They say all good things take time, and this surely is the case when it comes to apple breeding, as it can take over 25 years to develop a new apple variety. Recently, new gene-editing tools like CRISPR have demonstrated their potential to improve plant breeding by allowing us to efficiently edit genes to create healthier, tastier and more climate resilient crops.
The utility of CRISPR to edit DNA was discovered in 2012 by two scientists who have since been awarded the Chemistry Nobel Prize for their work. Often described as “genetic scissors”, CRISPR can edit the DNA of virtually any organism. Just like you can edit letters of a sentence to convey a different meaning, you can use CRISPR to edit letters of the DNA code to change a gene’s function and action. To date, only a handful of studies have demonstrated the utility of CRISPR in apples, but some have shown the ability to edit genes to activate disease resistance. All it takes is a look at how gene-editing has been applied in major agricultural crops like rice, wheat and corn to see what soon might be possible in apples. With CRISPR, we could potentially target genes responsible for making apples sweeter, disease resistant, or crispier.
Not only does CRISPR provide the potential to improve apples, but it also holds promise for reducing the time it takes to develop new apple varieties. One of the main reasons it takes so long to develop a new apple is it takes four-to-five years before a seed develops into a fruit-producing apple tree. It doesn’t end there, as once the new tree is producing fruit, it still takes years of evaluating the apples to ensure they are in fact superior. Breeders cross pollinate various trees in hopes of shuffling together traits into a unique combination that consumers desire in a new apple variety. Being able to precisely edit the genes of an apple could potentially reduce the ‘trial and error’ process that dominates apple breeding.
The case for speeding up the breeding process takes on new urgency when we anticipate the effects of climate change. Unpredictable and extreme weather is anticipated. In turn, growing seasons are expected to shift and new pests and diseases will present challenges within our agricultural systems. We may not have the luxury to spend 25 years developing a new apple variety in the future. Whether it’s crispier or more climate resilient apples, CRISPR gene-editing is expected to allow us to respond quickly and rapidly develop improved apple varieties.