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Gene editing Offering sustainable benefits for farmers

by Wyoming Livestock Roundup

    Published on March 21, 2020

        Today, almost one billion people suffer from chronic malnourishment. Simultaneously, agricultural systems are getting smaller, especially due to the loss of biodiversity and the increasing uncertainties of climate change. 

With the USDA’s projection the global population will exceed nine billion by 2050, modern agriculture will face enormous challenges, which will require crop systems to produce higher yields and better quality, all while using fewer inputs, according to Yi Zhang, Karen Massel, Ian D. Godwin and Caixia Gao in an article titled Applications and Potential of Genome Editing in Crop Improvement.

Zhang, Massel, Godwin and Gao note conventional breeding is currently the most widely used approach in crop improvement. However, they point out this conventional method is labor intensive and usually takes several years to progress from the early stages of screening phenotypes and genotypes to the first crosses into commercial varieties. 

Gene editing

            According to the team of researchers, gene editing is a type of genetic engineering in which DNA is inserted, deleted, modified or replaced in the genome of a living organism. 

            “Gene editing using zinc-finger nucleases and transcription activator-like effector nucleases, has been around for two decades, but it has recently come under the spotlight through the development of clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats (CRISPR) systems, which provide simplicity and ease of target gene editing,” reads the article. 

Zhang, Massel, Godwin and Gao explain all of these technologies use typical sequence-specific nucleases, which can be induced to recognize specific DNA sequences and to generate double-stranded breaks (DSBs). 

“The plant’s endogenous repair systems fix the DSBs, whether it is by non-homologous end joining leading to the insertion or deletion of nucleotides and therefore causing gene knockouts, or by homologous recombination, which can cause gene replacements and insertions,” reads the article.

 The article notes many gene knockout mutants and some gene replacement and insertion mutants have been produced through the use of gene editing technologies in a wide variety of plants and many of these mutants have been shown to be useful for crop improvement. 

“Gene editing systems have been utilized in a wide variety of plant species to characterize gene functions and improve agricultural traits,” states the article.

            Zhang, Massel, Godwin and Gao note the current applications of gene editing in plants focuses on crop improvement in terms of adaptation, resilience and end use.

Benefitting farmers

            During an episode of the American Farm Bureau Federation’s (AFBF) podcast published March 10, AFBF’s Michael Clements sat down with Nebraska Farmer and AFBF Member Lance Atwater to discuss the benefits of gene editing for both consumers and farmers alike.  

Gene editing can help farmers adapt to changing weather, changing consumer demands and be more sustainable,” states Clements.   

            Atwater chimes in, “As a farmer, I think the benefits of gene editing are going to open up a lot of opportunity on a sustainability level. Producing more with less can really help farmers accomplish sustainability, and I think that’s what consumers are expecting of us – to be more environmentally friendly and to produce a good quality food product.” 

            Atwater also notes he believes gene editing has endless possibilities.

            “This technology will help us address diseases, whether that’s in animal production or in crop production,” he says. “It will help us deal with changing weather patterns and it has a ton of potential for helping us produce more foods with better quality.” 

            He also points out farmers need to build trust and transparency with consumers regarding gene editing.            

            “We have to make sure we’re building that trust with consumers and educating them, not only on the benefits gene editing will have on agriculture and how it will help us accomplish producing more with less, but we also need to make sure we’re answering consumers’ questions. We need to make sure we’re tackling the questions and concerns they have,” he says. 

            Hannah Bugas is the assistant editor of the Wyoming Livestock Roundup. Send comments on this article to

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