We have been lauding the benefits of CRISPR for a couple of years, and how different it is from GMOs—and how the perception from consumers is being managed. And it appears that 2019 may well be CRISPR’s year for mainstream success.
“This is a critical year for CRISPR,” says Rodolphe Barrangou, a “CRISPR pioneer” and one of the scientists who identified the bacteria in yogurt as a researcher for Danisco in 2007. He now leads the CRISPR lab at North Carolina State University in Raleigh.
CRISPR stands for Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeat, a set of repeating DNA segments found in bacteria. These bacteria contain a kind of immune system that operates by recording copies of DNA segments from viruses as they first come into contact. When those viruses come along a second time, the bacterial segments (or, more technically, the spacers between the bacterial segments) effectively cut up the DNA segments of the virus, rendering that virus ineffective. All of that eventually led to a critical discovery: Those repeating spacers could be programmed to edit genetic material from just about any living thing, whether human, cow or mushroom.
CRISPR is much cheaper and more readily available than earlier forms of genetic engineering. Scientists anywhere in the world can get a CRISPR kit for $65 from the Broad Institute’s nonprofit Addgene, which has helped create a global CRISPR boom. According to the organization’s statistics, the kits have been requested 64,561 times by scientists in at least 67 countries.
The technology is also easy to use, which is why we are seeing such a boom.
With CRISPR, the food industry has a chance to rethink the role of genetic engineering in the food system. “[It’s] a more integrated approach to how we farm and how we’re going to feed the world,” Barrangou argues.