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January 8th, 2018 / Deutsche Welle, Germany

At the Justus Liebig University in Gießen, Germany, scientist Karl-Heinz Kogler is fighting diseases that affect wheat and other crops. His new weapon is the gene-editing technique CRISPR-cas9. It allows him to literally edit organisms, removing bits of DNA responsible for undesirable outcomes.
Recently, he and his team edited the wheat genome to create a new variety that’s resistant to mildew. “It was an immense breakthrough,” Kogler told DW. “It would have not been possible though natural breeding because wheat has a very complex genome.”

Scientists are hailing gene-editing tools such as CRISPR-cas9 for allowing quick and precise changes to the DNA of plants. The speed of the process is especially useful for making crops more climate-resilient, as scientists can react quickly to new diseases, Kogler says.

Fungal infections are expected to spread into the northern hemisphere as the climate becomes warmer and more humid.

One of the diseases feared to invade Europe is the wheat stem rust known as Ug99 — it was discovered in Uganda in 1999 — that has already wreaked havoc in Africa and the Middle East. It’s moving slowly north and is projected to destroy entire harvests in Europe, too.

Adapting crops to new conditions through natural breeding can take at least 10 years. With CRISPR, scientists can adapt crops within weeks. Given time for testing and re-testing, and a disease-resistant plant could be on the field within two years, Kogler says.

Across the Atlantic, US scientists are working on gene editing for food security, too. Read more