CRISPR CAN SPEED UP NATURE—AND CHANGE HOW WE GROW FOOD

Sunday, August 12th, 2018

Stephen S. Hall

Agriculturalists throughout the world oftentimes have a common enemy - WEATHER. Weather patterns have seemingly changed throughout the years and their unpredictability has left many farmers, hobby gardeners and other agriculturalists to figure out how to continue to produce their crops. The CRISPR technology, has helped to remove some of the unpredictability of planting with the introduction of gene-editing. Learn more about the science behind this process in the excerpt below. 

LIKE ANY SELF-RESPECTING farmer, Zachary Lippman was grumbling about the weather. Stout, with close-cropped hair and beard, Lippman was standing in a greenhouse in the middle of Long Island, surrounded by a profusion of rambunctiously bushy plants. “Don’t get me started,” he said, referring to the late and inclement spring. It was a Tuesday in mid-April, but a chance of snow had been in the forecast, and a chilly wind blew across the island. Not the sort of weather that conjures thoughts of summer tomatoes. But Lippman was thinking ahead to sometime around Memorial Day, when thousands of carefully nurtured tomato plants would make the move from the greenhouse to Long Island loam. He hoped the weather would finally turn.

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.

August 2018. Subscribe to WIRED. MAURIZIO DI IORIO

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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