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Do you like mosquitoes? No, huh? This summer, a team from the University of California has developed a method to "hack" the sight of mosquitoesmaking it very difficult for them to find humans to suck blood. How did they do it? Using a genetic engineering tool known as CRISPR.
Often compared to a pair of "molecular scissors," CRISPR uses specialized proteins called CAS to cut strands of DNA or RNA at specific points. In those points you can then insert or remove a specific gene and voila: modified organism. Yes, but what does it have to do with tomatoes?
And wait, now I tell you. CRISPR, you will have understood, will not only be useful for mosquitoes. There are already so many applications that it made me want to go and see the weirdest ones the labs are working on. Here are 5.
1 Spicy tomatoes
Imagine biting into some nice ripe tomatoes. Fresh, juicy. What flavor comes to your mind? Sweet salty? What if I told you spicy? An international team of geneticists may have defined an alternative future for the fruit most loved by us Neapolitans.
Researchers in Brazil and Ireland use CRISPR to activate dormant capsaicinoid genes in tomato plants. In other words, they activate the same genetic sequence in tomatoes that gives hot peppers spiciness. In addition to making eggplant parmigiana you don't expect, these tomatoes could be an inexpensive alternative to traditional peppers, a little more difficult to grow on a large scale.
2 Coffee already decaffeinated on the plant
If CRISPR can give our tomatoes a boost, it's also true that it can take it away from our breakfast. British society Tropic Biosciences is developing a coffee bean that grow without caffeine. Today the beans are chemically decaffeinated: they are immersed in ethyl acetate or methylene chloride (which is an ingredient in paint strippers). This chemical bath eliminates the caffeine as well as much of the flavor. CRISPR coffee will offer a “coffee” decaffeinated, with an absolutely identical flavor. Instead of chemistry, genetics.
3 A wine with no risk of hangover
If “The Hangover” is not just a movie for you, but a reality to be avoided, your lucky moment may have come. A team of scientists from the University of Illinois used CRISPR to increase the health benefits of a yeast strain used to ferment wine, eliminating the genes responsible for the headache of the day after.
Il Saccharomyces cerevisiae , the yeast in question (also used as an active yeast by a well-known Italian mill) is a polyploid organism. It means it has many copies of each gene (as opposed to the usual two). This feature makes it extremely difficult to genetically engineer with traditional methods, which could only target one copy of a gene at a time.
CRISPR can. With CRISPR, the Illinois team was able to create a wine with more resveratrol (better for the heart) and no hangover (better for you). Anyway, back to the tomatoes, switch to the Bloody Mary and nobody will get hurt.
4 Take the bull to… hey… where are the horns?
When it comes to raising livestock (until breeding is abolished) the horns of adult bulls are a danger - even to the same animal. Traditionally, farm-raised cattle are dehorning in a bloody and painful way: knives, hot irons, caustics such as sodium hydroxide. CRISPR could simply offer a more ethical alternative.
Using CRISPR, scientists engineered a hornless gene in cattle, eliminating the need for horn removal procedures. Some of these genetically engineered bulls have been able to pass the trait on to their offspring. Big stuff, to the point that the geneticist Alison L. Van Eenennaam wrote an essay in Nature on the subject, calling the removal of the horn "a priority for animal welfare".
5 Resurrect lost species
Perhaps the most extreme use of CRISPR at the moment is its potential ability to revive entire species. No Jurassic Park, I hope. For now, the object of study is the return to the planet of a species that I did not expect: the passenger pigeon.
In past centuries, migratory pigeons flew in flocks of hundreds of millions, in what environmentalist Aldo Leopold described as "a feathered storm". Everything began to change in the XNUMXth and XNUMXth centuries. Because? Why is the human being involved, what questions.
In addition to being ubiquitous, passenger pigeons had the unfortunate quality of being delicious. They were hunted en masse for both food and sport. The last known passenger pigeon, a bird named Martha, died in captivity in 1914. Today, CRISPR can bring carrier pigeons back to life.
Like? Using the pigeon by modifying the genome of the band-tailed pigeon (a close relative of it). If successful, this method could be used to resurrect all kinds of extinct or endangered creatures, from black-footed ferrets to woolly mammoths.