The Van Trump Report

CRISPR-Engineered Produce Getting Closer to Grocery Aisles

Food startup Pairwise is hoping to have some of its CRISPR-edited produce items in grocery store aisles as soon as 2022. In August, the USDA gave Pairwise the green light to proceed with commercialization of its new varieties of Brassica juncea, a leafy green most of us know as mustard greens. What’s more, they say it’s a high-yielding crop that is ready to move into field trials, and they’ve got other produce varieties in the works.

Pairwise, founded by leading CRISPR researchers David Liu, Feng Zhang, and J. Keith Joung in 2018, uses CRISPR technology to edit various genetic traits, a process where they remove or change the sequence of the genome so a specific trait doesn’t appear, or conversely, a desirable trait can be enhanced. For instance, mustard greens. It may be a common staple in some parts of the U.S. but mustard greens aren’t generally well-received by most people. The greens are a flavor and odor combination of “bitter” and “peppery” that can easily overwhelm the tastebuds. Using CRISPR, Pairwise says they have solved those issues.

“We have taken the heat of Brassica juncea down a notch with our new varieties,” said Heather Hudson, Ph.D., head of commercial at Pairwise. “And instead, we’ve created new leafy greens that have mild, crunchy, fresh flavors.” The Durham, North Carolina-based company believes that by removing the taste and odor hurdles, consumers will be more likely to eat the green, which is comparable to spinach or kale but allegedly even more nutrient-dense. Pairwise CEO Tom Adams says one of the reasons the company focused on mustard greens was the high yield of the crop. Adams says it yields about three times as much as kale.  

The company is optimistic it can bring the mustard greens to market as early as 2022, due in part to how quickly they grow. At the end of August, Pairwise said it has plans to expand the field trials in a few months and will provide sample products to partners this fall.  You can learn more at the Pairwise website.  

Pairwise also is partnered with the USDA, several academic institutions, and companies in a unique public/private partnership to study the genetic diversity in blackberries, red raspberries, black raspberries and multiple wild caneberry species such as salmon and thimbleberries. One of those collaborations includes berry breeder and ag research company Plant Sciences, Inc. (PSI) to develop new berry varieties. Pairwise and PSI will focus on creating tastier and longer-laster berries that are available year-round, starting with black and red raspberries, as well as blackberries. One of the goals also includes using gene editing to take out the seeds in some berries, which is a big obstacle for some people. As berries are much slower growing than greens, it will likely be 2023 before we see those in the produce aisle.

Gene editing, like genetic modification, aka GMOs, has attracted a fair amount of criticism. However, proponents argue that it will be an invaluable tool in securing food production for the future. Aaron Hummel, head of genome editing technologies at Pairwise explains, “We’re making small and very precise and discreet changes to genes that already exist in the plant.” He and other scientists working on CRISPR crops see the technology as a way to simply speed up the traditional plant breeding process and hope that distinction will strike a winning chord with skeptical consumers. (Sources: FoodDive, The Genetic Literacy Project, WRALTechWire, OneZero)

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