With the rise of biotechnology, CRISPR gene editing is on the cusp of eliminating global poverty. CRISPR research began in Asia, the U.S. and Europe, but has since spread to Africa. Gene editing in humans offers a promising resolution for eliminating disease, but it is still undergoing research and development. In agriculture, however, it is already showing more promise. These are four ways CRISPR gene editing could transform and eliminate global poverty.
Although humans have been altering the genes of plants and animals through selective breeding, CRISPR is different in that it does not combine the DNA of different organisms. In CRISPR, a section of one species’ DNA is deleted or altered. This is a different process than with GMOs where insecticide is taken from the soil and inserted into the crop.
4 Ways CRISPR Gene Editing Could Eliminate Global Poverty
- Farmers in Africa could breed better livestock. The dairy cow that survives in hot tropical climates, known as the Ankole-Watusi, produces far less milk than the Holstein breed. Holsteins are better off in moderate climates and their productivity is a result of naturally occurring mutations that breeders have aimed for over the course of many years. Scientists at the Centre for Tropical Livestock Genetics and Health at the University of Edinburgh are working with scientists in Africa to study ways to edit the genes of the tropical cow and boost their milk production to that of the Holsteins. At least 80 percent of the world’s poor living in rural areas are smallholder farmers, with livestock being a pivotal component of both their nutrition and income.
- Gene editing could improve crop yield. “Africa’s population is expected to more than double by 2050.” In a climate where the yield of basic cereals is five times less than in North America, food production and supplying the demands of the growing population is going to be a challenge. For 40 percent of Africans, the cassava plant is an important food source. While the crop represents security because of its ability to withstand drought, it also faces many issues. Cassava usually has a prevalent amount of toxic cyanide, which must be removed post-harvest. In combination with malnourishment, people who ingest cyanide can get konzo, a neurological disease that affects around 100,000 people in poverty each year. Scientists at the Genomics Institute are working to reduce the cyanide levels in cassava through CRISPR. Unfortunately, diseases like brown streak can wipe out a farmer’s entire field. Scientists in Africa are also exploring ways to make the plant more disease-resistant, so the crop yield will be sustained and improved.
- CRISPR may be humanity’s hope in eliminating malaria. In 2017, malaria was the cause of death for at least 435,000 people around the world with 93 percent of all cases occurring in sub-Saharan Africa. CRISPR could change the three species of mosquito most responsible for the disease’s transmission either by making all offspring male and eliminating the species or by adding a gene that makes the mosquito resistant to the malaria parasite. Not only could this cure malaria but it could stop other illnesses carried by the Aedes aegypti mosquito, such as dengue, yellow fever and Zika. Although the technology is already effective in labs, inserting it into the world could redesign the entire ecosystem, which comes with a heavy burden on the hands of the scientists involved.
- New diagnostic methods can easily hunt down the correct genetic sections. Such diagnostic tests could eliminate the spread of diseases like Lassa fever as well as provide a better means of cancer detection. This year, the Lassa fever in Nigeria has killed 72 people and is only expected to get worse. A CRISPR-based test could reduce the death rates of many diseases in impoverished regions. Scientists in Africa are also hoping that these new diagnostic tests could lower the death toll of cervical cancer in Africa where the disease is typically diagnosed too late.
Gene-edited crops are expected to hit the Western market in the next year or so, but Africa is just beginning to see the effects. CRISPR gene editing could transform and eliminate global poverty on a massive scale. With rising population numbers, climate change and urbanization, it’s important that agriculture adapt. The benefits of this technology, which could save the lives of millions of people, should be equally accessible to those in developing countries. These four examples show the ways that CRISPR’s research could eliminate global poverty.
– Isadora Savage