Monika Paulė, CEO and co-founder of the Lithuanian CRISPR developer Caszyme, explains how gene editing technology could fight climate change by boosting agriculture and biodiversity.
The invention of CRISPR-Cas gene editing technology in the last decade sparked a revolution in biology, providing researchers a way to make selective and precise changes to an organism’s genetic code.
In addition to tackling challenges in healthcare, CRISPR technology could be deployed in a wide array of food and agriculture applications. One major issue that CRISPR could fight is climate change, which threatens food security and biodiversity around the world.
However, the tool is sometimes misunderstood by regulators and the general public, which can confuse the technology with traditional genetic modification techniques. While traditional genetic modification usually involves inserting foreign genes into an organism, gene editing is often used to make small genetic changes that could arise from natural breeding techniques.
The firm Caszyme was founded in 2017 to develop new CRISPR-based molecular tools and is one of Lithuania’s most prominent biotech startups. Its main founder is one of the early pioneers that drove forward CRISPR technology: Virginijus Šikšnys.
In an interview, Caszyme’s CEO and co-founder, Monika Paulė, discussed the potential of CRISPR gene editing technology in protecting society and the natural world from the ravages of climate change. She also outlined the biggest challenges to be addressed before the tool can meet its potential.
Can you explain what led you to move from your background in social sciences, tech business and tech transfer to working in the CRISPR field?
My professional path focused on life sciences business very early. I have a background in international economics and business, where my PhD was focused on responsible consumer behavior. I worked mostly in biotechnology and pharmaceutical companies for more than 17 years. Over the years, I learned a lot about CRISPR and met the other co-founders of Caszyme. I find the CRISPR field amazing due to its potential impact and the speed of new discoveries.
What are some examples of the potential of CRISPR-Cas9 to address challenges caused by climate change?
One of the main contributors to climate change is increased emission of carbon dioxide. One of the factors that leads to higher carbon dioxide emission is the transportation and logistics of food all around the world in order to meet rapidly increasing demand. CRISPR-Cas gene editing technology could contribute to resolving this problem since it can be used to enhance the yield and protein content of plants that are used for food, in addition to increasing their resistance to environmental conditions. These resistant, nutritious and more adaptive plants could then be produced closer to consumers. Locally grown production would minimize the need of food transportation.
Another big contributor to increased carbon dioxide emission is food waste, as up to 45% of food is wasted. CRISPR-Cas technology could replace current methods of food preservation based on chemicals and high-energy processes. CRISPR gene editing technology could be used to extend the shelf life of fruits and vegetables by enhancing their natural defense mechanisms against various pathogens. With a prolonged shelf life, food waste would be reduced.
You’ve mentioned in the past that CRISPR-Cas can help to preserve and enhance the use of traditional plant species that might already be extinct or close to extinction due to climatic changes. Can you give some detail on how CRISPR can be used in this way?
Many plant species all around the world are currently facing drastically changing climate conditions and are constantly exposed to new pests and diseases. All of these factors can result in the extinction of certain plant species that are less adaptive to changing environments. CRISPR-Cas technology can be used to genetically engineer plants in order to help them adapt to various external pressures and make them more resistant to temperature change, water shortages and newly occurring infections. That way, gene editing can help plants adjust to changing conditions, prevent certain species from extinction or even bring back plants that have already been lost. That could lead to more sustainable and socially responsible agriculture and could contribute greatly to the preservation of traditional and regional industries.
What are some of the biggest obstacles to using CRISPR gene editing to produce new crop strains and soil microbes?
All new technologies need time — especially those related with human usage, either for food or therapeutic applications. CRISPR-Cas technology is no exception, therefore most of the initiatives dedicated to CRISPR application in agriculture are still at the research and development phase.
Another important obstacle that many novel technologies face is public perception. In the case of CRISPR technology, it is mainly because the public is still mixing up genetic modification with gene editing. This problem hopefully will be solved over time with education provided by the scientific community.
In order to produce better crops, CRISPR-edited food must be approved by regulators. How do CRISPR-related regulations differ across the globe?
Regulations are one of the key factors in slowing the pace and raising the cost of biotechnology innovations, including gene editing. Regulations of CRISPR-edited food are different around the globe, making certain geographical areas more favorable for gene editing applications than others. While some countries including the United States, Brazil and Argentina favor gene editing and regulate gene-edited crops as conventional plants, regulations regarding genetically modified food production in European countries are still very strict and do not differentiate genetic modification from gene editing.
Despite this, some favorable attitudes of European citizens towards gene-edited food are starting to be seen, which could hopefully contribute to driving positive change for gene editing in European regulatory frameworks in the future.
There are some well known attempts to bring back species such as the wooly mammoth. How do you see CRISPR gene-editing contributing to efforts to save these species?
Due to many factors including human encroachment and climate change, animal and plant species are going extinct at an alarming rate. CRISPR-Cas technology can help to preserve and revive some of the species, more specifically the genes of certain species. This could help to not only preserve biodiversity in the future but also to restore ecosystems that have already been lost. The biodiversity boost that might come from the de-extinction of genes, including those of the wooly mammoth, could help to repopulate certain areas of the globe, that way counteracting climate change. Also, by bringing back extinct genes and introducing them into endangered species, an opportunity could be given for these species to adapt to new climates and changing environments, preventing them from going extinct.
However, it is important to note that research on saving extinct species using CRISPR-Cas gene editing technology is still at a very early stage.