How CRISPR Gene Editing Could Shrink Your Salads While Boosting Your Health

Climate change has many negative ramifications, and its impact on our food supply is especially concerning. With a warmer global climate come challenges with growing sustainable crops. In the future, this could lead to deficits in production and an uptick in world hunger. One researcher at Hebrew University in Israel is working toward a solution through a technique called gene-editing. Regardless of where many may stand on the idea of genetically modified crops, the argument for gene editing is one worth exploring.

Meet CRISPR Gene Editing

CRISPR gene editing can boost the way nutrients develop in naturally grown foods. Yarin Livneh is a PhD student under the tutelage of Professor Alexander Vainstein at Hebrew University who is currently working on editing the nutritional value of a crop many take for granted — plain old lettuce.

Lettuce is in your salad; it’s on your hamburgers and your chicken sandwiches. It’s the leafy bed that lies beneath your tuna salad and the garnish next to your steak. And while lettuce is considered a leafy green that’s good for you already, imagine what it could do with a little tweaking. That’s what Livneh and her professor hope to discover. Using CRISPR gene editing, Livneh has been able to grow lettuce that’s supercharged with good things such as vitamin C, thiamine, and beta-carotene. And the nutritional value that once required 16 cups of lettuce, now requires only two.

That’s good news for those who hate salads.

The Difference Between Editing Food and Genetically Modifying It

If you’re one of the many who worry about the ramifications of eating genetically modified food, don’t. Food editing is vastly different from genetic modification. Livneh says her method produces changes that are ‘very subtle.’ In fact, they mimic the type of changes growers might achieve by using traditional breeding methods. This is in direct contrast to genetically modifying a crop, which typically involves gene cloning and transplantation.

So, while the result of Livneh’s research doesn’t necessarily produce more lettuce for the world, it does produce lettuce that’s somewhat ‘supercharged.’ You have to eat only a fraction of the amount to get the required health benefits of today’s lettuce. And that’s one solid way of feeding more people with less food.

The Challenges Ahead

Unfortunately, restrictions are tight on genetically edited food in Livneh’s part of the world. And though she’s seen interest from local growers who would like the opportunity to produce the enhanced lettuce, current regulations prevent it. The technique Livneh has devised for using CRISPR gene editing on the lettuce is somewhat complicated, as well. Still, she sees vast potential in the work she’s doing. Field studies of genetically edited crops are on the rise, meaning a breakthrough in regulation could be on the horizon. What this means for Livneh, her professor, and their heads of supercharged lettuce is unclear, but one thing is certain — the applications for CRISPR technology are far-reaching. Advocates tout it for everything from increasing the nutritional components of a crop, like Livneh has done, to creating crops that produce higher yields and crops that are more tolerant of drought and disease.

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