Innovation

U.S. Soy Takes Note of CRISPR Technology

The U.S. Soy industry works to make farmers aware of technologies that help promote sustainability and innovation. Likewise, the soy checkoff invests in technological advances to maximize profit opportunities for U.S. soybean farmers. What do the newest innovations look like, and how might the shape the future of soybean farming – for both the farmers who grow U.S. soybeans and the customers who buy them?

CRISPR, a new gene editing technique, is turning heads as its potential uses are pondered. Can it remove malaria from a mosquito? Cure cancer? Develop new drugs? Help modify plants?

In 1996, the first genetically engineered crops, commonly referred to as genetically modified organisms or GMOS, hit the market. Up to this point, genetic modification has primarily involved inserting new genes, or DNA, from bacteria or another plant.

Gene editing, while similar in name, is something completely different. Gene editing allows scientists to make changes to a plant’s already-existing DNA with the same precision that word-processing programs can edit text, scientists say. Gene editing is faster, cheaper, and more accurate than previous techniques of editing DNA and has a wide range of potential applications, including agriculture.

Although the genome editing technique known as CRISPR is generating discussion in the health field, its first commercial applications are likely to be in agriculture.

CRISPR, an acronym for clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats, is a technique for editing genomes, based on bacterial defense mechanisms that use RNA to identify and monitor precise locations in DNA. In a nutshell, CRISPR consists of two key molecules: Cas9, which is an enzyme that acts as a pair of scissors able to snip DNA at specific locations; and guide RNA, which guides Cas9 to the right place on the DNA.

Many view gene editing as the new front in genetic technology, potentially offering a cheaper and easier method of tweaking plants’ DNA.

In agriculture, CRISPR is currently being used to knock out unwanted genes from crops to promote preferable traits such as drought tolerance. Genome editing with CRISPR makes genetic modification more systematic and precise than traditional plant breeding and even earlier genetic modification technologies. CRISPR not only makes genetic modification faster, simpler, and less expensive, it can also make it easier to take advantage of a plant’s natural diversity and variations, thus potentially reducing the need to import genes from other species. The result is more efficient tools for improving yields of crops as well as, resisting disease, tolerating drought, and boosting nutrition and taste. The precision this technology provides also helps U.S. soybean farmers to back up claims of higher protein, sustainably-grown soybeans or other attributes that buyers look for.

In soybeans, scientists are working with genome modifications to advance soybean functional genomic research, especially that of genes involved in the roots and modules, specifically hairy roots. Researchers also are working on modifying fat content in soybean oil, aiming to increase the percentage of oleic acid in soybean seeds, which would result in a healthier soybean oil.

While CRISPR and other gene editing techniques are still viewed as new technologies, the U.S. Soy industry is optimistic that these innovations will ultimately benefit the soy value chain, allowing U.S. soybean farmers to deliver the highest quality product to their end users.

Jen Del Carmen
Jen Del Carmen

Managing Editor

USSOY.org

Jen Del Carmen works as a communications consultant with the U.S. Soybean Export Council.