New tech will shape future of ag

Genome editing and other cutting-edge science will become a bigger factor

NC State professor Rodolphe Barrangou speaks during the NC Ag Leads: Imagine Agriculture Day in Cary last month. (Ena Sellers / North State Journal)

CARY — Rodolphe Barrangou knows big things are coming. In fact, some of it is already here.

The NC State distinguished professor of food, bioprocess and nutrition sciences spoke about revolutionary technologies that are changing the future at the NC Ag Leads: Imagine Agriculture Day at the SAS campus in Cary last month.

Barrangou described CRISPR technology — short for “clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats” — as a molecular scalpel that allows geneticists to edit the genome and change DNA. The technology has primarily been used in therapeutics, but it has vast applications that are possible in agriculture and beyond.

“We have the ability at speed and at scale, virtually, to use this molecular scalpel to change any DNA in any species on planet Earth,” Barrangou said. “CRISPR did not invent our ability to do that. Before CRISPR was hard, difficult, tedious, expensive, challenging and very few labs in the world could use that kind of technology to change that kind of genome. CRISPR changed the game.”

The technology, which is 10 years old and recently approved by the Food and Drug Administration, has previously been used to engineer a pig so its kidney could be used for a human transplant.

According to an article published by Harvard Medical School, the pig’s kidney had 69 genomic edits to make it more compatible with humans and reduce the chance of infection.

“If you can do that, imagine what we can do,” he said. “We have a whole arsenal of tools that allow us to change the genome. … We can rescue things that are extinct. We can bring back species that are gone.”

He said the possibilities are endless.

“It’s how we use and invest our talent,” he added.

Barrangou explained that the last 10 years of work and research show how much can be done with bacteria, yeast, viruses and microorganisms with the technology.

“There’s all kinds of things we can do with therapeutics, as you can imagine,” said Barrangou. “People are making hypoallergenic cats. … We can use that same technology to make hypoallergenic food. Things like peanuts. If you can make a cat less allergenic, you can imagine making a peanut less allergenic. We can change crop yield. We can change crop health.

“To have this technology be engineered 10 years in is foreshadowing the future. But it is only 10 years in. … It’s still not perfect. There is still a lot of work being done to cure all kinds of diseases.”

Barrangou said a report from the World Economic Forum examined the role of tech innovation in accelerating food systems.

“They say by 2030, 100 million farms will have planted a CRISPR edited seed, 20% — I think that is an underestimate,” he said. “Hundreds of millions of people are benefiting from that every day.”

From organ donation and forestry to crops and livestock, there are limitless possibilities for CRISPR and similar technology.

“You can put a genome in a kidney or a liver, so you never harden the patient,” Barrangou said. “How can we use that same technology to make bacon better? Not just bacon, but a lot of other livestock in this great state.”