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Enhancing Crop Yields and Biofuels with CRISPR

What is CRISPR?

Removing the root cause of a problem is the best way to go about reaching an ideal situation. The root problem of many disabilities and deformities which plague life on earth take home at the genomic level. Genetic modification is a new technique created to enhance the features of living things and expel any diseases an organism might have or might contract based on its genetic code. The CRISPR (clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats) is a genome-altering tool which splices out or disables harmful genes from working so that they will not be expressed. In addition, it also replaces the strand of RNA it altered with a new strand which codes for a desired outcome. Biotech expert and consultant Vonnie Estes has described CRISPR as being “fast and easy and inexpensive and gives great results”.


How Can CRISPR Benefit Crops?

The application of CRISPR to the field of agriculture can have a massive impact on obtaining desired traits, customized to the wishes of the consumer. Examples of such traits would be more nutrition and a more wholesome taste in fruits and vegetables. Such crops are also more beneficial for the environment as they can be modified to use minimal pesticides, which can be harmful to surface and groundwater, soil fertility, and human health. Plants can also be modified to withstand drought and disease, and will require fewer environmental resources to grow, making them more efficient and economical to grow on larger scales. With a growing global population, CRISPR might just be the key to securing higher and healthier crop yields that will sustain a world where food accessibility is not readily available for everyone. Crops will have the ability to grow in harsher climates and accommodate the specific needs of people (i.e. changing the natural sugar quantity or changing the crop content like gluten).


How Can CRISPR Revolutionize Bioenergy?

Bioenergy is a promising solution to the world’s energy crisis. Plant and animal by-products can be a useful resource for the generation of energy. However, one of the main challenges of biofuels is producing a commercially viable amount. The recent advances in CRISPR indicate that perhaps this technology will offer a solution to the energy crisis of the future by enhancing biofuel production.

A form of bioenergy is biomass, a renewable energy source consisting of organic matter like wood, by-products of agricultural and forestry processes, as well as organic industrial, animal, and human wastes. Biomass contains stored energy originally obtained from the sun. When biomass is burned, the chemical energy contained is released as heat.

The three ways by which energy can be generated from biomass are:

  1. Direct burning: Solid biomass materials can be burned directly to produce heat. This heat is used to generate steam, which is then sent through a steam turbine to generate electricity.

  2. Conversion to biogas: Methane is obtained from wet biomass when it undergoes fermentation whereas synthesis gas is produced by subjecting dry biomass to high temperatures in the absence of oxygen. 

  3. Conversion to biofuel: Biomass can be directly converted into fuel cells and these are known as biofuels.

In particular, biofuels are combustible fuel obtained from biomass, and are either first or second generation biofuels. First generation biofuels are unprocessed organic materials such as wood chips and pellets used for cooking or generating electricity. Second generation biofuels are processed and liquified including ethanol and biodiesel. Biofuel is produced either through a fermentation process, or a chemical reaction. The type of biofuel produced depends on the processing of the biomass. For example, ethanol is a by-product of the fermentation processes of plant sugars whereas biodiesel is produced as a result of a chemical reaction between greases with alcohol.

Recently, scientists have used a novel approach of tweaking bacteria and algae using CRISPR to produce biofuels. With this process, CRISPR is adding to the uses of biofuels, and radically transforming the energy sector. Scientisis have now discovered a third generation biofuel generated from tiny organisms such as bacteria and algae. While previous studies had laid the foundation of this field, the addition of CRISPR gene-editing to the biotechnologists’ toolbox has further accelerated the research on biofuel generation using microbes. A team of researchers have found a way to produce double the amount of biodiesel from phototropic algae. Their studies revealed that algae 20 transcription factors that regulate lipid production in algae. They then used CRISPR to edit out 18 of these, and were able to significantly boost lipid production. This research was a collaboration between companies ExxonMobil and Synthetic Genomics, both aiming to advance biofuel energy research. The companies recently announced that a new phase of their research program could lead to the generation of 10,000 barrels of algae biofuel per day by 2025.

Greenhouse gases are released during the combustion of fossil fuels, and are one of the leading contributing factors causing global warming. An alternate source of energy is desperately needed and because of CRISPR, biotechnology is beginning to take a competitive foothold in the energy industry. Currently, bioenergy can meet only 10% of the world’s energy demand. Further technology is needed to produce commercially viable amounts biofuels. However, with further refinement of CRISPR technology and more investment in CRISPR-based bioenergy research, we can work towards building a renewable energy system in the near future.

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