Sugarcane is an important food crop, but it’s large environmental impact means there’s plenty of room for improvement. Unfortunately it’s tricky and time-consuming to breed new varieties, but now researchers have used CRISPR gene-editing to do so quickly and more easily.
Sugarcane is a key source of sugar, obviously, but that’s not its only product – the oil in the leaves and stems is often used to make bioethanol for greener fuels and plastics. But these don’t come cheap – sugarcane takes up a large percentage of farmland in many countries, which fuels deforestation. It also takes a huge amount of water to grow, and creates plenty of waste and pollution during processing.
Some of these problems can be addressed with new varieties of the plant, but sugarcane is frustratingly difficult to crossbreed due to its complex genome. It requires a lot of back-and-forth to filter out desirable traits from unwanted ones, so new versions can take years to develop.
That’s where CRISPR comes in. This powerful gene-editing tool allows scientists to switch off genes or cut them out and replace them with more useful ones. It could be useful in treating a range of diseases, but also for improving crops – and now researchers have used CRISPR to develop a couple of new varieties of sugarcane.