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CRISPR hacked medicine. Can it hack crops devastated by pests and climate change?

A close up of a hairy black fly with its wings down against a white background
Image Credit: Unsplash // Chris Curry

In California, warmer winters spell bad news for farmers, from navel orangeworms damaging droves of nuts and more pests causing increased pesticide use, to longer seasons of grape-killing diseases and larger infestations of fruit flies.

But what if the gene-editing tool, CRISPR, could ease the burden these pests and climate change are putting on farmers? What if we could change the genetic makeup of the insects' devastating crops? What if it could be done without having an effect on the environment in which the insects naturally occur? And what other problems could CRISPR potentially help solve?

In the wake of climate change, scientists are using CRISPR in a variety of ways to target different sectors of the crisis. Whether it be scientists creating ‘super plants’ to capture more carbon, experimental trials using CRISPR to increase crop yields, researchers resurrecting ancient enzymes to improve photosynthesis, or even clinal experiments to make cows more resistant to heat, CRISPR has hacked its way into agriculture.

The gene-editing technology that took the medical field by a controversial storm, could even be used to genetically modify rice, one of the crops most threatened by climate change and escalating food demand, and make it more resistant to heat, disease, and drought stress so it can remain a food staple for 3.5 billion people.

Companies like FootPrint Coalition-backed Sound Ag are working to increase crops’ resistance, nutrition, sustainability, and more without making any edits to the genome, but others like FPC portfolio company Motif FoodWorks are exploring further integration of gene editing.

Motif is looking into using corn for its precision fermentation, a process the startup uses to make plant-based “meat.” Partnering with the molecular farming startup IngredientWerks, which genetically enhances the natural protein capacity of plants, they may put their tech together to use a protein found in cow muscle to make Motif’s alternative meats even meatier.

With all of the innovation from the alternative meat sector, protecting the crops these “meats” come from becomes even more vital. Even corn, the crop Motif has set its sights on, contracts an earworm that is the costliest pest in the United States and predictably thrives in warmer weather. With global warming, this nocturnal species is spreading northwards across the country, a study from North Carolina State University found, making the corn earworm a nightmare for farmers in already temperate regions.

The researchers from North Carolina State are hoping to create a better forecasting tool to predict the spread and risk of pests. But other researchers are taking it a step further and using different tools to change the pests altogether and even using CRISPR to control populations.

As the MIT Technology Review recently reported, Peter Atkinson, an entomologist at the University of California, Riverside is working on modifying the glassy-winged sharpshooter, the main insect that carries the grapevine-killing Pierce's disease.

“Until CRISPR, the technology simply wasn’t there,” he told the publication. “We’re entering this new age where genetic control can be realistically contemplated.”

Before editing their genes, researchers first have to understand what could stop the insect from harming the grapevine and which gene edits to target. Luckily, previous research from the University of California, Berkeley pinpointed the problem: for the sharpshooter, the disease-causing bacteria sticks to its mouth. Now all Atkinson and his team have to do is figure out how to edit the sharpshooter's gene to change that.

On paper that may sound simple, but in reality, there are a lot of challenges. For one, delivering CRISPR to fast-changing insect embryos is not a cake (or grape) walk. Plus, outside of the complex science, new-generation research, especially CRISPR tech, is costly, and researchers have to figure out ways to ensure their changes don’t affect the insect’s broader ecosystem.

“Chemicals can only travel so far before they degrade in the environment,” Jason Delborne, a professor of science, policy, and society at North Carolina State University said via the MIT Technology Review. “If you introduce a gene-edited organism that can move through the environment, you have the potential to change or transform environments across a huge spatial and temporal scale.”

Over at the University of California, San Diego a lab led by Omar Akbari is using CRISPR on a dozen insect species including fruit flies that lay eggs in fruit that’s still ripening. Spoiling it, these little flies cost the U.S. agriculture industry $700 million a year.

What Akbari’s lab is doing is modifying genes to create sterile males. Once these males mate with wild females, the eggs aren’t fertilized, reproduction fails, and the population is suppressed.

According to Akbari, the change wouldn’t persist in the greater environment, and would only control the local pest population.

Nevertheless, in order to go commercial and be used widely, it would need to go through the regulatory hurdles of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). According to Emma Foehringer Merchant via the MIT Technology Review, regulation will be highly dependent on whether the tech is used for disease prevention or population control.

Still, Agragene, a UC San Diego spin-off company that licensed Akbari’s technology, has already raised $7.2 million to date to commercialize this sterilization method for crop pests. In March, the startup raised $2 million and announced another funding round following their move from San Diego to the agricultural farming city of St. Louis.

In 2019, the company began testing the product in Oregon’s greenhouses at a site run by the USDA. According to the startup, their process reduces the need for environmentally harmful insecticides and encourages a more natural ecological balance with beneficial insects like bees and ladybugs.

The Oregon testing greenhouse is filled with rows of blueberry bushes, each serving as an individual experimental unit. The facility is intended to test the precision insect technology, which Agracane aptly refers to as “insect birth control” in a video on their website.

The insect being tested is the spotted wing drosophila, which aside from blueberries, ruins droves of cherries, raspberries, grapes, nectarines, peaches, and several other fruits. Between 2010 and 2017 alone, Michigan State University reports this tiny fly resulted in a loss of well over $25 million.

“We look forward to really disrupting the $20 billion insecticide market,” Agragene’s former President and CEO Gordon Alton said in the video. “Really allowing the butterflies, the ladybugs, the bees, and the other beneficial insects a chance to recover and our plant to become healthier.”

The now CEO Bryan Witherbee is adding to that ambition. In the funding round press release, he said the global momentum around sustainable pest control solutions is building, and that the investment will accelerate field trials, putting them one step closer to commercialization.

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