One of the most impactful genetic tools is being used across the world to give plants the upper hand against climate change. If you’re not familiar with CRISPR, it’s a technique that is considered to be important in the natural sciences because it enables genomes to be edited with extremely high precision, but at a relatively low cost. It has been used to create new medicines, agricultural products, and as a way of controlling pathogens and pests

The revolutionary gene-editing tool allows geneticists to identify and alter genes responsible for specific functions, making it a highly versatile and applicable tool for a multitude of functions.

Until recently it was being used by wealthier countries but it’s becoming more cost-effective for projects that target food insecurity, diseases, and pests in low-income countries.

In Sub-Saharan Africa, many agricultural commodities are cultivated but as ecosystems, soil, and the climate worsen, the reliance on solid plant genomes will inevitably increase. Irregular weather, pests, natural disasters, and disease are just a few issues geneticists could alleviate with CRISPR/Cas9.

  • The CRISPR-Cas9 system comprises two key molecules that effect a mutation into the DNA:
    • The first is an enzyme called Cas9 which acts like a pair of scissors – when introduced it ‘cuts’ the DNA in a precise location making two strands. This allows the introduction of new DNA material.
    • Then something called guide RNA (gRNA) which is a small piece of pre-designed RNA sequence binds the DNA. Using this pre-designed sequence it ‘guides’ Cas9 to the right part of the genome. This ensures that the Cas9 enzyme makes the cut in the correct location of the genome.
  • The cell will recognise that the DNA is damaged and will attempt to repair it, knitting back together nicely

Cocoa, corn, and soy are just a handful of crops that would benefit dramatically from a genetic tune-up. 20% of the African population is experiencing long-term hunger and strapping these specific crops with disease resistance could be in the best interest of farmers.

A recent study shows great progress with a drought-resistant variety of cocoa utilizing CRISPR/Cas9, something of a boon since drought is known to reduce the yield and vigour of cocoa plants especially, and with climate change at the front of our minds, the timing is good.

Another study at Penn State used CRISPR/Cas9 to insert a disease-resistance gene into the plants to prevent the most prevalent diseases of cocoa. Hopefully, the impacts of climate change can be lessened but meanwhile, geneticists are hard at work to mitigate the impact as weather conditions are likely to worsen or at least be unpredictable in the future.

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