CRISPR crops: gene editing in plants delivered via misters

CRISPR technology is relatively easy to use in the laboratory setting, but the complexity rises exponentially when it comes to the whole organisms or groups other than animals. Crops are especially difficult to work with, as their cells are enveloped by thick cellulose walls. To get past this barrier, scientists resorted even to so-called gene guns – devices which bombard plant cells with particles coated by genetically active molecules – which are obviously limited to the laboratories, excluding direct use in the agricultural setting.

A new method extremely simplifies delivery of CRISPR to plants. Team from University of Bristol used carbon nanomaterials – carbon dots with polyethylene glycol diamines – to carry plasmids – circular stretches of DNA, containing CRISPR machinery. Authors described the nanomaterials as natural and non-toxic, not affecting growth or photosynthesis, and the synthesis was assessed as fast and inexpensive.

One step closer to CRISPR in crops

In experiments, the nanomaterials were delivered by plant misters (two times a day for five days, ~10 cm away, until dripping wet) and the crops have underwent genetic modifications with 27% efficiency in wheat. Other created CRISPR crops included maize, barley, and sorghum.

The ease of the method is both promising and dangerous. Scientists acknowledge consequences of the research:

The very simplicity and cost-effective nature of this new method means it has the potential to be misused. However, we believe that the positive benefits to the field of plant transformation far outweigh any potential negatives.

One of the authors additionally remarks on the risks of using CRISPR in crops so easily:

We would like to officially recommend people without preexisting safety precautions do not attempt to suddenly start using them before safety info is released!

Katie Higginbottom

Geneticist not involved in the research, Neil Gemmel, commented:

The approach is so simple it could be undertaken in a backyard lab. Huge applications across many fronts, but also raises many concerns. Another chapter opens in our genetic future.

Neil Gemmel

The work is still ongoing. Results were published in a form of preprint – preliminary, not peer-reviewed publication.

Preprint: Cara Doyle, Katie Higginbottom, Thomas A. Swift, Mark Winfield, Christopher Bellas, David Benito-Alifonso, Taryn Fletcher, M. Carmen Galan, Keith Edwards, Heather M. Whitney (2019). A simple method for spray-on gene editing in planta. doi:10.1101/805036.

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