CRISPR-Cas technology precisely improves plants

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CRISPR-Cas technology precisely improves plants

Thanks to CRISPR-Cas technology, it is now possible to make precise improvements to crops, say Wageningen University scientists.

According to the university, this technology is much more exact than the typical selective breeding method. What's more, the adjustments the system makes are similar to spontaneous natural changes.

“The CRISPR system holds great promise for helping to feed the world. Specifically, we can use it to improve plants. And that can be done much more precisely than with typical selective breeding so that only minimal changes are necessary,” comments John van der Oost, Wageningen Professor of Microbiology.

He points to tomatoes as an example of a crop that the CRISPR-Cas system could widely benefit.

Originally, tomatoes were small fruit from the South American jungle. But people have been cross-breeding different variants for hundreds of years. Over the past 60 years, they have even exposed tomato seeds to chemicals and radiation, called “classical mutagenesis”.

The aim of these strategies was to produce large, fast-growing tomatoes. Therefore, the tomatoes that you currently find at the supermarket are very different from the natural variety, says Wageningen.

“In tomatoes, a lot has been changed at the DNA level, to the extent that even positive traits have been lost,” adds Van der Oost.

For instance, in older forms of selective breeding, taste was not a priority. Many people may still remember the tasteless, watery tomatoes from 20 years ago in the Netherlands, notes the university.

“The old forms of selective breeding were like taking shots in the dark: you accidentally activated and deactivated genes. In addition to suffering from a loss of flavor, tomatoes have also lost nutritional value and resistance to bacteria and fungi.”

Yet CRISPR-Cas provides a modern solution, claims Van der Oost.

“Using CRISPR-Cas, scientists recently deactivated six genes in the wild tomato with great precision in order to ensure that it grew larger and faster, but also retained its flavors, nutritional value, and resistance.”

What's more, he points out that they only needed to make limited changes to get these promising results. In total, the team only altered 30 base pairs.

Regarding the significance that the system could have for the future, Van der Oost concluded: "Using this technology, we can substantially improve the production of food crops. The exceptional precision of the CRISPR-Cas method means that the flavor, nutritional value, and resistance to disease will not be affected."

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