ALTHOUGH HE WORKED on a farm as a teenager and has a romantic attachment to the soil, Lippman isn’t a farmer. He’s a plant biologist at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory in New York with an expertise in genetics and development. And these greenhouse plants aren’t ordinary tomatoes.
After introducing me to his constant companion, Charlie (a slobberingly gregarious Labrador-Rottweiler mix), Lippman walked me through hundreds of plants, coddled by 80-degree daytime temperatures and 40 to 60 percent humidity, and goaded into 14 hours of daily photosynthetic labor by high-pressure sodium lights overhead. Some were seedlings that had barely unfurled their first embryonic leaves; others had just begun to flash their telltale yellow flowers, harbingers of the fruit to come; still others were just about ripe, beginning to sag with the weight of maturing red fruit.
What makes this greenhouse different—what makes it arguably an epicenter of a revolution in plant biology that may forever change not just the future of the tomato but the future of many crops—is that 90 percent of the tomato plants in the building had been genetically altered using the wizardly new gene-editing tool known as Crispr/Cas-9. Lippman and Joyce Van Eck, his longtime collaborator at the Boyce Thompson Institute in Ithaca, New York, are part of a small army of researchers using gene editing to turn the tomato into the laboratory mouse of plant science. In this greenhouse, Crispr is a verb, every plant is an experiment, and mutant isn’t a dirty word.
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