How CRISPR can save crops from pest damage

Less than a decade after it was first discovered in California, an invasive insect called the glassy-winged sharpshooter has turned Pierce from a nuisance to a nightmare. The oblong bug, with wings like red-tinted glass, is faster and faster than the native sharpshooters, and can feed on hardier grapes. The arrival of the state suspect in the late 80s increased the spread of the disease.

An adult glass-winged sharpshooter, Homalodisca vitripennis.


Through surveillance and targeted pesticide spraying, the state has largely been able to limit the invasive sharpshooter to Southern California. But the disease still has not found a cure, and it is very dangerous to fight and fight because of climate change.

Researchers now want to add cutting edge technology to California’s anti-pierce arsenal by altering the genome of the glassy-winged sharpshooter to stop the bacteria from spreading.

Such a solution is thanks to the CRISPR gene-editing technology, which has made it easy to modify the genes of any organism. The technique has been used in cancer immunotherapy, apple breeding and – controversially – in experiments on human embryos. Today, a growing number of researchers are using it for agricultural pests, hoping to control the various insects that collectively destroy 40% of the world’s crop production each year. If these efforts are successful, they will reduce the dependence on pesticides and may be an alternative to genetic modification of crops.

For now, these gene-edited insects are locked away in labs around the world, but that’s poised to change. This year, a US company is expected to work with the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) to begin greenhouse trials using CRISPR against fruit-damaging insects. At the same time, scientists in public and private institutions are beginning to learn more about pest genetics and make edits to many species.

The use of gene-modified organisms remains controversial, and modified agricultural pests have not been approved for widespread release in the United States. A potentially lengthy and still evolving regulatory process awaits. But scientists say CRISPR has ushered in a critical period for using gene editing on insects that could impact agriculture, with more discoveries on the horizon.

“Until CRISPR, the technology didn’t exist,” says Peter Atkinson, an entomologist at the University of California, Riverside, who is working to improve the sharpshooter. “We are entering a new era in which genetic control can be realistically considered.”

Know your enemy

Until recently, scientists knew little about the genetics of the glassy-winged sharpshooter. The first draft of the genome was produced by a team of USDA and Baylor College of Medicine in Texas in 2016. But the map had gaps. In the year In 2021, researchers at UC Riverside, including Atkinson, filled in many of them to produce a more complete version.

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