Researchers have turned their hand to using the gene editing tool CRISPR-Cas9 to on crops and vegetables to increase crop yield.

The team from Cold Spring Harbour Laboratory (CSHL) in New York developed a method to edit the genome of tomatoes using CRISPR. The results of which have been published in the journal Cell. In order to so, the researchers edited trait variations or major components known to affect yield rates in crops. They included the size of the fruit, its branching architecture, and the overall shape of the plant.

CRISPR was then used to make multiple cuts inside three genome sequences in tomatoes. The sequences are called promoters, which are DNA areas close to the gene that regulate when, where, and at what level the actual “yield” genes become active. The CSHL scientists were also able to include a wide range of changes in the three targeted traits mentioned by introducing multiple sets of mutations on the promoter gene sequences.

Lead researcher and CSHL professor Zachary Lippman explained in a press release, “What we demonstrated with each of the traits was the ability to use CRISPR to generate new genetic and trait variation that breeders can use to tailor a plant to suit conditions. Each trait can now be controlled in the way a dimmer switch controls a light bulb.

The team received better results when they targeted regulatory sequences as opposed to the actual “yield” of genes. As a result, they were able to achieve a subtler impact on the quantitative traits. “Traditional breeding involves great time and effort to adapt beneficial variants of relevant genes to the best varieties, which must continuously be improved every year,” said Lippman.

He added, “Our approach can help bypass this constraint by directly generating and selecting for the most desirable variants controlling gene activity in the context of other natural mutations that benefits breeding. We can now work with the native DNA and enhance what nature has provided, which we believe can help break yield barriers.”

CRISPR has been used to improve crop yield in the past, and in doing so could eventually be used to solve world hunger. The method in question which can be used in all food, feed, and fuel crops such as rice, maize, sorghum, and wheat can definitely contribute.

“Current rates of crop yield increases won’t meet the planet’s future agricultural demands as the human population grows,” concluded Lippman. “One of the most severe limitations is that nature hasn’t provided enough genetic variation for breeders to work with, especially for the major yield traits that can involve dozens of genes Our lab has now used CRISPR technology to generate novel genetic variation that can accelerate crop improvement while making its outcomes more predictable.”