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September 24th, 2018 / Alliance for Science, US

Based on the breathless coverage of CRISPR genome editing technology thus far—the famed patent dispute, the overhyped promises of designer babies, the fears of urban biohackers gone mad—you’d be forgiven for thinking that CRISPR is a first-world solution for first-world problems. Indeed, the first CRISPR product to make it out of the lab was a button mushroom—hardly a staple on most dinner plates globally.

Even more tellingly, one multinational agricultural giant, DowDuPont, now owns the single largest CRISPR patent portfolio—meaning that the technology will be first applied to Dow’s products, largely industrial crops like corn, soy and canola grown in the West. This commercial trajectory raises the question: is CRISPR fated to become a technology with only private sector applications, benefiting only people who live in the Global North?

There are certainly ways in which CRISPR can be used that would help a wider variety of people. For example, in a paper just published in Science Advances, my colleagues and I created a plant variety to demonstrate how CRISPR can be used to help address the economic woes of farmers who work in some of the poorest parts of the globe. Our research, led by first author Dr Simon Bull (ETH Zurich, Switzerland) and lead author Prof. Hervé Vanderschuren (University of Liège, Belgium), shows that CRISPR can be harnessed to make genetic improvements in Cassava, a starchy root that breeders have all but given up on because of it’s difficult reproduction cycle. And unlike a lot of CRISPR research to date, this was accomplished by a group of publicly funded researchers, and without millions of dollars of private capital. Read more