What is Gene Editing?

Under-STRAND-ing Wheat Gene Editing with CRISPR/Cas9

Being around for 10,000 years might mean a few changes in appearance. Modern wheat looks a little different than early, heritage wheat varieties. After all that time, phenotypes (or how a plant looks) are not the only changes. There also came changes in the genetic makeup of wheat. Modern wheat is now able to produce more grain; shorter stems cut back on wheat blowing over in the strong wind, and these varieties are more tolerant of drought. Today, there is a whole new wave of change sweeping the scientific community. New technology has the potential to allow rapid improvements to wheat, like getting even more grain from each head, improving nutritional benefits and the potential to eliminate problems for those who are sensitive to gluten. But what is gene editing?

What is Gene Editing?

Gene editing is exactly what it sounds like. It is working within the wheat’s genetic information by turning on or shutting off certain traits that are already present. Gene editing mimics what occurs naturally. Sometimes traits are exposed, and other times natural glitches happen where certain genes are altered. This leads to evolution and genetic advancements. These natural glitches can help the plant to be better suited for the environment and can give it a competitive edge. The plant reproduces and passes on the altered gene. Eventually, this trait becomes ingrained in the makeup of the plant.


The technology used in gene editing is called CRISPR/Cas9. CRISPR is an acronym for Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats. These are the small DNA sequences that will be taking the place of the undesired genes. Cas9 is the enzyme that runs along the DNA sequences. It looks for the genes that need to be changed. When it comes across the DNA sequence that needs to be changed, the Cas9 will encase the sequence and cut it. Here, a new sequence will begin.

Think of gene editing like a house blueprint. Professionals use blueprints to build homes, and DNA provides information to help build every living thing on the planet. Builders and architects can make small changes to a blueprint to improve the design and functionality of a home, like fixing minor problems or adding new features. With an entire house to build, the small changes are relatively minor in comparison to the entire job of building a dream home. Scientists, the builders and architects of these gene edits, can make small changes in DNA that can have a big impact on very specific needs. But these changes are relatively minor in comparison with the entire DNA of the plant.

Is Gene Editing the Same as GMO?

Gene editing is different than Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs) because it does not use any parts from any other type of plant. It is strictly just scientists identifying and changing one part of the gene sequence within that particular species. Some traits the scientists are hoping to change include the number of seeds per spikelet (or the head of the plant), spikes per plant, and grain size and weight. Wheat provides 20% of the daily calories for around 4.5 billion people, according to the USDA.  Farmers can get more out of their crops using gene edited wheat plants, can cut down on the use of resources such as land and water, and keep meal costs down for your family. Another potential benefit to gene editing is the ability to remove gluten so people with celiac disease can enjoy bread too.

Other Uses

CRISPR/Cas9 is not just limited to just wheat and plant genetics. Scientists have been using this technology on dogs, faster racehorses, more nutritious fish and even decaffeinated coffee beans. In humans, scientists hope to use this technology to cure sickle-cell anemia and other genetic conditions.

There is a growing need for more grain production while using fewer resources. These gene editing methods and technology are becoming increasingly important to help farmers put food on your family’s table. Thanks to CRISPR/Cas9, now science can speed up the process of natural changes to genetic codes.

Want to learn more about gene editing? Take a look at why Bill Gates thinks gene editing might be a game-changer in the health industry! Or would you like to learn more about where your food comes from? Be sure to watch our feature on Jason Ochs, a western Kansas wheat farmer.