How Does CRISPR Work?

show/hide words to know

Crop: a plant that is grown for food.

DNA: deoxyribonucleic acid is the information "blue-print" of the cell. It is a nucleic acid and is made from building blocks called nucleotides. This genetic information is passed from parent to child... more

Drought resistance: a trait that helps an organism live, reproduce, or be less likely to die in very dry conditions where there is not much water.

Gene: a region of DNA that instructs the cell on how to build protein(s). As a human, you usually get a set of instructions from your mom and another set from your dad... more

Gene editing: a process where the genome of an organism is changed by adding, removing, or replacing sequences of DNA. This is also called genome editing....more

Genome: all of the genetic information of an organism (living thing)... more

Precise: exact or accurate.

CRISPR Crops

Imagine you are a farmer. You may love the fresh fruits and vegetables that you grow on your farm, but growing them is a lot of hard work. Growing better crops that are bigger, more nutritious, or less likely to die before harvest would make farming much easier. It would also let you grow more food for more people. But better crops are not easy to come by. Building better food is one of the ideas behind using CRISPR to edit the genes of many crops.

An image showing white rice next to golden rice, which is genetically modified to improve nutrition.

Golden rice has been created using gene editing. It gives rice higher levels of beta carotene, which could give many people better access to Vitamin A. Image by International Rice Research Institute (IRRI).

Changing the genes of plants that humans eat is not new. Humans have been changing plants’ genes for thousands of years through traditional breeding. That is how we have domesticated the crops we use in farming today.

Scientists have also used breeding experiments to change the genes of the crops that we eat. For many years, scientists have been breeding crops like corn and rice to possess traits like drought-resistance. Other techniques involve direct modification of the DNA of crops in a laboratory.

Unlike traditional breeding, CRISPR gene editing can make much faster changes to genes in crops. Traditional breeding can change crop genomes to give them many useful traits. For example, it can make them less likely to die from pests or disease, grow larger fruit, or be more nutritious. But traditional breeding takes time over many growing seasons. Also, scientists are less able to control the traits given to crops through traditional breeding. Gene editing with CRISPR enables those changes to be done precisely and in much less time.

Does CRISPR Make GMOs or Not?

An illustration showing the addition of a new piece of DNA to a DNA strand

CRISPR does not always need to insert foreign DNA from other species to make genetic changes. Instead, CRISPR often removes small pieces of DNA to remove or alter gene functions. Image by Ernesto del Aguila III, NHGRI.

In some ways, crops edited with CRISPR are similar to our other genetically modified organisms (GMOs). But there are also important differences. Both CRISPR crops and other GMOs are made using scientific tools to change crops’ genomes. But other GMOs often have changes from adding in genes from different species. These added genes are sometimes called “foreign” DNA. The use of “foreign” DNA in GMOs is one of the reasons that some people have concerns about GMO use.

But gene editing with CRISPR works differently. CRISPR does not require the use of “foreign” DNA to make changes to the genome. Instead, CRISPR gene editing often only tries to disrupt the function of a specific gene to give a crop a trait. For example, CRISPR has been used to disrupt genes that are responsible for foods like apples or potatoes turning brown when they are cut and exposed to the air. In these cases, there is no “foreign” DNA involved, only the disruption of already present DNA. In this sense, CRISPR crops are genetically modified but not with “foreign” DNA, so they are not the same as some other GMOs.


Additional images via Wikimedia Commons. Potato image by Agricultural Research Service.

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You may need to edit author's name to meet the style formats, which are in most cases "Last name, First name."

Bibliographic details:

  • Article: Gene Editing in Farming
  • Author(s): Christian H. Ross
  • Publisher: Arizona State University School of Life Sciences Ask A Biologist
  • Site name: ASU - Ask A Biologist
  • Date published: March 14, 2019
  • Date accessed: November 19, 2019
  • Link: https://askabiologist.asu.edu/gene-editing-farming

APA Style

Christian H. Ross. (2019, March 14). Gene Editing in Farming. ASU - Ask A Biologist. Retrieved November 19, 2019 from https://askabiologist.asu.edu/gene-editing-farming

American Psychological Association. For more info, see http://owl.english.purdue.edu/owl/resource/560/10/

Chicago Manual of Style

Christian H. Ross. "Gene Editing in Farming". ASU - Ask A Biologist. 14 March, 2019. https://askabiologist.asu.edu/gene-editing-farming

MLA 2017 Style

Christian H. Ross. "Gene Editing in Farming". ASU - Ask A Biologist. 14 Mar 2019. ASU - Ask A Biologist, Web. 19 Nov 2019. https://askabiologist.asu.edu/gene-editing-farming

Modern Language Association, 7th Ed. For more info, see http://owl.english.purdue.edu/owl/resource/747/08/
innate potatoes reduce browning in peeled potatoes, making them more appealing to consumers
CRISPR Cas9 can be used to make the Innate Potato, a potato with reduced browning and lower levels of sugars.

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