Genetically modified organisms (GMOs) have gotten a lot of bad rap lately, largely due to misunderstanding. GMO plants often give higher crop yields, better flavor, and sometimes even more nutritional value than their counterparts. Bioengineering has become especially important as the human population has continued to grow at a near-exponential rate, placing greater demands on our resources, including the agriculture industry.
The New Kid On The Block
Ground cherries are a family of fruits native to Mexico. Naturally growing in sprawling vines, their mildly-tart fruits taste like tomatoes crossed with pineapple or mango with notes of vanilla. The small, round berries grow inside husks and provide many essential nutrients and protein. Why, then, are these treats not found in your local supermarket?
Simply put, they aren’t easy to grow in large quantities. The plants, while hardy, take up a lot of space, making them difficult to cultivate. That’s where genetic engineering comes into play.
Since its discovery in 1987, CRISPR sequences have been programmed and used in tandem with Cas9 enzymes to seek out and alter specific sections of DNA. Think of CRISPR Cas9 as nature’s cut and paste button. Scientists can encode these chunks of DNA to excise and retrieve specific strands of DNA from one source and implant it into another.
While the process sounds like something out of a horror movie, the ability to transfer traits from one species to another with such precision makes engineering successful crops much easier. Once a genetic sequence is identified, scientists can move traits around and combine them to make new plants that are naturally pest resistant, more flavorful, or all around better for you.
Improving Mother Nature’s Handiwork
Scientists plan for the humble ground cherry could transform it from a local novelty fruit to a globally-available superfood. Using gene splicing and editing, they plan to make the ground cherry grow in a more compact, higher-yield form. Scientists also aim to make the cherry-tomato-sized fruits larger and prevent them from dropping off the plant before they are ripe.
You won’t see ground cherries in your grocery store by the end of the week, but this editing project is leading the way for other advances in agricultural science. Gene editing could be the answer to the world’s hunger crisis, and this project is one more step toward finding that answer.