What will we eat tomorrow? Advanced gene editing for future crop domestication

Posted on October 23, 2018

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We know that all our crops arose from wild species through the process of domestication. This began about 10,000 years ago (for some species that arose in the Middle East), less for species that were domesticated from other areas, particularly the new world. Early man (more likely women) were responsible for initiating this process. Through their actions of deliberately harvesting and planting, certain types were selected unconsciously. As a result, over many generations those wild species became modified to give us crops that we have today.

Compared to the thousands (millions?) of wild species that existed then (and still do today), only a very few underwent the long domestication process to provide the world’s food. It was serendipity as to what wild plants initially underwent the domestication process to give us today’s crops. To date, plant breeding has just been able to make minor modifications to those few species. Attempts by plant breeders to develop “new” crops through hybridization between two crop species, such as crossing wheat and rye to produce triticale, have met with limited success – or failure (e.g. Raphanobrassica).

What crops would we have today if those early agriculturists had begun the domestication process with different wild species? The domestication process is a long one; no research agency would fund a multi-generational proposal for a “domestication program” with a wild species. 

With the advent of CRISPR technology, it may now be possible to convert wild non-crop species to economically useful crops. Scientists recently used this technology on Solanum pimpinellifolium, a wild tomato relative. By changing six genes simultaneously, they produced something that was much more “crop-like,” with larger fruit and other traits that might be of economic value. Similarly, another group working with the groundcherry, Physallis pruinose (also a tomato relative and often found on desserts as a decoration), used CRISPR to change plant structure and fruit size to make it a “better” crop.

Plants that we grow as crops often differ from their wild relatives by only a few genes, sometimes referred to as “domestication genes.” It seems that CRISPR technology may open the door to the development of new crops from these wild relatives – which would help to increase crop diversity and provide us with new foods.

 

Dr. Graham Scoles
PhD, PAg, Plant Sciences Ag & Bioresources, University of Saskatchewan