by Kayleigh Koch

What is CRISPR? How is it used? Who can use it? Most importantly, what can we do to help?

These were questions we asked ourselves at the beginning of our semester-long project. As 11 students from Iowa State University in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, we combined our knowledge and skills to learn about a new form of gene modification that will have a significant impact on the agricultural industry.

Our team consists of Agricultural Business, Agronomy, Animal Science, and Agricultural Education majors. We have a variety of backgrounds including members who grew up in urban areas with no farming background, to members who work on their family farms. We also have two unique team members from Italy who spent the semester at Iowa State working towards their masters in Food Economics.  We started as strangers and became close teammates while learning about CRISPR and traveling to the sunny state of California.

We all came into the project with an unbiased viewpoint of CRISPR and with little knowledge about the new technology. Our goal was to research CRISPR to learn the following.

  • What will it take for consumers to be accepting of new breeding technology?
  • Possible applications for crops and livestock
  • What impact could CRISPR have on the sustainability of our planet?

To start off, here is a brief overview of what CRISPR is. The acronym stands for Clustered Regulatory Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats. This may seem like a scary term, but in short, CRISPR is a powerful new tool that is capable of helping farmers not only combat diseases, but also make crops more efficient to grow, increase the nutritional content of our food ingredients, and reduce agriculture’s impact on the environment.

Throughout the semester, we met with numerous scientists working with CRISPR as well as professionals working on consumer acceptance in the marketplace. To name a few, we talked with Mark Lynas, an environmental advocate and author; Roxi Beck, Vice President of Look East, a marketing and public relations company; Ed Anderson, Sr. Director of Research at Iowa Soybean Association; and Doyle Karr and Mat Muller with Corteva Agrisciences.

We also traveled to California, for work and fun, and met with scientists who are doing impressive research including, Alison Van Eenennaam, a Cooperative Extension Specialist in Animal Genomics and Biotechnology from the University of California, Davis; Myeong-Je Cho from the Innovative Genomics Institute who is working on a CRISPR cacao project; and researchers at Caribou Biosciences.

While in California, we also met with vegetable growers at Head Start Nursery and Rijk Zwaan. It was interesting to learn that they, as growers, are accepting of new breeding technologies like CRISPR, but what they grow strongly depends on consumer demand. As agriculturalists, we encourage consumers to do their own research about genetic editing, and put trust in the scientists who are working on making our food more sustainable.

Now, our goal is to share what we learned with consumers so they feel comfortable with new innovations in the agricultural industry. If you are interested in learning more about CRISPR, we encourage you to watch our video called Toward a CRISPR Future?

So what did we learn? After talking with numerous scientists and professionals and visiting labs and farms in California, we are confident that we can put our trust in the people working with CRISPR, and so should consumers around the world.

Kayleigh Koch, Whitley Frieden, Hannah Pagel, Rebecca Frantz, Sean Mears, Will Stouffer, Sam Gorden, Hans Riensche, Alberto Basilissi, Josh Thompson, Leonardo Casaroli

Leaders: Dave Krog & Amanda Blair