Gene Editing is a Real Solution for Climate Change

Nicholas Karavolias

FFAR Fellow 2020-2023

University of California, Berkeley

  • Next Generation Crops
  • Sustainable Water Management

Passionate About Climate Change

Growing up, my family spent summer weekends on the beaches of New York State. Riding in a car packed with kids, someone would note how swelteringly hot it had been getting lately. Never missing my cue, I would scream with little restraint “GLOBAL WARMING, GLOBAL WARMING, GLOBAL WARMING,” until one of my siblings took their turn in rotation to “deal” with me. I learned about climate change in third grade and couldn’t help myself to be the siren on call for what I had deemed an important but too often forgotten cause. Since then, climate change has become more of a household term as its devastating impacts become increasingly visible and as advocates (screaming eight-year-olds included) continue to bring awareness.

My days as a whistleblower didn’t end there. As a plant biologist, I have continually been inspired by the work of peer researchers developing innovative solutions to the severe impacts of climate change in natural and agricultural environments. I have been especially inspired by the disruption that the new editing tool CRISPR/Cas has brought in fields ranging from human medicine to agriculture.

The Impact of Gene Editing

With a team of researchers across the country, I sought to understand just how impactful gene editing can be to address climate change in agriculture. Looking broadly and deeply into the literature of gene editing applications in crops and livestock, we uncovered a beautiful array of successful gene edits. Our review of the literature in this field revealed many important points:

  • Many of the improvements in agriculture using gene editing have converged on four major traits: increased abiotic stress tolerance, improved disease tolerance, enhanced nutrition quality and greater yields. The fewest interventions have been developed for abiotic stress: non-living factors which negatively affect crop and livestock performance. High temperatures, salinity and drought are examples of such stresses.  Abiotic stresses are predicted to be among the most deleterious for agricultural productivity in the face of climate change.
  • Gene editing has been applied to a vast array of crops and livestock organisms with a much more limited number of animals successfully edited for climate change. The introduction of CRISPR/Cas systems has facilitated the recent surge in the number of gene editing innovations that have been produced. Limitations in delivering editing tools into cells and subsequently regenerating organisms from those edited cells continues to be a debilitating limitation to the use of this technology for climate change in agriculture.
  • The African continent is uniquely poised to benefit from advances in gene editing technology. Largely overlooked by the Green Revolution that delivered improved grain crop varieties to Asian and Central/South America, this technology can provide improved varieties of many crops and traits relevant to the needs of the diverse populations and geographies of the African continent.

Targeting creative sets of genes using a suite of approaches, researchers were able to generate a vast array of incredibly improved crop and livestock varieties.

While all innovations described in our review are powerful examples of this transformative technology, the following example is one of my personal favorites of over 120 representative examples:

Agustin Zsögön and colleagues were able to identify and edit six genes associated with key domestication traits, domesticating a wild tomato relative, increasing fruit size threefold and fruit number tenfold while also improving nutrition, abiotic stress tolerance and disease tolerance. Not only did this research affect numerous climate change related traits, but it also created a basis for future engineering of crop wild relatives, wild plant species that are genetically related to cultivated crops. Crop wild relatives are often more disease resistant, resilient to unfavorable climates and nutritious, but suffer from low yields.

Diagram of wild plant species and wild tomato relative.

The Future of Agriculture

The exciting opportunities that exist using gene editing to improve the future of agriculture are undeniable. In the face of bleak climate change outcomes, gene editing is an important path forward for crop and livestock adaptation. Of course, the benefits of gene editing applications will only be realized when growers and producers finally gain access to these transformative technologies. Technological limitations aside, socio-political barriers to access must be surmounted prior to widescale adoption of gene edited products.

I am incredibly grateful to the team of researchers who made our review of gene editing to address climate change possible: Modesta Abugu, Wilson Horner and Sarah Evanega. I am also thankful for the support of the Cornell Alliance for Science, the Open Philanthropy Project, which sponsors my participation as a 2020-2023 FFAR Fellow and of course, the Foundation for Food & Agriculture Research. A special shoutout to FFAR Fellow Maci Mueller for providing thoughtful feedback on our manuscript.

To learn more about the application of gene editing for climate change in agriculture read the full-length review.


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