CasZyme: how tools based on CRISPR-Cas technology can help the fight against climate change
CasZyme is co-founded by Prof. Virginijus Šikšnys, one of the first scientists to demonstrate programmable DNA cleavage by the Cas9 protein. The company is developing tools that enhance the application of CRISPR in gene editing research and development. The company was backed by DowDuPont, and collaborates continuously with various enterprises from the US.
The tools CasZyme is working on are already proving successful in healthcare, fighting genetic diseases and various forms of cancer, as well as speeding up Covid-19 testing. CasZyme’s CEO and co-founder, Dr Monika Paulė, believes that CRISPR – the so-called “genetic scissors” technology – can also play a major role in fighting climate change. For this potential to be realised, however, a shift is needed in public opinion. In this domain, the EU has a lot to learn from the US.
“Most of the initiatives dedicated to CRISPR applications in agriculture are in the development phase,” explains Dr Paulė. “It is highly motivating that scientists are implementing a major part of the projects in close cooperation with businesses. However, there are legal challenges for CRISPR. While the US favours gene editing, the regulation in European countries does not differentiate between gene modification and gene editing. This leads to negative public sentiment and misleads society. ”
“CRISPR technology is rapidly improving,” adds Dr Paulė, “but science is not easily hastened. For the breakthroughs to happen earlier, CRISPR research needs more funding and more cooperation. COVID showed that results could be quickly achieved when there is a perfect storm – when scientists are open and share their findings, investors believe in the necessity of the solution, and governments strongly support the initiatives. With increased funding and a change in public opinion, CRISPR can do a lot to help humans and improve the future of our planet.”
The mechanism by which CRISPR can help our planet relies on the application of the “genetic scissors” to plants and microorganisms.
“To fight the climate crisis, we need to make sure that every region in the world can grow enough produce locally,” says Dr Paulė. “This is a reliable way to lower the environmental costs of transportation and simultaneously fight world hunger. With CRISPR, we can reduce the environmental impact of food and agriculture in all the most problematic domains – greenhouse gasses, land use, freshwater use, and biodiversity.”
According to Dr Paulė, plant genome editing could increase plant resistance to heat, drought, saltation and various diseases, as well as increasing the plants’ productivity, enabling farmers to obtain higher yields. Gene editing can also be used to improve plants’ ability to take up and retain nutrients from the soil. By reducing the demand for artificial fertilizers, it is possible to reduce the pollution emitted in the manufacturing process, and to make more eco-friendly products available to the market.
“CRISPR-Cas technology could help to revert the damage already done by the changes in temperature and weather conditions,” says Dr Paulė. “As the temperature rises, the planet is losing the species of local plants: for example, certain types of grapes used for traditional winemaking. With CRISPR, we can ensure those species adapt. Furthermore, we could bring back plant species that have already been lost.”
Other applications of CRISPR include developing microbes that enhance the nutritional composition of soil, altering its gas absorption and emission to enable certain cultures to emit less methane or absorb more CO2.
“Up to 45 percent of food goes to waste globally, producing billions of tons of carbon emissions yearly,” notes Dr Paulė. “Currently, producers keep fruits and vegetables fresh by exposing them to 1-methyl cyclopropane and fungicides and cooling the produce, which is a high energy-consuming method of conservation. With CRISPR, we can extend the shelf life of our agricultural production, securing it from pathogens and providing plants with natural defence mechanisms.”
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