Cold Spring Harbor Lab genetically modifies fruit for consumption
Written By Jawad Hossain
A light drizzle sprinkled the around 7,000 hard and soft plants Sunday morning at the Biophilia Organic Farm on Manor Lane in Jamesport. Farmers Phil Barbato and Abra Morawiec weeded around nine varieties of fruits that they had planted in the field last fall, with plans to harvest this summer.
“Weeding is what you can do when it is wet,” Phil Barbato, a farmer at Biophilia Organic Farm, said. “The weeds come out easier. You can’t get in the field with a tractor when it is this wet.”
They also spend a lot of time in the greenhouse repotting tomato seedlings. There are 65 tomato varieties in total, and they all are first grown in four-inch pots. This method helps strengthen the roots before they are planted in the field. The plants will spread across a third of an acre, with each variety occupying a 30-foot-long row.
The groundcherry, a distant relative of tomatoes grown at Biophilia Farms, can now be improved with a breakthrough gene-editing technique that will produce a fruit that would taste like pineapple, scientists at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory predict.
At first glance, the groundcherry might look like a purely ornamental plant. It bears papery, heart-shaped husks that resemble Chinese lanterns. But within each groundcherry casing is a small, tart, edible fruit, similar in appearance to a cherry tomato.
Collaborating with the Boyce Thompson Institute, an independent plant research center in Ithaca, scientists at the Laboratory used Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats (CRISPR), a genome-editing tool, to make three tiny tweaks to the plant that could bring the sweet and fleshy fruit to the masses.
“We are trying to find a solution to the problem of fruit dropping off the bush, which can really complicate harvesting,” Joyce Van Eck of the Boyce Thompson Institute, said.
One tweak reduced the production of a hormone that regulates flowering, making the plant more compact to produce more clusters of fruit rather than a single groundcherry at a time. The second CRISPR change to the genes involved yet another flowering hormone, leading to more fruit production by up to 50 percent along a given stem length compared with the native plant. The third change boosted the number of seed sections within each fruit, which in turn, increased its overall size.
CRISPR is much cheaper and more readily available than earlier forms of genetic engineering. Scientists anywhere in the world can get a CRISPR kit for $65 from the Broad Institute’s non-profit organization Addgene, which has helped create a global CRISPR boom. According to the organization’s statistics, the kits have been requested 66,420 times by scientists in at least 67 countries.
Scientists even hope gene editing eventually could save species from being wiped out by devastating diseases like citrus greening, a so far unstoppable infection that’s destroying Florida’s famed oranges.
“If we can go in and edit the gene, change the DNA sequence ever so slightly by one or two letters, potentially we’d have a way to defeat this disease,” Fred Gmitter, a geneticist at the University of Florida Citrus Research and Education Center, said. He examined diseased trees in a grove near Fort Meade.
The U.S. National Academy of Sciences has declared gene editing one of the breakthroughs needed to improve food production, so the world can feed billions more people amid a changing climate.
“If the consumer sees the benefit, I think they’ll embrace the products and worry less about the technology,” Dan Voytas, a University of Minnesota professor and chief science officer for Calyxt Inc., said.
Voytas’ team deactivated two genes, so the beans produce oil with no heart-damaging trans-fat and that shares the health benefits of olive oil without its distinct taste.
CRISPR is designed to alter foods more precisely, and at a less cost, without necessarily adding foreign DNA. Instead, they act like “molecular scissors” to alter the letters of an organism’s own genetic alphabet.
“The technology can insert new DNA, but most products in development so far switch off a gene,” Nicholas Kalaitzandonakes, a University of Missouri professor, said.
There are many concerns regarding this new technology and its various abilities.
“The biggest concern is what are called off-target edits, unintended changes to DNA that could affect a crop’s nutritional value or an animal’s health,” Jennifer Kuzma of the Genetic Engineering and Society Center at North Carolina State University, said.
Kuzma believes that companies will have to be upfront about how these new foods were made and how healthy they are.
An industry-backed group of food makers and farmers asked university researchers and consumer advocates to help craft guidelines for “responsible use” of gene editing in the food supply.
“Clearly this coalition is in existence because of some of the battle scars from the GMO debates,
there’s no question about that,” Greg Jaffe of the food-safety watchdog Center for Science in the Public Interest, who agreed to join the Center for Food Integrity guidelines group, said. “There’s clearly going to be questions raised about this technology.”
Scientists in China earlier this year used CRISPR to edit a gene mutation in viable human embryos. The technology permits an effective and reliable method to make precise changes to the genomes of organisms.
“The more arrows we have in our quiver to address agricultural needs in the future, the better off we’re going to be,” Zachary Lippman, a professor of genetics at the Cold Spring Harbor lab, said.