, soybean, and other agriculturally significant crops.

CRISPR-Engineered Hybrid Rice Plants Can Now Clone Their Own Seeds
Image source: evolving-science.com

Yield10 also completed genome editing of a Camelina line using three stacked oil content traits, receiving non-regulated status from USDA-APHIS in September 2018 that enables us to conduct field testing in 2019. Our triple-edited Camelina plant lines are based on an oil biosynthesis pathway engineered directly into the plant – all based upon CRISPR genome editing.

Yield10 has a rich pipeline of traits in development that we plan to test alone and in combination to identify the most promising yield improving traits for commercialization.

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