A cabbage recently offered the world a glimpse into the future of food production—and maybe even hereditary disease curing.
Science reported that Stefan Jansson, a professor at Umeå University, and Gustaf Klarin, a radio reporter, sat down together to eat a pasta dish containing cabbage modified with CRISPR-Cas9. This is considered the first time a plant edited with CRISPR-Cas9 has been grown, reaped, and prepared.
In a press release from Umeå University, it was stated that this was the “first step towards a future where science can better provide farmers and consumers across the world with healthy, beautiful and hardy plants.”
What Is CRISPR-Cas9?
CRISPR-Cas9, also known as “genetic scissors,” is a way of manipulating the genes of a living thing. This “Swiss army knife of genetic engineering” cuts out, replaces, or adds parts of the genome. CRISPR-Cas9 is able to do this precise genome editing through two key parts: an enzyme known as Cas9 and a piece of RNA known as guide RNA that create a mutation in the DNA.
CRISPR-Cas9’s Surprising Potential
CRISPR-Cas9 has been called the “simplest, most versatile and precise method of genetic manipulation.” In his blog post, Stefan Jansson said his cabbages “might not look like much,” but could possess the capacity to help “save the world.”
The cabbages in question had just one gene removed from them, which slowed down their growth. With CRISPR-Cas9, healthier, better tasting produce could soon make its way into grocery stores in the near future.
CRISPR-Cas9 could not only improve our eating experiences, but our health as well. It’s been predicted that CRISPR-Cas9 could be used to treat genetic diseases, like cancer, hepatitis B, sickle cell anemia, muscular dystrophy, and high cholesterol.
Scientists have been interested in editing reproductive cells with the help of CRISPR-Cas9, which has been met with ethical debates since the changes created in reproductive cells would be passed on to future generations. It was recently announced that CRISPR-Cas9 could be used on human embryos in order produce desired traits in the future child.
There is also controversy about the future of agriculture edited with CRISPR-Cas9—specifically, whether plants edited with CRISPR-Cas9 are “allowed in farming” and if these plants count as GMOs. The European Union recently announced that as long as no “foreign DNA” is added to the organism, it is not a GMO. So, if the organism only has a piece of DNA removed, like the titular cabbage, it is not a GMO and can be grown without any special authorizations. Unsurprisingly, there are still questions about whether CRISPR-Cas9 plants should be classified as a GMO or not, and consequently, what regulations they should be subject to.
The future of CRISPR-Cas9 produce—and, in general, CRISPR-Cas9 technology—is murky, with debates over regulations and ethics looming overhead. Although the future of CRISPR-Cas9 is hard to picture (or as Jansson would say, “might not look like much”), its potential is evident. The technology that grew a superior cabbage today might be the technology that saves someone’s life tomorrow. (Or, maybe, the technology that just creates an even more superior cabbage.) Only time will tell.