CRISPR: What It Is and Why It’s Important to the States

Clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats, or CRISPR, is currently the most direct and readily available methodology to edit DNA. Scientists are using this technology to develop drought-resistant plants, plants that do not need as much sunlight, plants that grow normally when over watered, and other variations. Since the United States Department of Agriculture, or USDA, announced in April that it would no longer regulate genetically edited crops, it is likely that a CRISPR-edited crop will soon come to market.The USDA decision leaves only the Food and Drug Administration, or FDA, and the Environmental Protection Agency, or EPA, as the overseeing agencies of current CRISPR regulations. The FDA announced a Request for Comment seeking public input on their regulation of intentionally altered genomic DNA in animals in January 2018. The EPA regulates CRISPR-based innovation that would affect microbiomes, insect health and pest extermination agents.

CRISPR is a DNA sequence commonly found in defense mechanisms of bacteria that can be implanted into a DNA strand forward or backward. For many purposes, the DNA sequence is a paired with a CAS, commonly CAS9, enzyme that acts as the work horse for the process of genetic editing. The CRISPR/CAS9 pair adds, deletes, or supplements existing DNA by adding a sequence, or desired trait, attached to the CRISPR code to be expressed in a plant, animal, bacterium or another subject of interest. CRISPR/Cas9 technology is analogous to a cut and paste mechanism for DNA, a desirable sequence is cut from a source, then pasted into a sequence that the editor would like to physically express. Essentially, you can add a trait in an organism for insect resistance or delete a trait that makes the organism susceptible to a specific disease. 

Why should state governments pay attention to CRISPR developments?

This technology will have the most immediate impact on the agriculture industry as scientists develop different combinations of seed characteristics that will affect yields and commodity stability. Much of the regulation debate stemmed from the development of a mushroom that did not brown. The mushroom received USDA approval in 2016, and the technology is currently being patented. Scientists are also using CRISPR to develop mildew-resistant wheat, drought-resistant corn and a sweeter tomato. 

Crops that are already on the market that have been genetically modified include corn, soy, sugar beets, potatoes and more. The processes used to develop these organisms were much more complex and regulated heavily. Seed would undergo a testing process within the USDA and FDA to constitute it safe for human consumption. CRISPR-edited genomes are more precisely edited in a more direct fashion than transcription activator-like effector nucleases, or TALEN, and zinc finger nuclease base engineering. CRISPR, is significantly cheaper than other methods as well, making the technology easier to access for research laboratories.

In 2014, one year prior to CRISPR bursting on to the genetic engineering scene, farmers who used genetically modified seed saw an average of $3.59 returned per dollar invested, globally. A study by PG Economics found that farmers saw on average more than $100 per hectare than farmers who planted non-GM crops. With, cheaper, more efficient technology now on the scientific scene, these numbers are going to increase providing more revenue for farmers and ultimately state governments.

The health care biotechnology sector is also a booming industry that can provide an economic impact to states. The innovations relating to health care using CRISPR technology to provide and develop treatments to patients is promising. Ultimately, the technologies for treatments of patients are still very young, but hold promise for lowering the costs of health care through prevention, diagnosis and treatment.

CRISPR is a scientific development that can revolutionize many aspects of daily life. The potential the technology holds is relatively limitless. States must stay aware of the possibilities that surround CRISPR so that the technology is harnessed to its full potential through its research institutions, as well as the economic benefits it can provide.