Tag Archives: CRISPR technology and food crops

Preserving Seeds that Feed the World: the Svalbard Global Seed Vault

Six hundred miles from the North Pole, on an island the size of West Virginia, at the end of a tunnel bored into a mountain, lies a vault filled with more than 1 million samples of seeds harvested from 6,374 species of plants grown in 249 locations around the globe.The collection, the largest of its kind, is intended to safeguard the genetic diversity of the crops that feed the world.  If disaster wipes out a plant, seeds from the vault could be used to restore the species. If pests, disease or climate change imperil a food source, a resistant trait found among the collection could thwart the threat.

While some countries have their own seed banks—Colorado State University houses one for the U.S.—the Svalbard Global Seed Vault serves as a backup. The vault, built in 2008 at a cost of about $9 million, is owned and maintained by Norway, but its contents belong to the countries and places that provide the samples.  “It works like a safe-deposit box at the bank,” said Cary Fowler, an American agriculturalist who helped found the vault. “Norway owns the facility, but not the boxes of the seeds.”

In 2015, after the International Center for Agricultural Research in the Dry Areas was destroyed in the Syrian civil war, scientists who had fled the country withdrew seeds to regenerate the plants in Lebanon and Morocco.  “It had one of the world’s biggest and best collections of wheat, barley, lentils, chickpeas, faba beans and grass pea,” Dr. Fowler said. “It was the chief supplier of a disease-resistant wheat variety for the Middle East.”  In 2017, the group returned copies of its seeds to the vault.

The 18,540-square-foot seed vault includes three rooms with the capacity to house 4.5 million samples of 500 seeds each—a maximum of 2.25 billion seeds. The environment’s natural temperature remains below freezing year round, but the seeds are stored at a chillier -18 degrees Celsius, or around -0.4 degrees Fahrenheit. They’re expected to last for decades, centuries or perhaps even millennia….

While dwindling diversity might not seem like an imminent threat, four chemical companies now control more than 60% of global proprietary seed sales…That concentration of power, some worry, could lead to less agricultural variety and more genetic uniformity…In the meantime, the seed vault (which doesn’t store genetically modified seeds) will continue to accept deposits in an effort to preserve all of the options it can.

Excerpts from Craven McGinty, Plan to Save World’s Crops Lives in Norwegian Bunker, WSJ,  May 29, 2020

Modernize or Die: Bio-Engineered Food

China is betting that CRISP technology*can transform the country’s food supply.  China also expanded its efforts beyond its borders in 2017, when the state-owned company ChemChina bought Switzerland-based Syngenta—one of the world’s four largest agribusinesses, which has a large R&D team working with CRISPR—for $43 billion. That was the most China has ever spent on acquiring a foreign company, and it created an intimate relationship between government, industry, and academia—a “sort of a ménage à trois” that ultimately could funnel intellectual property from university labs into the company, says plant geneticist Zachary Lippman of Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory in New York.

Chinese leaders “want to strategically invest in genome editing, and [by that] I mean, catch up,” says Zhang Bei, who heads a team of 50 scientists at the Syngenta Beijing Innovation Center…China may one day need CRISPR-modified plants to provide enough food for its massive population….    China needs to resolve how it will regulate CRISPR-engineered crops—a divisive issue in many countries. In a 2018 decision that rocked big agriculture, a European court ruled that such crops are genetically modified organisms (GMOs) that need strict regulation. In contrast, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) exempts genome-edited plants from regulations covering GMOs as long as they were produced not by transferring DNA from other species, but by inducing mutations that could have occurred naturally or through conventional breeding.  Chinese consumers are wary of GM food. The country strictly limits the import of GM crops, and the only GM food it grows are papayas for domestic consumption. But for CRISPR, many plant researchers around assume China will follow in the United States’s footsteps…

For Corteva, Syngenta, and the other two big ag companies—BASF and Bayer (which acquired Monsanto last year)—the long game is to use CRISPR to develop better versions of their serious moneymakers, the “elite” varieties of a wide range of crops that have big commercial markets. They sell dozens of kinds of elite corn seeds—for example, inbred strains that consistently have high yields or reliable resistance to herbicides. Creating the genetic purity needed for an elite variety typically takes traditional breeding of many generations of plants, and CRISPR is seen as the cleanest way to improve them quickly. The earlier methods of engineering a plant can lead to unwanted genomic changes that must be laboriously culled…

Syngenta sees CRISPR-modified corn as a big opportunity in China, which grows more hectares of corn than any other crop. Yields per hectare are only 60% of those in the United States because corn ear worms often weaken Chinese crops. A fungus thrives in the weakened plants, producing a toxin that makes the resultant ears unfit for animal feed. As a result, China must import a great deal of corn. (According to USDA, 82% of U.S.-grown corn has been engineered to have a bacterial gene that makes it resistant to ear worms.)…“Syngenta is putting a lot of emphasis to grow in China to become the leading seed company. The China market as a whole, if it modernizes as the U.S. has modernized, can be as big as the U.S. market.”

Jon Cohen, To feed its 1.4 billion, China bets big on genome editing of crops, Science Magazine, Aug. 2, 2019

* Genome editing (also called gene editing) is a group of technologies that give scientists the ability to change an organism’s DNA. These technologies allow genetic material to be added, removed, or altered at particular locations in the genome. Several approaches to genome editing have been developed. A recent one is known as CRISPR-Cas9.