Reengineered Superfoods for dinner🧬

Solving hunger and obesity through gene-edited agriculture.

Eesha Ulhaq
8 min readJan 12, 2020

Since the origins of agriculture, humans have been constantly trying to figure out how to do it more efficiently. Agriculture’s the backbone of every prosperous civilization.

Food is one the most basic human necessities, yet 10% of the world population around 700 million people are hungry, a number that’s expected to grow to 2 billion by 2050. Eradicating hunger is second on the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals agenda for a reason.

But it’s not that we don’t produce enough food, in fact we produce too much food, 1.5x too much food. We have enough food to feed 10 billion people for our population of only 7.8 billion.🤯

Economically, a developed country loses a potential $680 billion per year while developing countries lose about $310 billion in wasted food.

This doesn’t add up🤔

We’re incredibly wasteful, discarding 30–40% of food. This is due to the lack of infrastructure for keeping food fresh, where we’re growing it and how we’re distributing it.

In India it’s estimated that they lose over 30% of food from the lack of cool storage systems.

The solution isn’t producing more food, our planet can’t support the growing rates of deforestation from agriculture that’s catalyzed climate change.

It’s no secrete that climate change will wreak havoc on agriculture. We’ve already seen rising sea levels causing certain cities to flood, prolonged dry-seasons and forest fires, droughts, accelerated soil loss and land degradation. Which will leave more people with food insecurity and cause food prices to skyrocket.

With limited amounts of arable land that we destructively take down, we need to use every acre of farm land productively.

But what if we’re able to engineer crops that could survive in harsher conditions? What if we could change the nutritional contents of foods as we see fit? We could help supplement the millions of malnourished, or we could create healthier foods to combat the rising levels of obesity which kill more people than car crashes, terrorism and Alzheimer's combined.

With the advent of CRISPR a new gene editing technology these are all doors waiting to be opened.🚪 🧬

This might seem straight out of a Sci-fi movie but humans have been toying with genes for centuries cross breeding different plants and animals to create power combo organisms with desirable traits.

You might be thinking about GMO’s too, but let’s get something straight:


There’s been lots of controversy and regulations around genetically modified organisms(GMOs). They’re created through inserting DNA of one organism into another, after numerous trial and errors eventually a good gene is landed on. It’s important to note that this process does not naturally occur even through mutation.

But they’ve taken the world by storm. In 1994 was the flavr savr tomato was sold, making it the first GMO food for commercial sale. It had a longer shelf life thanks to a a rotting suppressing enzyme gene being added.

Left your average joe tomatoes | Right/middle GMO tomatoes

Now 88% of North American corn and and 93% of soy is genetically modified. The popular BT corn contains an insecticide producing gene from the bacteria BT (Bacillus Thuringiensis). This modification helps farmers save hundreds on pesticides.

Norman Borlaug won the noble prize in 1970 for saving an estimated 300 million people from starvation in Pakistan and India by introducing a GMO wheat crop resistant to stemrust fungus in the brink of a mass famine. Wheat production in those areas nearly doubled in a decade after they were introduced in 1962.

That’s all dope! But GMOs have their down falls, the process is imprecise and basically random, on average taking researchers a decade to find a favourable modification for a commercial crop.

This time consuming process ends up being costly and because foreign DNA is being added governments are cautious, heavily regulating the field.

GMOS: External DNA inserted into living organisms DNA.

But with the tool CRISPER no external DNA is inserted, the existing genes are only played around with. CRISPR acts like a ✂️ it cuts genes with extreme precision. The cell notices the cut and tries to fix it. These are changes to the genome that could naturally occur as a result of mutation.

CRISPR: The guide RNA cuts the sequence and the body naturally tries to fix this by adding new nucleotides

Crisper allows us to selectively knock out genes and see what happens, this can help us identify their functions. It helps use target certain genes and edit them out. We’re essentially reverse engineering by testing and studying the role of each gene.

Crisper was inspired through biomimicry, researchers at Berkley studied the natural process bacteria’s immune systems use to defend themselves from phages🦠

When a phage attacks it injects it’s DNA into the bacteria. The bacteria will likely die. But if it survives, the bacteria keeps a copy of the phages DNA, it stores it in it’s bacterial genome; CRISPR, basically a DNA archive.🧬🗄️

If the same phage intrudes again, the bacteria will search through its archive and feed a copy of RNA from it to an enzyme protein called Cas9. The Cas9 now uses this to go hunting for any viruses that match the RNA🔎. If it finds a match, it activates, snipping off the DNA✂️. Disarming the virus and protecting the bacteria.

The research team from Berkeley realized that they could manipulate the system by inserting DNA copies into the CRISPR system. The system beats out older methods because it’s super precise, takes weeks instead of years, and is relatively inexpensive. It’s becoming increasingly accessible with companies taking it commercial like Odin, now you can literally program life in your basement for the cost of an iphone🤯

The possibilities of what we can do are near endless, from curing diseases such as muscular dystrophy and sickle cell anemia to unlocking secretes to human longevity to designer babies. But the first main steam use case will likely be in agriculture.

