There’s no doubt that CRISPR has the potential to completely transform genome editing and biology as a whole. According to Bruce Conklin of the Gladstone Institutes, “In the past, it was a student’s entire Ph.D. thesis to change one gene. CRISPR just knocked that out of the park.”
Since 2012, the number of CRISPR projects and funding by the National Institute of Health (NIH) has more than doubled year-over-year, proving that the field is growing and receiving serious government attention. However, the distribution of research and data points in the CRISPR ecosystem is not even among the three main cell types—bacteria, mammalian, and plants.
Our research into the full ecosystem of CRISPR data points shows that the vast majority of research has focused on bacteria and mammalian cells in an effort to innovate in therapeutics. Thus far, CRISPR genome editing in these cells have proven to be risky and cause too many off-target mutations.
Rather than forcing CRISPR to work in therapeutics this early in its research stages, companies should look to agriculture for more immediate ROI with CRISPR applications, using the technology to redefine the stigma surrounding GMOs.
The Benefits of CRISPR in Agriculture
It’s easy to talk about genome editing, picturing a sequence of letters and replacing whichever ones you want to reach a particular end. In reality, genome editing is far more complicated as trying to achieve one modification often leads to collateral damage in the form of off-target mutations.
Genome editing has traditionally received scrutiny over safety with human subjects, but CRISPR is proving to be more accurate and recently passed a safety review for a clinical trial treating cancer patients. Despite the fact that CRISPR is safer than other genome editing tools, Big Pharma is waiting to see results before moving forward with therapeutic applications because of the disappointment companies experienced with RNAi.
Using CRISPR to achieve agricultural benefits brings companies into the GMOs debate where government regulation and public detractors condemn genetic modification as unsafe. As CRISPR research continues to advance, the technology has the potential to change the way we think about GMOs.
How CRISPR Can Change the GMO Debate
The main premise of the anti-GMO trend is that detractors want to avoid the potential health risks that could be associated with genetically modified foods. One factor fueling the debate is that Big Food players are introducing foreign DNA to crops and livestock, which could potentially create health problems (though there hasn’t been conclusive evidence to prove this).
CRISPR differentiates itself from these genetic engineering processes by enabling scientists to carry out gene knockouts. Rather than taking transgenic approaches to genetically modifying foods, CRISPR can eliminate genes that affect any number of food and livestock characteristics.
The increased safety and precision of CRISPR, as opposed to previous means of genome editing, shed light on the fact that GMO vs. non-GMO debates are misguided. According to Maywa Montenegro, Food systems researcher at UC Berkeley:
"CRISPR is giving us a rare opportunity, then, to escape GMO definitions stuck in the 1980s and begin treating agriculture and food as the complex systems they are. It invites us to update biotech governance to include expertise from a wider public and range of sciences. We’ll need to consult not just geneticists but also ecologists. Not just natural scientists, but social scientists. Not just scientists, but farmers, consumers, seed producers and workers across the food chain."
Agricultural applications of CRISPR technology give researchers an opportunity to surpass anti-GMO trends by safely modifying foods such as wheat and rice and actually bringing these products to market.
Biologists have historically been discouraged from trying to bring a GMO product to market, but researchers, such as Caixa Gao with her disease-resistant wheat, are using CRISPR to get their GMOs closer to production.
The Need for a Deeper Understanding of the CRISPR Landscape
CRISPR applications in therapeutics are too risky for companies to invest heavily in just yet, but agricultural use cases offer a more valuable channel for investment. However, choosing to invest in CRISPR for agriculture is a complicated process.
Without a deep understanding of the CRISPR landscape—the research that has previously been conducted, the patents that are being filed, the clinical trials that will start to emerge—companies will have a difficult time avoiding a million (or billion) dollar mistake.