The buzz in scientific journals is focused on CRISPR. But what does CRISPR have to do with the grocery industry and how will it affect things to come?

CRISPR is an acronym for Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats (say that three times fast); it is a process by which targeted stretches of DNA strands are identified, snipped, and replaced with the desired DNA edit. You can find a much more thorough explanation here.

The methodology was replicated from a bacteria’s natural defense response to viruses. The virus DNA is chopped up by Cas9 proteins and in part retained within the bacteria to be more easily identified should the virus come calling again. By pairing these Cas9 proteins with carrier RNA, scientists can target specific segments of DNA to be “snipped” and replaced with the sequence they prefer the DNA to have.

The execution is not currently fail-safe, however, the results have already created quite a stir in the scientific community, with a variety of different test subjects successfully altered as desired. For example, scientists recently confirmed  they’d successfully created left handed snails. But what does all of this have to do with groceries?

I’m sure you’re already considering all the ways that editing specific gene sequences can be applied to food: tomato plants that grow larger sweeter tomatoes, potatoes that are specifically designed to fight leaf blight, more plentiful orange harvests, etc. All these things (and more) could be spliced into the genetic code of plants, thereby maximizing beneficial attributes – and that’s the key. Rather than adding genes from other organisms, such as bacteria, the CRISPR process keeps all changes in-house, so to speak, therefore only creating changes that could theoretically happen in a natural evolutionary mutation.

The implications of this technology are vast. The USDA does not currently require CRISPR edited crops to be regulated in any different way than regular crops – far less redtape than GMOs go through. Food could be designed for maximum health benefits (or at least fewer health detriments), adapted to growing conditions, or enhanced with specific flavors. Imagine a soy bean with zero trans-fat, that’s been done; consider wheat with lower quantities of gluten, that’s been engineered; naturally decaf coffee is currently in the works as well. The burgeoning field is quickly growing in ways that would have been previously unthinkable, but with the aforementioned soybeans scheduled to hit open markets within the year imaginations will be tested.

With all these tremendous upsides and great potential, it’s easy to lose sight of the fact that there are still many kinks to work out in this fledgling process. CRISPR is currently only able to recognize a maximum genetic sequence of about 20 bases, which leaves out anything larger from consideration. In addition, the process sometimes misses its target and cuts in the wrong place – this is the most urgent concern to be addressed before industry wide adoption.

No one yet understands the long-term effects of specifically manipulating DNA; there are very real concerns that this could even arrest the evolution process. Genetic diversity is seen as an evolved benefit, and many traits that look negative at face value have underlying benefits. Furthermore, many perceived defects have their roots in a broad spectrum of genes, tampering with some may cause others to over-act; indeed they could actually be working to suppress other undesired traits. A market-based example (purely hypothetical) would be altering a tomato to be sweeter and causing a chain effect where it ripens too fast, not allowing for an appropriate retail cycle. The effects could obviously be much worse, and we’ll bypass the ethical concerns of employing CRISPR on higher life forms for now.

What is understood is that CRISPR has vast capabilities and how positive those capabilities are has yet to be seen. What is also understood is that once loosed, genies don’t typically go back into their bottles. It will be fascinating to watch the progress this technology makes as it’s tested and refined. It will be equally interesting to see how CRISPR’s PR agent deals with concerns and bad press.