According to Jennifer Doudna the women leading the field, one of the biggest promises is in the agriculture field:

“I think in the next five years the most profound thing we’ll see in terms of CRISPR’s effects on people’s everyday lives will be in the agricultural sector,”- Jennifer Doudna.

Conveniently the US currently doesn’t have any regulations on CRISPRed food, despite heavily regulating GMOs.

Calyxt a biotechnology company, working with crisper enhanced grain products says that with current GMO methods it would take them double to triple the amount of time to reach the market than using CRISPR. Farmers could potentially save themselves 15 years of plant breeding!

We can create more nutritious crops, disease resistant and adaptable enough to grow in harsh conditions like droughts, salt water and floods or even space. Make them more durable for transportation and extend shelf life and prevent food shortages in specific areas by tailoring plants suited for those areas conditions.

We don’t just have to use these plants for food, we can use gene editing to tweaking corn or alge for biofuel.

What we’ve done so far:

Catylx debuted their soybeans with healthy fat content similar to those of olive oil making it the first commercially available gene-edited food . With zero trans fat and lowered levels of saturated fats. Restaurants are already serving sauces and frying using their oil.

We’ve been able to cut out a DNA snipet responsible for browning in mushrooms to make browning resistant mushrooms.🍄

We’ve developed Climate resistant cacao🍫 by knocking out the TcNPR3 gene. In a country like Ghana where it’s predicted cacao production will halt by 2080 as a result of climate change. 30% of cacao in West Africa is wasted in as a result of disease which is in part exacerbated by warmer temperatures. This is massive economic burden for farmers.

Researchers at New York’s Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory CRISPRed higher yielding tomato plants with some bearing 1 tomato to others with 500 tomatoes!🍅 We’ve also used CRISPR to engineer antioxidant rich purple tomatoes.

Agriculture isn’t just limited to produce, horns on dairy cows can be dangerous for both their herders and for their fellow cows.🐮 Often they’re painfully manually removed, but scientist in California were able to remove the horns through gene editing. They prevented the pain from injury and removal by producing hornless cows.

The future of food is CRISPy

We could be able to produce gluten free wheat, accommodating for those with allergens. We know there are 45 genes in wheat that if turned off could make it safe for people with Coeliac disease. So far we’ve been able to take out 35 of them. 😎

The Cassava root is prevalent in some of the most malnourished areas, however it contains small amounts of cyanid, for those on low protein diets this can be deadly. Researchers at university of Berkeley are experimenting using CRISPR to knock off genes responsible for the cyanid pathway. It could be a huge food source for people struggling in those areas.

We could increase nutritional value of foods by activating genes that produce healthy compounds and turn off those that don’t or by adding genes. Biofortification💪 has already been done with traditional gene editing methods like increasing zinc, vitamin K and folate levels in rice🍚.

There’s potential to improve taste in food. We know certain genes in in peas and cucumber have a huge effect on taste, if we play around with them we could have sweeter peas and less bitter cucumbers🥒

Carbs and starches come in multiple forms some quickly digested into sugars, while amylose is used as a dietary fiber and doesn’t turn into sugar, we’ve been able to create high-amylose rice, which can be a healthy alternative for those with diabetes or are overweight.

We could create lower calorie foods, Chinese scientists have created “low fat” bacon🥓. The pigs are able to maintain body heat more efficiently and have higher metabolisms, the labs pigs have 24% less body fat than the average pig. Some people are interested in using a similar method on humans to directly reduce obesity, but that’s a whole different conversation to be had, with its own baggage of ethical issues.

There are so many possibilities yet to be discovered with so many potential gene combinations. Especially considering that the average plant has over 30,000 genes! Some expect CRISPR foods to go mainstream like GMOs in as little as 5 years, who knows when it’ll reach your dinner plate?😉

Key takeaways 🔑

  • CRISPR was inspired by the immune systems defence mechanism against phages
  • CRISPR is like a search engine and Cas9 is the head hunter for DNA. It’s accurate, cheap, and fast.
  • Agriculture is likely the first main stream use case, but can also be used to cure diseases
  • Can reduce food insecurity, reduce costs of food, increase yield, preserve shelf life and make more nutritious food.
  • CRISPR involves playing with current genes whereas GMOs insert foreign DNA from other organisms, GMOs are in widespread use.
  • GMOs are regulated in the USA, but CRISPR foods aren’t
  • There are already dozens of gene edited foods they’re expected to go mainstream this decade

Hope you learned something new, feel free to give feedback or reach out on linkedin!



Eesha Ulhaq

an archive of blogs from when i was 17 - was very often wrong