To feed its 1.4 billion, China bets big on genome editing of crops
This story, the first in a series on CRISPR in China, was supported by the Pulitzer Center.
IN BEIJING AND DURHAM, NORTH CAROLINA—If Gao Caixia were a farmer, she might be spread a little thin. Down the hall from her office at a branch of the Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS) here in Beijing, seeds from a strain of unusually soft rice and a variety of wheat with especially fat grains and resistance to a common fungus sprout in a tissue culture room. A short stroll away, wild tomato plants far hardier than domestic varieties but bearing the same sweet fruit crowd a greenhouse, along with herbicide-resistant corn and potatoes that are slow to brown when cut. In other lab rooms Gao grows new varieties of lettuce, bananas, ryegrass, and strawberries.
But Gao isn’t a farmer, and that cornucopia isn’t meant for the table—not yet, anyway. She is a plant scientist working at the leading edge of crop improvement. Every one of those diverse crops has been a target for conventional plant breeders, who have slowly and painstakingly worked to endow them with traits to make them more productive, nutritious, or hardy. But Gao is improving them at startling speeds by using the genome editor CRISPR.
Gao is one face of the Chinese government’s bet that CRISPR can transform the country’s food supply. A natural bacterial immune system, CRISPR was turned into a powerful genome editor just a few years ago in U.S. and European labs. Yet today, China publishes twice as many CRISPR-related agricultural papers as the second-place country, the United States. The explanation?