Veggies are getting ‘CRISPR’
Around 1900, scientists’ paraded asbestos as the future of insulation while the industry incorporated it as a fundamental building material. Eighty years later scientists announced that asbestos was deadly and must be banned. In 1850, cocaine was a wonder drug, prescribed freely for exhaustion, morphine addiction, depression, and alcoholism.
In 1885, Coca-Cola was patented as a cocaine-based medicine to cure these ills but right alongside rising sales there was the rising problem of cocaine-based ruined lives and destroyed families. By 1891 the levels of cocaine in Coke were reduced to a mere flavoring and in 1926 it was dropped completely. So today, if your house has asbestos, you can’t give it away and if your house has cocaine, they take it away.
Not too long ago eggs were bad for you, raising cholesterol and causing men to keel over into their omelet, clutching their chest. But that no longer happens. Nowadays, it’s okay to eat duck eggs fried in pork fat — and thrive!
Remember back when oat bran helped you defy death? My wife fed me so much of it that I began measuring distance in furlongs. Then scientists admitted it was all a misunderstanding and oats were really best fit for horses all along.
Salt was once so dear that it was traded for gold. Then they declared that salt was horrible. Then it wasn’t. Then it was. But nowadays they seem to be hedging their bets by saying moderation is not that bad, but best to lay off it anyway.
It’s naive to think that science can save us from ourselves and cure everything. Okay, maybe not Congress, but certainly all of mankind’s ailments and diseases. Wow! Everybody could live forever like some weird Anne Rice novel about vampires on fixed incomes.
Science brought us Genetically Modified Organisms, an astounding technology where a mouse gene that speeded up growth could be introduced to a corn plant to increase production. Animal, vegetable, and human genes could be tossed aloft like a salad to produce wondrous things like garden plants that ate voles, or chickens that tasted like a piccata marinade. But the GMO future was dimmed when most folks pronounced it downright creepy.
Never mind, GMO’s are old-school anyway. Isolating useful features in plants takes years and requires many steps with frustratingly unreliable results. Science blew past all this with the advent of CRISPR — an acronym for clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats — teensy genetic scissors to alter and snip away bad traits in genes. This technology is already revolutionizing the world of plant breeding.
And because it introduces no foreign plant or animal matter, merely refining the organism’s own genes, it seems to be meeting much less public resistance. Using CRISPR to manipulate traits in plants is faster, more precise, easier, and in most cases cheaper than traditional breeding or GMO engineering. They’re doing this by exploiting the existing diversity already in the plant species’ genes. They’ve discovered that improving valued traits in plants does not require DNA from other species.
Gene-edited crops may succeed where the initial promise of genetic engineering has failed in making plants that are higher yielding, drought tolerant, disease resistant, more nutritious, or just better tasting. Unlike GMO’s that were limited to row crops like corn, CRISPR can enhance fruits, vegetables and staples.
Coming soon to your neighborhood grocery — assuming you ever get one.
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