Humans have engaged in gene manipulation for as long as we’ve had agriculture. We modified plants and animals by selectively breeding the strongest or most desirable plants and animals together. We’ve altered the environmental conditions to encourage stronger, healthier growth in these plants and animals, and in so doing, altered their epigenetics. The Incas used selective breeding to alter crops like potatoes and corn so that they could be grown high up in the Andes mountains, and in other cultures, wild variants of domestic crops may not even exist anymore.
But in the last century, our ability to modify genes has become more direct. In the 1950s and 1960s, scientists modified plants through radiation exposure. While most mutations that occur due to radiation exposure are less than desirable, it represented a first step. Since then, we’ve come a long way to create what we know as Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs) by extracting and then inserting the DNA of one species into the genes of another unrelated animal or plant using special enzymes discovered in the 1970s, known as restriction enzymes. Foreign DNA can come from any living organism, and be inserted into nearly any other living organism.
So why all this kerfuffle about CRISPR in recent years if we already had the technology?
What is CRISPR?
CRISPR, short for CRISPR-Cas9, is a powerful yet simple tool for editing genomes. CRISPR stands for “Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats” which are specialized sections of DNA with nucleopeptide repeats and spacers. Cas-9 is the enzyme used to cut the DNA, allowing for the insertion of foreign genes. CRISPR enables researchers to modify gene function by altering very specific DNA sequences.
CRISPR/Cas-9 differs from our old methods of gene editing using restriction enzymes because of its specificity. Restriction enzymes can only identify relatively simple sequences (5-20 base pair sequences) and cuts everywhere it finds these sequences in an organism’s genome. You can then feed extra DNA to the host organism cells and hope that in the repair process, the cell picks up the extra DNA and uses it. The result is kind of like a shotgun — you may hit the target area, but you’re likely hitting nearly everything else too.
CRISPR/Cas-9, on the other hand, can be fed very long and specific DNA sequences so that it only targets a single place on the genome and then directly adds DNA to the cut spot. If restriction enzymes are like a shotgun, then CRISPR/Cas-9 is a sniper rifle.
How Does CRISPR Work in Plants?
CRISPR works the same way regardless of the species. The only differences lie in what traits are introduced, altered, or eliminated. CRISPR has the potential to help plants cope with abiotic stress (stress due to non-biological factors) and resist pests and viruses, reducing the need for pesticides. CRISPR-modified plants could be made genetically unappealing to pests. This has the potential to increase crop yields while minimizing nutrient and chemical use.
Naturally, scientists have already been experimenting with the impact CRISPR could have on current food crops and have successfully edited soybeans, tobacco, tomatoes, and rice. CRISPR has already removed susceptibility to a DNA virus in tomato plants. Modified rice grains has shown elevated crop yields. CRISPR even has the potential to edit out allergens from foods such as peanuts.
Likewise, CRISPR shows serious promise for cannabis. This is partially due to the fact the US Government will not regulate CRISPR-modified plants as long as the modifications are made with related plant DNA (such as other cannabis or hops). The US Government made this decision based on the logic that CRISPR modifications are simply a faster means of achieving the same results as traditional selective breeding would provide. This belief is encouraged by a Japanese study which used CRISPR to modify the color of morning glory flowers in which the second generation of modified plants showed no signs of genetic disruption.
How Will CRISPR Impact the Cannabis Industry?
Sunrise Genetics has mapped out the entire genomes for marijuana and hemp, allowing scientists to identify and target DNA which affects gene expression. These genes could be modified so that your plants express stronger indica or sativa traits, produce more cannabinoids and terpenes, or grow bigger buds. Other characteristics like rapid plant growth, being unappealing to pests, and specific terpenes could be edited into a cannabis plant. CRISPR would also allow us to safely and quickly remove potentially undesirable genes, such as an annoying growth pattern or rapid spoilage.
With CRISPR, the cannabis industry could explode, riding high on the innovation of its growers and the lenient regulation of the US Government. Instead of spending years or decades of trial and error to crossbreed new cannabis strains, new strains with specific, predetermined characteristics could exist within the course of a few plant generations. These new strains would be able to go to market nearly instantly. As more states legalize, CRISPR modifications will give growers a chance to catch up on the time lost from decades of prohibition.
But this is still just a prediction. While CRISPR has incredible potential to change the course of many industries, including the cannabis industry, it hasn’t been put to its full potential yet. While we can all look forward to a day when spider mites and aphids are no longer a concern, right now a good IPM protocol is your best bet for preventing infection, and pesticides are your best bet for removing an infestation.
If you’d like to hasten the research on the cannabis genome and CRISPR application, you can donate to the Cannabis Genome Research Initiative or reach out to other cannabis research laboratories, such as Steep Hill, Sunrise Genetics, or our good friends at Medicinal Genomics. With a little luck and funding, CRISPR will change the cannabis industry in no time.
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About the Author
Amna Shamim is a journalist who has written for Glamour, HuffPost, Business Insider, Entrepreneur, and others. She often works with cannabusinesses helping optimize their marketing strategies in the current political climate.