Gao Caixia is a plant scientist in China specializing in genome edited crops. She is working at the leading edge of crop improvement including rice, wheat, lettuce, bananas, ryegrass, and strawberries. She is putting out her best effort to endow them with traits that will make them more productive, nutritious, or hardy using the genome editor CRISPR.
CRISPR is a natural bacterial immune system that was turned into a powerful genome editor a few years ago in U.S. and European labs. In China, Gao’s team is one of the 20 groups in China seeking to use CRISPR to modify crop genes. The country has also expanded its operations abroad when the state-owned ChemChina bought Switzerland-based Syngenta for $43 billion. Syngenta is one of the world’s four largest agribusinesses and has a large R&D team working with CRISPR.
Leader in Genome Edited Crops
China wants to strategically invest in genome editing as well as be the global leader in this area. With a population of 1.4 billion people with very limited natural resources, the country may one day need CRISPR-modified plants to provide enough food for its people. They are in search of the process that will allow them to breed super varieties that are resistant from pests and diseases as well as can tolerate drought and salt. At the same time, they are aiming to achieve the highest yield of production with the least dependency from fertilizers and pesticides thus, they have to find the key genes and work with them.
A big hurdle still faces China in terms of the regulation of CRISPR-engineered crops since a European court ruled that such crops are genetically modified organisms (GMOs) that need strict regulation. On the other hand, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) has exempted genome-edited plants from regulations covering GMOs on the grounds that they were produced by inducing mutations that could have occurred naturally or through conventional breeding, not by transferring DNA from other species.
CRISPR Faster and Simpler Than TALEN
Prior to CRISPR, Gao’s team was already having steady success with transcription activator-like effector nuclease (TALEN), a more cumbersome genome editor invented by the system Voytas. CRISPR can easily modify several genes in one step, and it is faster and simpler than TALEN. However, Gao’s research and experiments have shown that one popular CRISPR variation called base editors makes many unintended “off-target” mutations. They also found that CRISPR can efficiently knock out existing genes, putting many plant traits within its reach, but can’t efficiently add new genes.
China’s recently acquired Syngenta is looking at CRISPR with a different approach. Its unit in North Carolina has engineered corn pollen to deliver the CRISPR machinery into cells, where it makes an edit and then disappears. Reported preliminary evidence has shown that the strategy works in wheat and a few vegetable species.
Genome Edited Food Products Out in the Market
In February, Calyxt—a Minneapolis, Minnesota, company that Voytas co-founded—brought the first gene-edited food product Calyno oil which is a “healthier” soybean oil created with TALEN to the U.S. market. Calyno oil is said to have zero trans fats, 80% oleic acid, and “three times the fry life and extended shelf life.”
Corteva which is DowDuPont’s agricultural arm rebranded with a consumer-friendly name, deleted a gene in order to improve what’s known as waxy corn, which industry uses to make shiny paper and to thicken food. The Wilmington, Delaware based company’s chief technology officer Neal Gutterson says they hopes its new, even waxier corn will help the public become more comfortable with the concept of CRISPR-altered food.
According to Wu Gusui, head of the seed research at Syngenta’s North Carolina facility, it’s too soon to say which CRISPR crop they will try to take to market first one they get the go signal from China. He adds that CRISPR-modified corn has a big opportunity in China since it is grown in hectares more than any other crop.