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Big Idea

Chickpeas are in peril. Gene editing could save them.

How CRISPR technology can flick on a plant’s drought-tolerance genes

By Stav Dimitropoulos

Scientists believe climate change might lead to increased food insecurity around the world. By 2050, due to droughts induced by climate change, almost one-third of the globe’s land area could become more arid — and at increased risk of turning into a desert. Droughts reduce agricultural production, result in food price spikes, and could lead to famine among the world’s most vulnerable people. So scientists are thinking of ways to create drought-resilient fruits and vegetables. And they’re starting with chickpeas.

The Problem

The chickpea is the second-most-important winter grain crop grown worldwide and a staple food for the poorer regions of Southwest Asia and sub-Saharan Africa. The tiny legume is in distress: already, up to 60 percent of potential global chickpea yields vanish because of droughts, and it’s estimated that the losses will increase in the decades to come.

The Solution

Scientists from Australia’s Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology (RMIT) have created the first-ever drought-resilient chickpeas using CRISPR-Cas9, a pioneering technique that enables researchers to edit parts of an organism’s DNA by removing, adding, or modifying sections of it. “It tweaks the genes of a plant instead of introducing into it foreign genes,” says Jan Lim, the lead product development scientist at CRI Genetics, who studied chickpea breeding in graduate school.

“[CRISPR] tweaks the genes of a plant instead of introducing into it foreign genes.”

Jan Lim, a genetic scientist who’s studied chickpea breeding

Chickpeas are tough. Sown in receding soil moisture, they experience drought during their flowering stages. Even so, “some varieties are more tolerant to drought than others,” says Nitin Mantri, a biotechnology professor at RMIT and the study’s lead researcher. In a previous study, Mantri’s team had identified the chickpea genes that are responsible for drought tolerance (namely, RVE7 and 4CL). They proved the power of these genes, counterintuitively, by suppressing them — a technique called gene knockout. “If the plant becomes not tolerant to drought after the suppression, this tells us the gene is really, really important,” says Mantri. Now, in chickpea strains that are sensitive to drought, the scientists can see if these genes are being expressed, and if not, modify them. In the long run, biotechnologists may follow the same process to armor up other vegetables and fruits to resist climate change.

The Challenge

CRISPR-Cas9 is a game-changer in the world of genetic engineering, an immensely powerful tool that scientists are using to try to fight several of humanity’s scourges, from HIV and malaria to drug addiction. However, there are limitations to it. The technique may lead to unintended genetic modifications in the organism.

Since 1994, when the first genetically modified organism (GMO) — a tomato — hit the shelves, modifying the genetic makeup of a plant, an animal, or another organism has become widespread and controversial. “Consumers may still be apprehensive, as CRISPR technology always involves genetic modification of some kind,” says Lim.

But CRISPR techniques might bypass the public backlash that their GMO counterparts have received and become more likeable in the public eye, because unlike some GMO techniques, CRISPR doesn’t involve adding any DNA from another species. Countries including the U.S. stipulate that as long as CRISPR-edited plants are modified with their own genes, they are safe for consumption. Just like fast, minimally invasive closed-heart procedures replaced heavily invasive open-heart surgeries, so are CRISPR techniques delicately displacing GMO ones, says Mintri.

The Bigger Picture

In nature, mutations happen to all living organisms. “They are the source of the genetic diversity that populations require to remain adaptable to changing environments, but they may take too long to occur,” says Lim. Essentially, by editing chickpeas to become resilient to climate change, Mintri and his team have sped up a natural-selection process that would otherwise take many years.

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Stav Dimitropoulos is a writer based in Athens, Greece. She has written for the BBC, National Geographic, Nature, Scientific American, Science, Runner’s World, Popular Mechanics, Inverse, and The Sunday Times.

Illustration by Laurent Duvoux