CRISPR, also simply known as gene editing, has gained lots of attention over the past decade for advancements in the form of new medicines and the treatment of diseases. It's also been at the center of bioethics conversations ever since scientists started using CRISPR editing techniques to alter the DNA of human embryos to create super-babies.
These important (and potentially frightening) advancements aside, CRISPR is also one of the most exciting tools in use today for the advancement of food and agriculture. Food scientists around the world are using CRISPR tools to create food that is more disease resistant and tastes better, as well as utilizing the technology to save crops that might be at risk due to climate change.
Pairwise is one of the companies making a name for itself developing new types of products using CRISPR. The company is developing consumer-facing brands of produce that offer unique characteristics created through the use of CRISPR toolsets.
I caught up the CEO of Pairwise, Tom Adams, to discuss what the company is working on and to get his thoughts on how CRISPR will change the food system. Below are some excerpts from my interview. Spoon Plus subscribers can watch the interview and read the full, unedited transcript.
What are some examples of these types of CRISPR products with direct consumer benefits?
So a product that we’re interested in, sort of it’s a longer term product, is to create a cherry without a pit. You can imagine being able to just pop a cherry in your mouth and really enjoy that healthy, healthy fruit. Cherries are in season right now. They’re great, but I keep ending up with purple fingers from eating them all. I’d love to be able to just pop them over my mouth and eat them like grape. So that’s the kind of thing where we’re taking it down the barrier so that a consumer can really enjoy the cherry differently.
Now we’ll do other things that help with the overall production system. One of our ideas with cherries is to make it so you can produce cherries year round like we’ve done through 60 years of breeding with blueberries. We now have blueberries every day and I didn’t use to get blueberries every day but now I do.
How could CRISPR could accelerate the development of new forms of produce compared with traditional cross-breeding of crops?
There actually is a pitless plum that somebody isolated a few years ago. It’s not a good tasting plum, so it’s not a variety that sold. But you can cross plums and cherries, and you get chums or clerries or something. It’s not a cherry or a plum anymore. The Bing cherry was bred in 1880 and Bing cherry since then is a clone of that original tree. So if you cross them, that’s not a Bing cherry anymore.
You want to get back to the Bing cherry, you’d cross the chum back to the cherry probably 7 or 8 or 9 times until you get a little bit more cherry genome in it each time until you’re almost cherry again. That’s probably 150 years from now you’d have a pitless cherry. But with gene editing, I know what the mutation is that really resulted in the loss of the pits, so I can just go directly into the cherry and make that mutation. It’s the same endpoint that I would have gotten to through the breeding. It’s just 150 years faster.
One thing you’re working on is berries. Can you tell us more?
The blackberries I buy in the grocery store, I could take or leave. And that’s because they’re the variety that had some mutations in it that allow it to be more productive through the season. This mutation just happens to be in a variety that just doesn’t taste good. It’s very high acid. It’s not a really great berry. So we’re taking berries that taste like the ones in the Northwest and we’re putting in the same mutations that you’d see on the bad tasting ones that allow for higher productivity, and adding those to the really good tasting one. And then, just for good measure, we’re also going to get rid of the seeds. It turns out that 85% of people don’t really like the seeds in blackberries from our research. And it’s a fairly straightforward path to do that and then remove the thorns as well, so pickers aren’t bleeding.
What impact could CRISPR have on food in a decade?
10 years from now, what I’d like to picture is a lot of produce that not just that has gene editing in it, but is actually more approachable for people. We all grow up being told and taught that we should eat lots of fruits and vegetables, but only 9% of people in the United States eat the recommended amounts of fruits and vegetables. And given 5% are vegetarians, that doesn’t speak real well for the rest of us. So I want to see a variety of things that are more approachable for people.
You mentioned food waste. I think there’s an opportunity to make a substantial difference in shelf life. So when I go into a convenience store, it’s not a choice between a hot dog and a rotten banana. I can get a bowl of berries or something healthy like that as a snack and or pitless cherries. So that’s really our vision is to create a whole different marketplace of foods that fit people’s lifestyles. We eat a lot more food through snacking today than we did 50 years ago and we need to match our food up with that.
To watch the full interview of our interview with Tom Adams or to read the full transcript, just subscribe to Spoon Plus.
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