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NU Tech Roundtable:

"Agriculture will win the CRISPR race"

The successes expected from CRISPR-Cas systems “Will come first in agriculture,” said North Carolina University food scientist, Rodolphe Barrangou, Ph.D., at the 8th annual NU Tech Roundtable.

The Triangle campus of Japan’s Nagoya University sponsored the half-day event at the North Carolina Biotechnology Center in the Research Triangle Park.

The CRISPR system (Clustered, Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats) is a technology that allows researchers to cut DNA specifically and affordably. “CRISPR is a tool that bacteria use to fend off viruses,” Barrangou explained. “In nature, it provides adaptive immunity to bacteria. You eat CRISPR all the time.”

Essentially, he said, “It vaccinates bacteria with DNA captured from an invasive species. Those systems can be repurposed as tools that enable you to cut DNA in different ways. You can use a single protein like Cas9 as a molecular scalpel.” Other Cas proteins, he noted, “can be used like a razor to cut DNA very precisely, affordably and efficiently.”

That means you can make repairs, make a cut and patch two strands of DNA, and knock out or insert genes.

Over the last three years, however, universities, large companies and startups have “enhanced the toolset,” Barrangou said. “It is redefining genome editing.” Now, after only four years, “You can change any DNA sequence you want any way you want in any organism you want. People in academia and medicine do it all day every day. It’s the most promising four-year-old you’ve ever seen in your life.”

Rodolphe Barrangou, Ph.D. Courtesy of the NCSU department of food, bioprocessing and nutrition sciences

Many organisms, plants and animals, have already been changed by CRISPR technology and he said, “We’re on the cusp of commercialization of CRISPR foods. CRISPR chicken. CRISPR bacon. The speed at which it is happening is mind-boggling.”

Research continues apace, he added, with scientists finding highly efficient Cas proteins that target different things and new guides that are stable, efficient, affordable and packageable.

“There were 10 new CRISPR-related publications this morning and we’re on a pace to see 4,000 this year. CRISPR research is ongoing in 61 countries and new labs are doing it daily.”

Early indications of CRISPR use in agriculture such as on the white mushroom and waxy corn have been very encouraging, he said. “Agriculture is going to win the CRISPR race.”

NCSU, he said, “is working on a CRISPR movie to educate the public before it’s too late so we don’t have more drama. It’s important to show how universities and companies work at the farm level in various environments and do so responsibly, ethically and efficiently. CRISPR is going to save the planet and feed human kind.”

Other presentations, all of which described highly technical uses of CRISPR technology, included:
  • Norihito Nakamichi, Ph.D., of Nagoya University, describing experiments in controlling daily and seasonal time in plants using small molecules.
  • Hiroki Tsutui, Ph.D., explaining research in vectors for highly efficient CRISPR-Cas9-mediated knockouts in the much-researched Arabidopsis plant.
  • Anna Stepanova, Ph.D., explaining the tailoring of hormone responses in plants via synthetic signal integration devices. “We are developing a new set of CRIPR-based synthetic genetic devices to target the expression of genes of interest to specific cell types,” she said. The research has implications “far beyond plants.”
Kelly Sexton, Ph.D., assistant vice chancellor in the office of commercialization and new ventures at NCSU, delivered concluding remarks on why the Research Triangle is emerging as a leader in ag-tech research and applications.

Those advantages include North Carolina’s 80-crop diversity; its two land-grant universities; its cluster of biotechnology companies; help provided by the Biotech Center and the Ag-Tech Accelerator and the Triangle Venture Alliance.

She also said the increasing stresses on agriculture and our food system, ranging from climate change, drought, flooding, and pathogens requires an “agriculture moon shot.” She urged those attending to “be ambassadors for how the fruits of investment in this research will benefit society.”

Source: North Carolina Biotech Center (Allan Maurer)
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