CRISPR editing may help turn a wild berry into a farmable crop

Genetic tweaks could make groundcherries common in your grocery store.

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Getty Images/iStockphoto
Getty Images/iStockphoto

It can take many years to make a wild plant easy to farm, but gene editing could make that happen for one fruit in record time. Scientists have used genomics and CRISPR gene editing to develop a technique that could domesticate the groundcherry, a wild fruit that's tasty and drought-resistant but difficult to grow in significant volumes. After sequencing the groundcherry's genome, the team both tweaked CRISPR to work with the plant and pinpointed the genes that led to its less-than-pleasant traits, such as its small size and not-so-plentiful flowering. From there, they just had to 'fix' the fruit with gene edits that promoted the qualities they wanted.

The improvements have only just started, and the work will still require some conventional plant breeding to produce a viable crop. The researchers are already planning more edits, though, such as changing the fruit color and refining the flavor. Even if you aren't about to see groundcherries in the grocery store in the immediate future, they might be on the horizon.

There are ethical concerns. Even if some governments have little to no regulation for gene-edited food, there isn't exactly a surfeit of information on how well CRISPR-based domestication works in practice. Any launch would likely require extensive testing. And then there's the matter of cultural acceptance. Will the general public clamor for groundcherries that don't exist in nature?

Still, there are strong incentives to explore domestication for this and other wild plants. Aside from the culinary advantages, it could help grow crops in challenging climates. That could further improve the world's food supply, not to mention the diversity of food options in some areas.

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