By William Kang
Creating cheaper and tastier food has been a major agricultural goal since the 1800s, pioneered by Mendel’s plant breeding research. With the influx of new biotechnologies in the 21st century, new techniques for gene selection within plants have been discovered, such as CRISPR-Cas9. In the last 20 years, genetically modified crops, such as modified corn and potatoes, have replaced over 10% of all crops produced in the world. These genetically modified seeds currently represent a 20 billion dollar industry, growing by several billion a year. This rapidly growing industry has incredible potential to help solve the food crisis in developing countries. Currently, over 50% of all genetically modified crops are produced in these developing countries, increasing food production by hundreds of millions of tons.
Even with all of the potential that GMO crops have, there are still many doubts and problems regarding modified crops. Many doubts are due to the uncertainties of this new field of technology, so extensive research must be done before these crops can be publicly used. In a study conducted by German scientists, it was found that around 50% of all consumers avoided GMO crops for several reasons, including safety, environmental, and transparency concerns. Because genetic modification requires transplanting cells from different organisms, there are stability concerns with the plant itself. Mistakes in gene modification can cause very harmful consequences, so there is a level of precaution regarding GMO crops. In addition to safety concerns, it is still very difficult to approve of a GMO crop, taking over 10 years and $100 million for one crop to be publicly available.
Despite the negative connotations associated with GMO crops, research shows that using these genetically modified crops are overwhelmingly beneficial for the global economy and environment. For instance, it was found that GMO crops produce about 20% more food and increase farmer profits by about 70%. In addition, these crops are more resistant to diseases, reduce the use of pesticides, and can grow faster. These factors reduce the amount of land and chemicals used while increasing yield and profits, leading to a more productive economy and healthier environment. It is worth noting that throughout the 15-20 years of consuming genetically modified crops, no major issues have arisen. All genetically modified crops have been researched and tested extensively by the government, and have been proven to be safe for consumption.
While gene selection in plants has been used for hundreds of years, modern technologies have made this process cheaper and quicker. In general, modern genetic modification technologies allow scientists to isolate a desired gene from another organism and insert it into the plant seed. More specifically, researchers currently use CRISPR/Cas9 technology to insert and delete specific genes in plants. CRISPR is a repeating sequence found in bacterial DNA, working as part of the immune system. After enzymes successfully kill an invading virus, the genetic code of the virus is cut up and stored in the CRISPR spaces. When another virus invades the bacteria, attack enzymes called Cas9, which carry the stored viral genetic codes, compare the virus’s RNA with the stored genetic code. If they match, the Cas9 enzyme chops up the virus, neutralizing the threat. More recently, scientists have discovered that they can trick the CRISPR/Cas9 to target any gene by feeding it artificial RNA. Using this technique, the scientists are able to snip out undesired genes and replace them with the desired genes.
Genetically modified crops represent the future of agriculture, capable of solving world hunger. Even within the last 20 years, GMO crops have improved crop production by hundreds of millions of tons. However, as the time and costs associated with researching every GMO crop is still very large, it may take a long time for GMO crops to fully replace normal crops.
1. What are the benefits of genetically modified crops?
Genetically modified crops have a variety of benefits over normal crops. Not only are they more efficient to farm and are more profitable, GMO crops also reduce the amount of pesticides. In addition, the crops can be edited to survive harsher conditions and become less prone to diseases. Overall, modified crops are profitable, increase food production, and are better for the environment.
2. How is CRISPR/Cas9 used to genetically modify crops?
Originally, the CRISPR/Cas9 system is used in bacteria to fend off viral infections. The CRISPR sequence, which is found in the immune systems of bacteria, can store bits of genetic information. Subsequently, the Cas9 attack enzymes use this stored genetic information and cut up anything with matching RNA. Scientists have found that they can feed the CRISPR sequences artificial RNA to cut up a specific gene in a plant, then replace it with the desired trait.